In Andrew Redneck’s account of the USSR, he asserts that the Union’s fall was brought about by the return of history, or at least academic and uncensored history, to the region. Up until Gorbachev, the Soviet’s ability to rule over a large empire was coupled with their capacity to manipulate the past. However, after the myths which the USSR was built upon were discredited by historians, its legitimacy unravelled.
The USSR is an extreme, but a good example of how different readings of history confer legitimacy on different leaders and political projects. Stalin, for example, was recast multiple times, first as the father of the Union, then later, as Gorbachev sought to redefine the Soviet Union around more liberal values, as the betrayer of Lenin. Finally, as reformers rejected communism entirely, Lenin and Stalin were cast as being one and the same. Both are now read as power crazy murderers.
Similarly, different readings of the Great War confer legitimacy on different political projects here in the UK. To those who seek to build socialism on these shores, the war represents the foolishness of nationalism and the fallacy of the class system. They look to the elite, incompetent officers, who sent droves of working-class men into the arms of machine gun fire, as proof of the need to destroy class and national distinction once and for all.
For conservatives, the war represents a great sacrifice. Those men who fought and died in World War One collectively did so to preserve the norms, values, and institutions that still exist today. To abandon those institutions now is to betray those who died.
Specifically, nationalists assert that those who died fought to preserve British independence and the British nation state. They call upon the memory of the Great War’s soldiers to cast the EU as an aberration, and those who support it as guilty men. Pro-Europeans, meanwhile, use the EU’s ability to maintain peace in Europe as proof that British soldiers did not die in vain.
However we read World War One, it is clear that the idealist of nearly every political cause can claim to be acting on behalf of those who died. Ultimately though, it will be the narrative that wins the war over our past which defines our present and our future.
By Nicholas Byard