The Past’s Past
- Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History by Jay Winter
Cambridge, 310 pp, £12.95, September 1996, ISBN 0 521 49682 9
We understand explicitly, as Nietzsche remarked in the Genealogy of Morals, what earlier generations felt in their bones: ‘Only that which does not cease to hurt remains in memory.’ Remembering and mourning demand that the past is somehow kept present; they demand recollection as the pain of immediate loss diminishes. And yet we – that is, we moderns – are also acutely aware of just how utterly past the past is, how historical it is, how even the worst horrors lose their sting. As Walt Whitman wrote of the Civil War:
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must
in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night
incessantly softly wash again and again, and
ever again this soiled world ...
Jay Winter has written an elegy. But it is not for those who died by ‘deeds of carnage’: it is for those who mourned them. Or rather he has written a lamentation for their capacity to remember – to mourn – in a manner lost to survivors of 1939-45 and their progeny. Like E.P. Thompson, Winter wants to rescue the past from the condescension of the present. But his past is, in fact, the past’s past, its intimacy with tradition: ‘Before the Death Camps, and the thermonuclear cloud, most men and women were still able to reach back into their “traditional” cultural heritage to express amazement and anger, bewilderment and compassion, in the face of war and the losses it brought in its wake.’ If this book has ‘drawn attention to their achievement, so human and so sad’, it will, he tells us, have partially realised its aim.
‘Achievement’ is perhaps not quite the right word. Winter’s images belie agency: ‘the backward gaze of so many writers, artists, poets, politicians, soldiers and everyday families ... reflected the universality of grief and mourning.’ A certain mundane functionalism – ‘a complex traditional vocabulary of mourning flourished ... largely because it helped mediate bereavement’ – leaches some of the pathos out of ‘so human and so sad’. But there is no question about his reverence for an ancient, universal and unchanging cultural landscape, in which memories ‘do not cease to hurt’, but not unbearably.
This is a book about ‘enduring’ languages of mourning, about ‘the enduring appeal’ of spiritualism and ‘traditional motifs’ related to the ‘universality of bereavement’; about artists who ‘expressed in enduring ways the enormity of wars’ and who used ‘older forms and images’ to produce ‘enduring visions of the Great War’. It is about ‘timeless messages’ (the possibility of the dead returning to life on earth) and ‘timeless war memorials’. It is about specific commemorative art that attains a ‘universality unattainable in other memorials’, a ‘humanist tradition still robustly intact’, an ‘English mystical tradition’ noted for its ‘robustness’. It is about ‘common languages’, ‘an ancient set of beliefs about revelation, divine justice and the nature of catastrophe’, and about writers who spoke in the voices of the Prophets.
The other side of Winter’s argument is that while the terrors and losses of the Great War of 1914-18 could still be experienced through timeless, coherent and universal cultural forms, those of 1939-45 shattered that possibility. His version of this view is offered in the language of Julia Kristeva, but it falls squarely in a broad tradition which regards the Holocaust as a, or rather as the, fundamental rupture in history, a chasm which exposes as never before the absolute limits of language, art and epistemology. Adorno famously announced that ‘it is barbarous to write poetry after Auschwitz’; Saul Friedlander has recently initiated a major scholarly debate with his argument that the Holocaust is beyond representation, is ‘unspeakable’; Lyotard regards the condition of Post-Modernity as born in the ashes of Nazi horrors. Thus, while World War One left culture with its capacity to produce a humane compassion intact, the 1939-45 conflict, in Kristeva’s words, ‘did damage to ... our system of perception and representation. As if overtaxed or destroyed by too powerful a breaker, our symbolic means find themselves hollowed out, nearly wiped out, paralysed.’
Winter returns to this theme again and again. Cultural forms that had in the past consoled survivors abruptly shattered. ‘The literary metaphor of the apocalypse’, for example, which had ‘linked the 1914-18 war with an earlier time’, ‘could accommodate virtually every human catastrophe except the ultimate one’, the Holocaust. ‘The enduring appeal of spiritualism’, which had allowed those who mourned the dead of the Great War to ‘transcend their loss’ by communicating with the departed, faded after the Second World War. Before 1939-45 commemorative art harked back to earlier, comforting conventions; afterwards, it looked forward to ‘pure abstraction’. Tradition, in Winter’s account, thus came safely through the trauma of the trenches. The fragmentation, irony and incoherence of Modernism (or is it Post-Modernism? – he equivocates) were kept at bay until the century’s second great catastrophe.
This is not the common view. The title alone of Paul Fussell’s enormously influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), for example, proclaims the contrary. So does the concluding line – ‘Never such innocence again’ – of Philip Larkin’s 1960 poem ‘MCMXIV’, invoking the summer haze, the ‘dark-haired children at play’, the
moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark ...
of the war’s early days. No one thought it would be a four-year-long bloodbath:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since.
And, more recently, Samuel Hynes’s magisterial A War Imagined (1990) argues that the generation of poets, painters and novelists who lived through the war ‘rejected the values of the society’ that had sent them to fight and rendered their ‘sense of a gap in history’ in ‘images of fragmentation and ruin, all expressing a fracture in time and space that separated the present from the past’. In short, if the Great War did not actually give birth to Modernism it powerfully mobilised elements of a prewar cultural crisis and gave it new, self-conscious definition predicated on rupture.
Against this orthodoxy several scholars – the art historians Kenneth Silver and Romi Golan, for example – have recently argued that, on the contrary, French art in the Twenties and Thirties was far more conservative than Modernist. Winter writes in this revisionist tradition but attacks on a broader front. He has devoted a scholarly lifetime to the study of the Great War and is now its leading Anglo-American historian. Whether one accepts his conclusions or not they are advanced with a breathtaking erudition that the proponents of orthodoxy will have to engage with.
He begins by pointing out, rightly, that the case for rupture is based largely, if not entirely, on the canonical texts of British Modernism. The Waste Land and To the Lighthouse, however, do not define the cultural penumbra of the Great War. Those who make the case also generalise egregiously. What could ‘modern memory’ possibly mean? (One might accuse Winter of the same sin in his use of the term ‘tradition’.) It ignores a vast outpouring of both high and popular cultural productions which stand entirely outside, or in tension with, the sensibility Hynes or Fussell describe. In fact, the distinction itself is often tenuous because, as Winter astutely points out, the interests of the avant garde often followed rather than led popular, historically rooted, culture.
Winter expands enormously the horizons of the wartime and postwar culture of mourning and commemoration. In the first place, he draws attention to artists like Georges Rouault who have always been difficult to assimilate to the Modernist canon and who paint out of a traditional Christian conviction that art heals, but only as the expression of submission to Christ and faith in his Resurrection. He also adduces a whole range of commemorative practices that others simply ignore and which clearly have little if anything to do with Modernism. Germans, for example, could buy books that described how to make crosses and other signs of mourning from nails. A whole range of memorials, from little cast-iron statues of Hindenburg to the pietàs in French communes and the crosses on English village greens, use thoroughly traditional artistic vocabularies to express thoroughly traditional sentiments. Popular artistic genres like the so-called Épinal prints, which had once thrived on representing Napoleon as hero, now showed the Emperor standing guard over an exhausted sentry of the Great War. Indeed, Winter argues that the prints were so popular precisely because they mobilised a stable past in the face of ‘a war which threatened to destroy all that was familiar’.
His main strategy, however, is to emphasise ‘traditional’ elements in particular works of art or particular commemorative practices where others have seen cultural rupture, innovation, irony. Consider Abel Gance’s film J’Accuse. It is about an increasingly insane wounded soldier who escapes from hospital and returns to tell his village about a dream in which the dead of battle rise from their makeshift graves in a great black cloud and walk the roads and byways of France. (A still photograph from the film, showing a lone soldier among a field of crosses receding without end to the horizon, forms the book’s dust-jacket.) The risen soldiers see how little their sacrifice has mattered to the living, who are, of course, terrified by the spectral army and mend their ways. The dead return to their graves; but the dreamer goes completely mad, accuses the sun of allowing the carnage to take place in its neglectful light, and dies.
The point for Winter of this extraordinary film is not the novelty of the medium itself, nor the irony of its creators – Gance pointed out that those who portrayed the risen ‘dead’ soldiers on film were really dead before the movie was finished – nor the film’s ‘visionary surrealism’ or ‘its unconventional experiments in the presentation of dream work’. For Winter what matters is how Gance ‘grafted older images of the sacred onto an ordinary account of village life and love’, how he mediates between ‘the conventional’ – a love triangle, the destruction of war – and ‘the eternal’: revelation, resurrection, redemption. What matters is how Gance, and a whole range of writers and artists, raise the banal, temporal and ordinary ‘to the mythical realm’ by their incorporation of ‘traditional’ themes.
Winter pursues this strategy of reading sources selectively throughout the book. Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Ludwig Meidner are studied not for their place in the Modernist canon but for their allegorical interest in ‘apocalypticism’, either anticipatory (prewar) or responsive (postwar). Similarly, allegorical or other references to the end of time link writers and works as diverse as George Bernard Shaw (Heartbreak House), Henri Barbusse (Under Fire) and Karl Kraus (The Last Days of Mankind). They all, Winter argues, ‘turned back to the ancient tradition of apocalyptic drama’. Even the English war poets, usually Exhibit A for Hynes and Fussell’s position, are read for their historical embeddedness rather than their ‘Modernism’. Thus the bitterness, or irony, in Owen is deflected through attention to religious themes – the resurrection of the dead – or classical allusions: the German soldier whom he killed is addressed as Virgil in ‘The Soldier’s Dream’.
There are, I think, two reasons why Winter is so insistent that the cultural meaning of the many ‘sites of memory’ and ‘sites of mourning’ he analyses arise, quite specifically, from their historical origins. The first I have already mentioned: he has in mind another historical rupture, the Holocaust, so that this book works continually as an elegy for a time before the flames when the past offered consolation. But since it is unbearable that the world was always as spiritually comfortless as he believes the world after Auschwitz to be, he imagines that before the gas ovens there was a time when the past, and uniquely the past, offered consolation. The modern in all its manifestations will not do. Whatever else Dada or Surrealism or the like might do, they ‘could not heal’. Only the ‘power of traditional languages’ can engender truly recuperative narratives. His is a deeply conservative project.
It is also a project which succeeds in moving discussion about the culture of the Great War away from an exclusive focus on Modernism. But in the process he goes too far in assimilating 1914 and its consequences to an eternal past and gives short shrift to the mutable, fragile present in which contemporaries experienced their losses. The point is not that traditional themes are absent from Modernist representations of loss. At a purely theoretical level it would be very odd – in fact unthinkable – if they were. But they take on new meanings from the contexts in which they are newly imbricated. A pietà would never again have the meaning it had before the Civil Constitution of the Clergy during the French Revolution, much less after the deeply divided religious politics of the Third Republic. In other cases Winter has too little regard for historical context. Neither ‘apocalypticism’ nor, more generally, the richness of cultural allusion in The Waste Land makes it timeless or traditional or as culturally significant as it is and was.
The Great War broke with the past more than Winter acknowledges. The traditional monument to military heroism still sufficed in the Boer War but did not quite ring true after all that happened in the next. Few before 1914 acknowledged any irony in the phrase dulce et decorum est. No one would have dreamed, as one artist did after 1918, of issuing a picture-book of the gruesomely wounded, as living reminders of a war that contemporaries wanted both to remember and to forget. But the past was already broken before the war.
Of course, those who mourned made use of tradition, but it was a radically remade tradition. Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, as Winter himself points out, carried the works of one of the most radical writers of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, in their knapsacks. It seems odd to lay the supposedly ‘traditional’ urban apocalypticism of the painter Ludwig Meidner and his generation at the feet of a philosopher who, more than any other, is the source of Post-Modern anti-foundationalism. The reason Winter gives for doing so is telling: Thus Spake Zarathustra mentions the pillar of fire which ‘reverts back to the original Biblical meaning of holocaust’.
In some instances, ‘languages’ which Winter identifies as ‘traditional’ – spiritualism or the romanticism of war poetry – are not traditional at all but cultural responses to new forces that emerged during the preceding century. Other forms – national shrines at the graves of ‘unknown soldiers/warriors’, for example, or war cemeteries – were more or less invented during the Great War out of the atoms of a shared past. Generally, the 19th century was not kind to tradition and the men and women who mourned and remembered in 1914 and after had to do so in a far less enchanted world than Winter imagines. The Great War did not produce Modernism but it did reap the cultural harvest of modernity.
Consider Winter’s treatment of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire in relation to one recurrent theme: the return of the dead. It is heard first in Blaise Cendrars’s account of the poet’s funeral at Père Lachaise where this friend of the dead man – and Abel Gance’s collaborator – saw and felt the promise of his return in a psychic encounter. Grass over the grave was shaped like Apollinaire’s head and a ‘thick glacial mist’ seemed to whisper ‘Apollinaire is dead. Soon he will return.’ All this Cendrars felt after passing the grave of the founder of French psychism, Allan Kardec. Winter uses this story as a link to Gance’s J’Accuse and as an introduction to a whole chapter on the ‘enduring appeal’ of the ‘traditional motif’ of spiritualism. Apollinaire appears again later, this time for his ‘poetic resuscitation of the fallen’, which, Winter concludes, ‘shows one way in which he breathed life into ancient metaphors about the return of the fallen in wartime’.
There is, in fact, very little that is ancient or traditional in all of this. To be sure, the spirit world has a long history in relationship to the world of the living. The wish to be reunited in some fashion with one’s departed friends and kin is deep-rooted. Spiritualism, however, is not. Nor is the expectation – widespread in the late 19th century as well as in the trenches and on the Home Front – that the dead would regularly appear among the living.
‘Traditionally’, the dead were meant to remain dead. Ghosts appeared occasionally, but usually uninvited and unwelcomed. Their purpose in returning was generally to complain, to warn, to threaten, to make demands. (Winter is absolutely right that this is the function of the ghosts in J’Accuse. It is also the function of the ghost in Hamlet. But these are not the sorts of happy encounter modern spiritualists expected.) Catholics perhaps had a bit more contact with the departed than Protestants because they, at least, could pray for their souls in Purgatory. And it is true that necromancers – evil, dangerous and marginal specialists in such matters – might initiate communication with the dead but then only for some very important purpose: to denounce a treason or to prophesy. ‘Traditionally’, one saw one’s deceased loved ones only in God’s good time; the resurrection of the dead, prefigured by Christ, happened at the Day of Judgment, on the day beyond days.
Spiritualism, on the other hand, was very much a product of a modern sense of secular time and of a world far removed from that of traditional religious sensibilities. As a movement it was barely two generations old when the Great War began. Originating on the margins in upstate New York in the late 1840s, it had its intellectual roots in Enlightenment parascience – in Mesmerism – an association still there in late 19th-century books like Transcendental Physics. It subsisted in Europe among radicals, among those, women especially, who were excluded from mainstream religion or simply unhappy with the ‘cold, ignorant efforts at comfort’ of the clergy (this from a spiritualist tract) and also – as Winter points out – among the avant-garde, although for different reasons.
More to the point, it was born not of traditional faith but of faith’s weakness. Especially in France, it was one of a host of religious surrogates which sprang up in the late 19th century in response to secularisation and economic dislocation. Unsure about God’s plans, or whether God had a plan, impatient with God’s time, spiritualists commanded the presence of the dead now, either through a medium or solo. Winter is right that spiritualism enjoyed a burst of popularity during the war but mistaken in believing that its appeal rested on tradition. If anything, it made an attenuation of traditional faith bearable.
Winter’s Apollinaire, the one of whom he says that he ‘breathed life into ancient metaphors’, would be barely recognisable to Picasso, who regarded him – along with André Salmon and Max Jacob – as among those who were ‘inspirers of Cubism and inspired by it’, men who had ‘a new attitude to language’. Picasso painted or drew the man who coined the term sur-réalisme at least 16 times. Winter reproduces one portrait: the famous 1916 drawing, a tour de force of classical draughtsmanship, showing the poet in uniform with a cap covering his wounded head. There is another portrait of Apollinaire as a soldier, squarely in the Épinal style, which Winter might well have chosen instead. But then there is the great Cubist portrait of 1913, and another of Apollinaire in the unlikely guise of a muscle man; a fourth shows him as Pope; a fifth as a pear in the style of Daumier; still another squatting in the field with a huge ink blot for an arsehole. Commemoration and mourning after the Great War confronted this sensibility: the multiple and ephemeral not the eternal, the made and constructed not the found or the given, a new and profoundly ironic relation to a fleeting past.
The burden of modernity is nowhere more evident than in the four sites of collective bereavement which Winter analyses in detail: the Trench of the Bayonets at Verdun; the Cenotaph in Whitehall; the monument to British soldiers with no known resting place at Thiepval in the Somme battlefield; and Käthe Kollwitz’s statues of grieving parents at the Vladso German military cemetery in Flanders. The Trench commemorates an incident during the Battle of Verdun when an infantry company remained heroically at its post and was buried alive by the German bombardment. Winter is right that those who built the monument wished for ‘timelessness’ and that they drew on elements of ancient Breton monuments in the building covering the supposed location of the trench. But he assumes that their wanting to preserve ‘the sacredness of the site’ is a traditional sentiment and that the historical allusions in the architectural vocabulary are the form of its expression. Neither is the case.
The remarkable thing about the Trench of the Bayonets is that it exists at all. The motive for building the monument – to protect the site from ‘the attacks of time or the cyclical pillage of tourism’ – is decidedly not traditional. Large-scale and potentially destructive battlefield tourism is a 19th-century phenomenon born of the American Civil War. The threat of the ‘attacks of time’ is fraught with the thoroughly modern, historicist, fear of forgetting, and with a palpable scepticism towards ‘traditional’ commemorative practices.
As far as I know, the preservation of the site of the Battle of Gettysburg is the first such enterprise in modern history. The precedent, as Edward Everitt, the Harvard president and professor of classics who was the main speaker at its dedication, pointed out, was the ‘immortal field’ at Marathon, which we read about in Herodotus. Between the ancient Greeks and modern times we seem to have been perfectly happy to let fields of slaughter revert back to being fields of wheat or pasture.
Why we should no longer be so is a big question. In part it is the anxiety of erasure that bourgeois culture engendered. In part it is the loss of faith in commemorative traditions. Winter suggests this himself when he notes that the Trench of the Bayonets – the actual ditch with the men supposedly buried in it – was to be a monument in and of itself, the role of the structure being not to celebrate, but to protect, the site. Here is evidence of the failure of 19th-century monumentalism: the thing itself must do because representation can no longer be relied on. This commemorative strategy had its birth in western Pennsylvania in 1863. It found new forms after the Great War and dominates the presentation of World War Two death and destruction, from the beaches of Normandy to the martyred village of Oradour to Auschwitz.
I share Winter’s admiration for the elegance and simplicity of Lutyens’s Cenotaph and Thiepval Monument, and for Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington, which owes debts to both. Perhaps, as he says, it is their abstraction, their transcendence of ‘conventional architectural forms’, which allows them ‘to express existential truths too often obscured in the rhetorical and aesthetic fog of war and its aftermath’. But if Winter really believes this it belies the major contentions of his book. As he points out, Lutyens himself was deeply involved, through his wife, with Oliver Lodge and spiritualism, with Annie Besant and theosophy, and with Eastern religion generally. Perhaps his quasi-pantheistic belief that ‘all religions had some truth in them’ was expressed in the ‘universal truths’ of his two great monuments. But tolerance of this sort is far from traditional. Conversely, Lutyens’s notorious rejection of what actually was traditional, of any Christian imagery, in a monument within the shadow of Westminster Abbey was widely noted at the time and much lamented in some circles.
The idea of a cenotaph, i.e. of an empty tomb, like the idea of preserving a battlefield, goes back to the Greeks. The source is Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides, where he describes the custom of dedicating one empty box to the memory of those whose bones were not recovered to lie in state with the caskets bearing the bones or ashes of the other honoured dead. But the device had not been used in Europe since antiquity and was, and was understood to be, wholly novel: ‘foreign to the Spirit of our people ... too Latin’, thought Lord Curzon. In short, the Cenotaph was built not because of the strength of tradition but because of its failure in the aftermath of 1914-18.
Thiepval and the Vietnam Memorial are a slightly different story. The architectural vocabulary of the former is ‘traditional’: classical arches with a tower and brickwork that evokes the nearby Albert Cathedral. But its memorialising essence is not. Thousands of stone tablets that face three or four sides of 16 weight-bearing columns list 73,367 names – of men whose bodies could not be identified or even found in the debris of battle. The specific reference of each name is juxtaposed to the screen-like quality of the surface awaiting the imposition of meaning. Thiepval was not quite unprecedented. Blomfield’s monument to the missing in Ypres, completed a few years before, was literally the first monument in history to display names on anything approaching this scale. But this scarcely constitutes a tradition. Blomfield, in fact, asked for an extra £500 to build a mock-up of one panel just to see whether the calculations about letter size, spacing, leading etc would give the required density because, he said, nothing like this had ever been done before.
The point is not just that Thiepval and the other monuments built to the missing are new but that the sensibility which engendered them is new also. In no previous war – though, again, the American Civil War is a possible precedent – was there any interest in finding the missing, much less in specifically remembering them. The reasons for this are complex, but there is no question that in our century abstraction, on the one hand, and the sheer nominalism of lists of ciphers each referring to a lost body, on the other, have taken up where traditional historical referents or allegorical allusions have lost resonance. Of course, the emotions – or at least the expressions of emotion – that one can see manifested every day at the Vietnam Memorial may well bespeak ancient, perhaps primordial, human wishes: to feed the dead, to seek the approval of ancestors, to inform them of the affairs of the living, to express to them sorrow at their loss. But their expression finds space not through the historical or traditional elements of the site of mourning but because of the absence of such elements.
Perhaps Käthe Kollwitz’s statues of mourning parents which Winter lovingly describes, viewing them through a northern drizzle, drops falling from the mother’s face, are as transcendent as he thinks they are. Perhaps this is a ‘timeless memorial’. But my sense, in seeing these Modernist figures kneeling in a perfectly rectilinear military cemetery – a machine-gun bunker was allowed to remain on one side – is painfully particular to our century. I suspect, although I have no evidence for this, that the statues will experience the fate of so many since the 19th century. They will find a home in some museum, without context, assimilated into an art-historical narrative, and admired, like the Elgin marbles, for their aesthetic qualities.
The same problem arises in Winter’s treatment of the war poets, where he emphasises Christological and romantic themes without considering the spirit of their work more generally. Singling out only these elements for comment is to elide the contemporary meaning and historical significance of soldier poets. Yet in a ‘Table of Contents’ which Wilfred Owen prepared for a hoped-for volume of his verse, he lists his war poems and notes the ‘motive’ of each in a parallel column. Two are assigned to ‘madness’; two to ‘the indifference at Home’; one to ‘heroic lies’; one to ‘the willingness of the old to sacrifice the young’. True, three are meant to speak of ‘the souls of soldiers’ but next to the first ten poems ‘Protest Protest Protest’ is listed three times. By the first poem, ‘Miners’, Owen writes: ‘How the Future will forget the dead of war’. None of this seems to sustain the comforting theme of the Resurrection.
There are, to be sure, lines in Georg Trakl which justify Winter’s claim that ‘spiritualism and dark spirituality merge in a familiar and gloomy romantic haze.’ But there are many others redolent of a bitter, estranged, ironic, thoroughly modern sensibility. Bright helmets slide clattering from crimson brows as the autumn sky lights up stars above the broken bones of men. The sky storms by a petrified head.
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers.
Again, not exactly ‘the return of the sacred’ and not very comforting either. (Trakl died early in the war, in 1914, and his poetry is more rooted in prewar German Expressionism than in his few months of combat.)
It is true that the Romantics are the literary forebears of the war poets, or at least the English war poets, but not in Winter’s sense of Romanticism. Their profound distrust and ironic disdain of the Home Front, for example, is anticipated in Byron (‘He fell, immortal in a bulletin’) or Coleridge (‘Secure from actual warfare, we have loved / to swell the war-whoop, passionate for war!’). There are, as has been often noted, reverberations of Shelley in Owen or of Byron in Sassoon. But this ‘tradition’ – anti-war, anti-heroic – is not timeless or eternal and is certainly not religious. It is the product of the great political rupture of modern history, the French Revolution, and its origins lie in the political claim that the interests of the soldier on the battlefield and those of their rulers may well not be identical.
More important, the poets of the Great War were the first in this post-Revolutionary tradition to write self-consciously from the perspective of those who actually experienced combat. They belied the old adage that those who know suffering do not write and those who write do not know. Being there – on the Somme, in Ypres, at Verdun – is what engendered the moral energy of the poets of the Great War, an energy symptomatic of the paradox of representing suffering at the same time as one represented its elusiveness. Theirs was a poetry predicated on the certainty that horror could not be captured or redeemed.
After the war poets, no one who was not present could claim to know, or have the moral authority to understand or speak about, what mass death and destruction meant. It was a war to which art – and certainly the old traditional heroic art of war – was inadequate. Theirs was a poetry that longed for redemption while knowing full well that it was impossible and that even the hope of redemption threatened to betray the reality of suffering. The anger, bitterness, irony, as well as the lyricism – and also the Biblical and mythical references – of so much war poetry come from the poet’s knowledge that experience, like the past, is a fleeting thing, impossible and yet desperately important to convey.
As I suggested earlier, Winter’s insistence on a constellation of intact, comforting ‘traditions’ of mourning and commemoration stems from his commitment to the proposition that the Holocaust foreclosed the possibility of ‘humane compassion’, shattered ‘older forms of the language of the sacred’ and generally destroyed the possibility of redemption through art and culture. This book is not about World War Two and its consequences but it is worth pointing out that much of Winter’s evidence for the continuity of commemorative traditions after the Great War could be made for the period after 1945.
Nathan Rappaport’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial is self-consciously mythic and historicist. The artistic climate of the time was ‘predominately abstract’, Rappaport tells us, but to work in this form would ‘not be true to myself’. He tried and rejected ‘a vague romantic form’ and ultimately produced a monument that would be epic and tragic, that would give back, ‘at least spiritually’, what had been lost. The extraordinary graveyard of 17,000 broken stones at Treblinka meant, as the architects who designed it tell us, ‘to suggest iconographically the greatest of genocidal cemeteries’, is a reference to the Jewish graveyards of Eastern Europe. As James Young has documented, Holocaust memoirs are frequently written in Old Testament narrative forms; others, the autobiographical novels of Elie Wiesel, for example, are thoroughly 19th-century in form. Indeed, the very term ‘Holocaust’, as Winter observes, refers, in Greek, to ancient Hebrew sacrifice.
The question is why we believe that this particular horror is ‘unspeakable’ and essentially beyond representation while the Great War still falls – if only just – within the shelter of traditional languages. The answer – and also the spiritual essence of this book – lies at the core of the modern paradox of memory.
Verdun, Ypres, the Somme, the deaths of over ten million men in four years are now beyond the horizons of living recollection. The very last veterans are dying just as the last veterans of the most destructive war in American history were dying when I was a boy. Antietam, the Wilderness, Chickamauga, were as long ago when I was born as the First Battle of Mons is now. They seemed very far back even when I was a child. The pain and suffering they entailed were well attenuated among my neighbours even if the inheritances of slavery were kept alive every day.
And now the Holocaust, which we so desperately want to remember, is beginning to ‘cease to hurt’ quite so much and we are in danger of forgetting. Almost all of those of my parents’ generation who survived Nazi mass murder are now as dead from natural causes as its victims were from violent ones. Winter wishes for a time before forgetting, but equally he, and many of us today, do not want the pain of the Holocaust to go away. Perhaps if it remains unspeakable it will also remain unforgotten.
And perhaps there was a time when traditional memorial practices comforted in the ways Winter thinks they did. But the Great War was not this golden age. Of course those who survived 1914-18 mourned within the cultural penumbra of tradition. But it was a tradition already frayed by a deeply historicist culture predicated on change and rupture. Already then, the past was definitively past. And we, its heirs, have to live with the fact that a shopping centre may eventually occupy the space of Dachau. The suffering that this place witnessed may one day be as distant as the terrors of the thousands who were ripped apart in the Roman Colosseum are to the tourists who daily visit this picturesque antiquity. No amount of elegiac longing for another past’s past will allow us to escape this knowledge.