It’s been a tough few months for historians of the First World War: events to commemorate the centenary started early and fast. Now that there’s only a little over a week to go before we get to some actual anniversaries, the pattern at least of the early responses to the centenary is becoming clearer. And frankly, if you believe that history ought to have some correspondence with facts, there are worrying signs. With a few notable exceptions*, many of the outputs from Whitehall and associated quangoes, in the national media, in schools (most worryingly of all) and across the country at grassroots level, reflect a lack of any intelligent engagement with the past. Why go to the trouble of reading a book, when it’s so much easier to trot out trusted old cliches?
It’s early days and perhaps by 2018 things will have changed but so far history and historians have seemed unable to demonstrate their value to the process of generating those outputs. I’m intentionally trying to avoid naming the guilty here, but that Newsnight treats Michael Morpurgo as a FWW expert is an indictment not only of lazy programme-making but also of the historians who could and should have made themselves indispensable by now. Perhaps our faces don’t fit; perhaps we don’t have a compelling new story; perhaps, we’re not speaking the right language. However we got here, it’s a dispiriting place to be.
I’m as much to blame as anyone. I, like all my colleagues, have regretfully had to turn down more chances than I’ve been able to accept to tell the story of the First World War to a broader audience. Also, it’s easy to complain that the same stale tropes are being endlessly recycled. Much harder to displace them. And that’s what we need to do.
That said, historians also need to accept that commemoration has not only a relationship with the past but also serves a purpose today. There will always be corners history cannot reach. It might be exploiting an event which probably never occurred, but nothing is going to stop the FA (an acronym which has the virtue of neatly describing its value as an institution) from commemorating the Christmas football match. The ‘Lights Out’ campaign, similarly, has a rickety foundation in either fact or coherent logic, but it seems to have caught the imagination and, I suppose, as a way of helping people engage with the war, is likely to prove rather effective.
If we (and I really mean ‘I’, here of course) can relax into this centenary a bit; can stop getting worked up at every new piece of historical illiteracy: then we may at least stand a chance of surviving the next four years with all major blood vessels intact. So I, at least, am passing a Self-Denying Ordinance (historical allusion alert). Instead of using social media (a particularly dangerous medium for this kind of thing) to castigate the bad – of which I’m sure there’ll be tons – I will only celebrate the good – of which I hope there’ll be more than we’ve seen so far.
We are going to get the centenary we deserve. And there’s a limit to how much any one of us can do about that. The emotional energy we waste on trash can, I think, be better directed to the production of first-rate and thus compelling scholarship; or to trying to change the world one student at a time. Which is, after all, what some of us are privileged to be paid for.
*I think, for instance, that this centenary is generating new and exciting ways of handling and presenting history online. Projects such as Europeana, 1914-1918 Online and Cendari, together with some of the exciting digital output from the BBC, I think and hope will prove an enduring legacy of the next four years. I must declare an interest here: I have been tangentially involved in some of the BBC’s digital output. But my influence, particularly on _any_ of the good stuff, has been minimal or non-existent, I can assure you!