After a long hiatus, mainly the result of having to work flat out on my book about #Rupprecht, I’m hoping to get back in the blogging saddle here soon. In the meantime, here’s a link to a guest blog I did recently for the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London in the wake of a paper I gave there late last year and the very useful discussion which ensued. It’s about learning the wrong lessons from history. (There’s a link to my original paper within the KCL blog):
I have deep reservations about the Sainsbury’s ad. As a historian, I think the representation of the truce plays into a stereotype of Christmas 1914 which is rooted in often weak evidence, much of it based either on hearsay at the time or emerging in reminiscences 20 or (sometimes many) more years after the war, by which time ‘memories’ have got overlaid with multiple other myths and agendas. A classic example would be Henry Williamson, whose memoirs for many historians are tainted by his association with fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Partly as a consequence, of this, partly because of the flattening media effect whereby the particular trumps – and often stands for – the general, the true historical context of those truces has been lost. That some truces did occur is beyond doubt. That someone kicked an improvised ball about is highly likely. But that’s a long way 1) from saying there was a general truce and 2) from the sad and unpleasant fact that many or most of the truces which occurred were for the much more pragmatic and distasteful purpose of burying corpses. The need to respect the dead and prevent disease was much more pressing than goodwill and sharing chocolate.
Now, the Sainsbury’s advert makes no pretence to show the whole truth about Xmas 1914: of course it has no need to. It’s an ad, not a history book. But it does concern me that associating the truce so closely with goodwill and sharing bends the past too far away from reality and to the advertiser’s ends. (The trenches are much too broad, clean and well-built for this stage of the war, but that’s real pedantry!)
Not as a historian, but as a layperson, I have a further concern about the taste involved here. First, I don’t see how one can use a theme of this nature (however respectfully handled, and I thought this was actually rather neatly executed) without being accused of exploitation at some level. Secondly, and on a lighter note: I am unfortunately old enough to shudder at the memory of Paul Mccartney’s hideous ‘Pipes of Peace’ video: everytime I see the ad, I’m going to have flashbacks to that. Sainsbury’s can’t expect anyone to thank them for stirring up THAT memory!