As we mark 100 years since the start of the First World War in 1914, the British Council's Anne Bostanci argues how it's no longer useful to think about a country's contribution and loss in national terms.
A compartmentalised understanding of a world war is inadequate
In the year of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, many people still think about it in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and ‘this country’s contribution’ or ‘that country’s losses’.
But the case for taking an internationalist perspective on commemorating a historical event cannot be greater than it is for a world war. Not to mention that ‘us’ and ‘them’ are increasingly outdated ideas in today’s interconnected world.
The British Council’s report, Remember the World as well as the War presents historical analysis and findings from an international survey (carried out for the British Council by YouGov in Egypt, France, Germany, India, Russia, Turkey and the UK in 2013) to make clear that a compartmentalised approach to understanding a world war is inadequate.
Lessons for mutual understanding 100 years on
100 years on from the beginning of a human tragedy, the consequences of which are still felt today, we need to transcend the way it still colours perceptions of countries -- especially because there were survey respondents who said that their country’s role in the First World War is misunderstood or misrepresented in global history.
1. We need to understand each other's history.
2. We have to remember that the First World War involved the whole world (and involvement boils down to suffering).
3. We have to remember that its consequences are still felt in many places today.
How do Germans feel about the First World War today?
Clearly, you cannot talk about the First World War without talking about Germany, but surely, it is time to move on from the cliché of ‘us versus them’ here. (And I’m not just writing this because I’m a German living in the UK!)
After the First World War, Germany was blamed for the conflict and made to pay a heavy price in the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. For some years, a fierce popular and academic debate raged in the country about whether this was just (after all, a complex web of secret treaties and alliances had turned what started as a small local war of the kind not uncommon at the time into a world war). In the 1960s, it was German historians themselves, who brought the ‘Kriegsschuld’ question up again (the question of who's to blame for the war) and accepted it -- only for it to then be challenged by historians outside Germany again.
Ever since, the question of blame has received much attention from popular and expert history writing. This is despite the fact that, at just over one third in Germany and the UK respectively, a comparatively low number of respondents expressed interest in commemorating why the war broke out (in contrast, for instance, to about half of German and almost two thirds of UK respondents wanting to commemorate human suffering and loss of lives).
Today, in contrast to other countries, few Germans feel their country’s role has been misunderstood or misrepresented: nine per cent -- the lowest of all country percentages in the British Council’s recent research. Even in the UK, the figure is higher (12 per cent).
Fewer than one in ten Germans (nine per cent) feel that the First World War contributes strongly to their country’s national identity -- in contrast to over four in ten in the UK (42 per cent).
The centenary and UK-German relations
Nor does the conflict and its aftermath have a strong impact on German respondents’ perceptions of other countries such as the UK. When asked if Britain’s role in the war and the subsequent peace negotiations had an effect on their views of the UK today, only 23 per cent of German respondents selected answer options on either the ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ end of the scale. A large majority of 77 per cent selected either the ‘neutral’ option (52 per cent of the total) or ‘I don’t know’ (25 per cent).
As such, Sunder Katwala of British Future rightly observes, this year’s centenary shouldn’t cause too much diplomatic headache between the UK and Germany -- and it shouldn’t between the people of the two countries either, if we remember the three lessons above.
The British Council and the BBC are running a series of public events and radio broadcasts on the global impact and legacy of World War One. Find out how you can join the audience for 'The war that changed the world' in Dresden on 12 July.
If you are a school teacher, you can also download our related education pack.