Interview with Professor Sonke Neitzel

By Taryana Odayar.

This week, the Beaver sat down with renowned academic and Professor of International History at the LSE, Dr. Sonke Neitzel, as we explored the history, changing social attitudes and contemporary politics of Remembrance Day. Dr. Neitzel is an expert on the history of war, especially World War One, World War Two and military culture post-1945, and his latest book, ‘Soldaten. On fighting, killing and dying. The Secret Second World War tapes of German POWs’, (co-authored by Harald Welzer), was a best-seller in Germany and has been published in 20 languages.

Remembrance Day is commemorated in Britain through age-old traditions such as wearing the poppy, observing two minutes of silence at 11am on Remembrance Sunday, recitations of ‘In Flanders Fields’, as well as flags at half-mast, rifle volleys and so on. What is your view on these traditions through which we remember the sacrifice and service of the fallen soldiers?

As a German citizen who came to the UK in 2011, I think that it’s a very British tradition, or a very Western tradition, that is also practiced by the French and the Commonwealth nations, but less so in other countries such as Germany, Poland and Russia. As a member of the Board of the German War Graves commission, what I appreciate about this kind of remembrance is that this country remembers its fallen soldiers, which is something very positive to do. I think that the soldiers from the First World War or fallen soldiers in general, are more or less forgotten in Germany, and we all know that this is because remembrance is more problematic and complicated in the German case given the events of the Second World War. But after all, these soldiers are dead, and these soldiers were mainly young people, who gave their lives for whatever reason, and this is now becoming increasingly a political issue.

For instance, if you read the Guardian, and if you read the Times, you might come to different conclusions as to why they were killed and whether it was a worthy sacrifice and so on and so forth. But I think that when a country has a Remembrance Day, with its two minutes of silence, which is dedicated not only to the soldiers of the First World War but to all British soldiers who fell mainly during the twentieth century and due to recent conflicts, it is indeed a very positive thing to do.

Lord Curzon, the President of the Armistice Day Committee (1921) said that 11th November should not be “a day of mourning” but “the commemoration of a great day” or a day of victory. What is your view on this?

Of course he said that! It’s completely understandable; in fact if I were Lord Curzon I would have said the same at that time. It’s interesting how nowadays very much depends on your political attitude. If you’re a hard-core Tory, you think ‘we won the war’ and lives were sacrificed for democracy and that there’s very good justification for that and so on. But if you’re a ‘Guardian’ reader, then you are more critical of war and think that it was a waste of effort, and arguably led to nothing. And that’s fine – these attitudes are present in all countries.

Yet when I visited the war gallery in the Imperial war museum last Sunday, I found it astonishing that the exhibition, which was supposed to be a landmark exhibition for which the British taxpayer paid a lot of money, and is a center for the commemoration, when compared to the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin which also had an exhibition on the First World War, it’s interesting how the German exhibition concentrated on the international perspective. It featured Indians, African people, the Ottoman empire, so they possibly tried to do a bit too much, but importantly, it was not a German narrative but an international one, whereas the exhibition in Britain featured mainly white British soldiers at the Western Front, and even the ‘Guardian’ compared this in a very meaningful way.

There was a corner for the commonwealth people, but only the white commonwealth, and there was nothing on the Chinese labour force, nothing on the Caribbean labour force, very little on India, and nothing at all on the Eastern front which simply doesn’t exist in that exhibition. So I asked myself, why is this? Obviously it serves the purpose of acting as a reference point for the country or some part of society, and we as academics could criticize the lack of an international perspective, but then again I would always argue that it serves the social purpose.

In a way it’s good that the fallen soldiers are not forgotten. In Britain, history is popular; people go in the archives, watch films, buy books, but then the narrative is to my taste a bit too focused on the national rather than the wider experience. When I was Chair of Modern History at the University of Glasgow, what was striking to me was seeing who was wearing the poppy. In Glasgow, it’s the white British who wear it, and very few people from India, or black people wear it. And I think this is because people from different ethnic backgrounds think that it’s not their war, but you could argue that for Indians and others it is their war – Indians fought in the Western Front and Mesopotamia so they were quite important.

How could Remembrance Day be made more inclusive?

For example if you start with the exhibitions, you should also include the experiences of other people, of non-white people, and it is necessary to include even in the advisory board people from outside Britain, as there were no specialists on India or China for the First World War exhibition. The first step is opening up the advisory boards, and opening up the narrative of the exhibition. In academia, Britain has a very open society, more so than any other country, but in terms of narrative, they’re more closed than other countries, or at least more closed than Germany. And to change this would be a very long process driven by young people who have travelled abroad and so on and so forth. But by making it more inclusive, then possibly other people would feel that they could also the wear poppy and even non-whites would wear it and remember the non-white soldiers and soldiers from other parts of world, so it would be a general commemoration.

My argument is, are we really so different? If you compare a 19 year old Indian, German, Italian, British soldier, of course people may argue that they were fighting for the good, or that they were fighting for the bad, but if you really compare them, they had not much to do with politics. They adopted the social practices of the time, and they all thought that they were defending their country, and fighting for the good, and that God was on their side. I have written about this and on various occasions said that as academics we can see that there is a difference between national commemoration and national memory, because Britain had a different war from Germany and Italy and so on.

Countries tend to concentrate on their own particular war experiences, but instead I think we should concentrate on the overlaps rather than the differences, especially in the trenches. I mean, even in the case of the soldiers from India – yes they had a different cultural background – but they were all in the trenches and in the miserable weather conditions and they were all dying like flies. So I would like it if we as Europeans, and even those from outside Europe, could concentrate on the shared experience. George Kennan called the First World War the ‘seminal catastrophe’ of the 20th century and we Europeans think that the events of the First World War and the Second World War are what led to the creation of the European identity, and the European Union. But it was a very different experience for USA, Malaysia and China. Yet there is an overlap of shared experiences and I think that this is what we should really concentrate on.

If not for the First and Second World Wars, do you think it is even remotely possible that the European Union would have been formed?

I think that without the experience of the World Wars we would never have seen something like the EU. You could even argue that one world war was not enough; the killing of 10 million people was not enough, and Europe obviously needed another even more horrible world war. There were plans of a united Europe, a middle Europe plan, but they were very different in their architecture and footprint compared to today’s Europe, and it is very sad to say that Europe needed the experience of the World Wars which led to the creation of the EU, but after all such is our history. And it’s interesting nowadays to compare the continental narrative in some countries to the British narrative towards the EU. I was commentating on the D-Day celebrations in Normandy for German television, and when I looked over the speech given by the French president, he had interestingly aimed his speech at the EU, and how the experience of the World Wars culminated in the EU. I guess if Cameron had given the speech it might have been received very differently. But it’s a shared experience at least for the continent, and if you go to Austria you will see that it’s very much European-focused and if you go to Germany its very Europe-focused as well, even possibly a bit overdone. But it’s a good thing for us to come together rather than following the nationalistic notion that ‘we won, it’s our pride and our boys’, which I feel is a bit outdated in a way, as we are living in 2014.

Amongst others, Michael Chessum, Chief of Defend Education, said Remembrance Day is “one of the most extreme and ideologically right-wing things possible – historically distorting, establishment-run propaganda at the expense of the victims of war.” Why do you think certain people feel this way so strongly?

Well if you’re against war, if you’re against the empire, and if you’re against this concept of a white nation you will have certainly problems that are in line with this quotation. But in Britain, people love the war, so to phrase it, in the sense that Britain has won all wars in the last 300 years, or they at least perceive that they’ve won them, and as such that is the direction of the narrative. I think for British people, the notion of war is normally something positive, because it is for the good. And remember the speech of Gordon Brown before the referendum of the Scots, where he expressed sentiments such as defeating the fascists and ‘we fought two World Wars together’ and we see Britain has fought against Napoleon and against Wilhelm II and then against Nazis and against Nazi Taliban, so Britain is always portrayed as being on the good side of the narrative.

However, this is very different in other countries, like Germany, Spain and Italy, where war is considered something negative. And you could always question, can Britain really always be on the right side, and did Britain really fight a proper war, committing no atrocities? Because the perception is such that Britain is always good and the nasty people are always the others; it’s more or less impossible in this country to speak about its own atrocities. You really don’t even have books about the atrocities. So you could challenge this perception, which is what this quotation is doing. But on the other hand, the poppy and commemoration depends heavily on which approach you take. For me, it’s about remembering the fallen soldiers, and not necessarily about imperialism. I mean, Britain lost 750,000 men in the First World War and half a million in the Second World war, and therefore I believe that the Poppy is a decent symbol; after all its not as if you are wearing a tank or a gun on your suit.

I think society should remember their fallen soldiers. And in this respect I think in many ways people in continental countries always look at the British armed forces in this way – if you speak to German soldiers or Italian soldiers, they think that in Britain there is a very healthy attitude towards the soldiers. The British recognize their soldiers, the soldiers’ duties and sacrifices in contrast to other countries where the soldiers are under constant stress and criticism. So in a way yes, the commemoration day is a bit too narrow but overall it’s a good thing and we should not overdo the criticism by saying it’s an example of British imperialist self-perceptions and so on. For some people though, it is, and since we are living in a liberal and open country each person can have their own approach, but think generally Remembrance Day is good and not the celebration of an imperialist past.

Poppy politics has become increasingly controversial in recent times, with British politicians purportedly wearing the poppy earlier than usual to make known their support towards the armed forces. Do you think they may be doing this to suit their own political agendas?

Of course! It’s patriotism. You can’t be a BBC presenter and not wear the poppy. Everyone has to do it. And you even have people from different ethnic backgrounds wearing the poppy with the most Oxbridge accents. These are the people who are part of the ruling elite, and if you are part of the elite in this country, to my reading, it is a way of expressing patriotism. Nowadays it’s just impossible for somebody from the Cabinet to be seen not wearing the poppy. And if you’re wearing the poppy proudly you are making a statement, especially in a country that is at war, and there will be British soldiers sent to other countries in due course not too far in the future.

It’s also an expression of the British attitude towards war; you commemorate your soldiers, you use the word ‘hero’ – Germans have problems with that word – but for the British the soldiers are war heroes and it’s a very uncritical perception I would say, which is good for the soldiers as you are expressing your loyalty to them and it’s also a political statement. And the interesting thing is that obviously the poppy is even more important nowadays than it was thirty years ago, as it came back to Britain with the Falklands war. Before the Falklands war, the veterans were wearing it but not necessarily BBC presenters.

So in a way history has become more important today. And this is also because of recent foreign politics and security politics. It would have been very different if the Falklands war was the last British war, but it wasn’t. And a lot of soldiers were killed in recent campaigns, and therefore If you want to use the armed forces as a tool for foreign policy you must create a positive perception of the armed forces, at least in these post – heroic times, since its difficult enough as it is to find people who want to join the forces or volunteer for the army. Through this positive narrative of, ‘we are British, we have always won, we are always good, and we commemorate our soldiers’ cultural capital is being created. And this is a good thing if you want to use your own armed forces as a tool of foreign policy, especially since the last campaigns and the last war were possibly not Britain’s finest hour, both in military performance and in terms of violence against civilians, so this demonstration of patriotism is needed in that sense.


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