Dirty secrets of Great War

November 22, 2002

Many participants in the first world war buried painful memories of their brutality and atrocities. The result was a society paralysed by grief and passive in the face of subsequent fascism, historian Annette Becker tells Karen Gold

In the old days, when the rules of battle prevailed and soldiers boasted of exploits on the field of glory, stretcher-bearers could expect guns on both sides to pause while they worked. But not on the Somme in 1916, says historian Annette Becker. There the wounded - a third of whom might have survived earlier battles - were left to die in the ceaseless carnage.

Almost everything about the first world war - the way it was fought, the reasons for fighting it, the physical and emotional devastation that followed in its wake - seems almost incomprehensible to us today. That is why, Becker says, historians throughout the past 80 years have failed to comprehend it.

She includes herself in that assertion. Her book, 1914-1918: Understanding the Great War , written with Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau, has a more tentative title in French: Retrouver la Grande Guerre . She prefers the French. Rediscovery she can claim; understanding asserts too much.

Nevertheless, her writing and her work at the Historial de la Grande Guerre, a museum and research centre at Peronne in the Somme, has for more than ten years been built on the premise that western historians have sidestepped the most painful aspects of the first world war: its violence, its atrocities, and its ensuing grief. Public memory and official historians sanitised the war, she argues. No killers appear to have returned home; only victims and heroes. "Afterwards, in the 1920s, the war seemed so awful that people started to say they hadn't wanted to do it. They were pacifists, they blamed the military leaders. To go back to the real experience, you have to go back to the fact that they wanted to do it. It was too painful for that generation and the next to accept that they were guilty of consent," Becker says.

If she sounds like the new generation of historians dethroning its forefathers, then she is. In her case, literally. For the éminence grise of France's first world war historians, and her predecessor as professor of history at the university of Paris X Nanterre, is Jean-Jacques Becker, her father.

Consequently, she says, it is easier to criticise the older generation of historians, and, by implication, her father, when she is abroad. "In France, my father is like the father figure of historians. I could never say these things in France."

As a young PhD student working on 18th-century history of religion, she never expected to confront the father who lived apart from the family (her parents are divorced) from when she was quite young. But, prompted by a childhood recollection of a Remembrance Day ceremony, and building on her interests in art, archaeology and anthropology, she decided to write a book about French war memorials.

The 30,000 French memorials are more diverse than British ones, she says. They include women grieving and ploughing and dead soldiers as well as marching ones. There are even ten pacifist memorials. The emotional force of their imagery - previously unstudied by historians - overwhelmed Becker.

Her book came out in 1988, and led to an invitation from Cambridge University historian Jay Winter, a member of the Historial's board, to join two other young historians on its research team at Peronne, near the Lille university where she then taught. One was the German Gerd Krumeich; the other Audoin-Rouzeau, teaching at nearby Amiens and protégé of her father, the Historial's founder.

The family link was awkward, but not enough to deter her. As the three of them pored over the everyday objects and letters constantly excavated and donated to the centre, they began to write a new history of the Great War, frequently contested between the French and German points of view.

The atrocities committed against the civilian population of occupied northern France - whose descendants were living all around them - was a key issue. All three historians began with the assumption that accounts of atrocities were propaganda, but gradually they came to accept that not only had at least some mass rapes and grotesque murders taken place, but also that the suffering of civilians in forced labour, deportation, exile and hostage-taking during the Great War had never been appreciated.

"People hadn't talked about this before, except in the north. When my book came out, I think it was a total surprise to the general public."

There were lots of things that people had not talked about. Around the 80th anniversary of the Armistice in 1998, Becker found herself on television, being asked over and again how soldiers and civilians could have borne the suffering they endured as well as inflicted.

Part of her answer was that they believed in the war: it was envisaged, as her book describes, as a crusade against evil. But she also believes that as it went on, its soldiers became brutalised. "The new way of fighting with cannons and shells, they go so far you don't see what you kill. They do it to you but you don't see yourself do it to them. That brutality is nourished inside you, the violence becomes like a fire inside you."

US historian George Mosse, who invented the concept of brutalisation, argued that it was at the heart of mass support for totalitarianism in second world war Europe. Becker believes the effects went further than politics. "After I was on television talking about women and civilians, I got lots of letters from people who were kids in the 1920s. They were thanking me because I had said that their childhood had been awful because of their brutalised fathers."

This is the kind of history that people closer to the war simply could not face writing, she says. "It is easier to count the dead and to study the burial than to study the grief around the burial, because for that you have to confront your own feelings."

In fact, even the burial has been studied only euphemistically. Accounts of memorials for the unknown solder fail to point out that the reason the soldier is unknown is because he was blown into so many bits that not even his uniform could be retrieved.

In England, literature has faced up to some of this: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg in part at the time; Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy more recently and extensively. In contrast, French war novels have been predominantly pacifist, Becker says, reflecting a society so paralysed by grief that it could not bear to ponder on the last war, let alone face up to another one.

Such paralysis had political as well as psychological consequences, Becker argues. Pre-war pacifism, the Vichy government's passivity, sprang from it.

So too did subsequent fascist regimes' assumptions that since the last war's atrocities seemed to be buried and forgotten, new ones could be undertaken with impunity. Second world war historians have warned Becker not to read back too much into the Great War, she says. The stomach-churning detail that French deportees were packed into cattle trucks would mean nothing if the Holocaust had never happened. But it did, she adds.

And, as a Jew, she understands the taboos that have deterred her father's generation of historians from facing their closer past. "It was as painful for them as it would be for me to study Holocaust victims. Talking to friends who study the Holocaust, it is still very difficult for them to speak about what the gas chambers were like inside."

Nevertheless, the parallels that she extracts from objects and personal accounts are too striking to ignore: the racism, the internment, the reprisals against civilians.

"I felt I had to desanitise what had been sanitised. But in a way I still feel the war is more and more difficult to understand. The more subtle you become, the more you try to understand all the little anthropological details, the greater the puzzle."

1914-1918: Understanding the Great War by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker is published by Profile Books, £15.00.

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