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Response to Review no. 25

David Fitzpatrick’s characteristically acute and trenchant review of my book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The Place of the Great War in European Cultural History raises a number of issues central to the methodology of cultural history and what the French like to call its problimatique. I would like to deal with some of these general issues before turning to particulars

Cultural history, I take it, is the study of the codes, gestures and representations, expressed in action as well as in imaginative forms, which people in the past used to ascribe meaning to the world in which they live. It is, therefore, the study of fragments and images which never add up to a coherent whole. The kind of cosmology which Le Roy Ladurie found in Montaillou is the exception, and even in that case there is some doubt that the judicial sources he used exposed the forms of belief held by those examined in an adversarial (and very dangerous) environment

The environment of the 1914-18 war and its aftermath was also adversarial and very dangerous, and we should beware of those like Professor Fitzpatrick, who places the quite understandable urge towards precision before his understanding of the workings of language and ceremony. In my view, he is entirely wrong in approaching cultural history in the same spirit as he (and not alone he) has approached the forms of demographic life or the trajectory of immigrant lives. The best we can hope for is to provide a rough framework of analysis, formulated through a set of specific historical questions, and then grant the uncertainties and messiness of everyday life the pride of place they deserve

The framework I chose to use was twofold: an analysis of three countries’ historical evidence on mourning practices and the languages used to express them. This approach has the advantage of escaping from the simplistic distinction between winners and losers, though that distinction did have some weight too. It also enables us to look not at all facets of the cultural history of the period; just at those specifically related to acts of remembrance. The assumption is that remembrance is a process; memory, the product. Memory is what individuals recall; It is only rarely national, and we can speak of collective memory’ only when groups of people act in public together.

This they clearly did during and after the 1914-18 war, and I tried to show some of the complexities of that rich field of social action. Clearly, I have persuaded Professor Fitzpatrick that my approach can yield some insights into the impact of the 1914-18 war only at some points and not at others. He finds outrageous’ my urging of historians to confront the difficult question of healing, rather than to assume that the history of emotions belongs outside of history per se. Perhaps he knows the work of scholars who have addressed this question with the systematic rigor he so clearly admires, but I am unaware of them. I was trying to fill a gap, not to lead a crusade.

He also is puzzled at the claim that some evidence of a particular kind might be used for more general discussion. How do we know, he asks rhetorically, that the Australian Red Cross was representative of many other support networks? Because the Red Cross operated in roughly the same way in every combatant country. Why is there a discussion of soldiers’ superstition, he asks, in a chapter on spiritualism? The answer is that those who acted on the pagan perimeter of Christianity looked somewhat less ridiculous when millions of soldiers used similar forms of non-rational language and behavior to get through their time at the front. Hasty inferences are made, Professor Fitzpatrick says, from evidence on imagerie d’Ipinal. Readers will have to judge for themselves if this evidence supports my contention that the war resurrected codes of romantic meditation on the return of the dead. The images were there, and contemporaries seized them with an understandable urge to link the boulversement of a world in upheaval with an earlier and reassuring language of hope and consolation.

“Tenuous links”; the connections are often loose’. Perhaps. But perhaps too it is wise for the Professor to accept stoically the fact that cultural codes a-re drawn from a host of fragmentary sources, integrated in a variety of ways, and with a universal tendency to leave loose ends at every turn. Heaven save us from those who want their cultural history in neat packages, so portable, and so unlike the way people maddeningly are.

It would be churlish to end on a note of antagonism. Reviews in History is for purposes of exchange and stimulation, and I have tried to respond to Professor Fitzpatrick’s views in the tone and spirit in which they have been offered. His most telling points are at the end of the review, in which he suggests that I have been oddly incurious about the permutations and complexities of personal loss….’ Perhaps incurious is the wrong word; determined to move away from the thesis of Mosse and others that war was solely a brutalizing experience. That is was, but what to me is even more remarkable is that the cultural history of the 1914-18 war discloses the stubborn persistence of decency, of understanding, yes even of caritas among people who had every reason to sink into bitterness and silence. I think that was an achievement worth considering, alongside the sorry spectacle of degradation which is also an integral part of the history of warfare. Nurse Cavell was right: patriotism is not enough; and neither is hatred, as the lives of millions of ordinary people suggest. Somehow they came out of the Great War as recognizable human beings. They lived through crushing experiences most of us, thank God, never have to see and know. And some, perhaps many – how many, Professor Fitzpatrick, we will never know – reached back into their cultural heritage for a set of images and forms of expression which gave some meaning to what had happened to them. That moment is worth recalling, and respecting not as the whole truth, but as an integral part of the history of the Great War and its aftermath.