With 2017 drawing to a close, it strikes me that the centennial of the First World War will end next year. It’s a strange feeling, because 2014 doesn’t feel that long ago. I’ve long felt that the most important lessons anyone can learn about the broader impact of warfare are best learned from studying this one.
Which is why I feel like it’s a shame that, despite the efforts of isolated attempts, it wasn’t. What I mean is that there didn’t seem to be a broader cultural discussion of the legacy and impact of the Great War, which just seems to increase the risk of repeating similar mistakes. The only big Hollywood historical war film of the last few years was Dunkirk, which was yet another Second World War film. Whether you follow Hollywood or not, no one can deny the impact it can have. “Saving Private Ryan” basically made the Second World War a household topic of awareness for practically 20 years after it released.
The problem with the Second World War is that, from the way it’s popularly portrayed and understood, it fits a traditional narrative. It’s possible to simplify the story down to good and evil, democracy against autocracy. The tragedy of the Holocaust is supposed to teach us not to turn a blind eye to genocide, but this is mixed with the perception that evil is easy to see or that the solution to it is easy. Thus, telling another story about “Dunkirk,” even if it was somewhat more historical and dispelled some of the popular myths, still paints a story of righteous struggle.
The Great War was not as large, long, or complex a war, but the absence of a clear narrative is precisely why it should be studied or at least examined in popular culture. One of the biggest videogame franchises, Battlefield, released Battlefield 1 last year, set during the Great War. But by all appearances the game portrays the war more like the Second World War. This is acceptable in terms of trying to still create an exciting, fast paced experience for gameplay, but horribly misrepresentative of the war and what it was like. Being mustard gassed is not an adventure. Even so, I can’t think of any other mainstream and broadly popular portrayal of the war in any media, which is the litmus paper of culture overall.
This is truly a missed opportunity, because war should be understood to be wasteful and tragic. The war destroyed three major empires, destroyed the concept of monarchy as anything but symbolic, and essentially created the modern world. The contrast of worlds before and after the Second World War is not nearly as extreme as before and after the First World War. Thus, one of the lessons from it should be that such widespread devastation prompts broad societal change, which is messy to say the least. People forget that once the war was over, multiple other wars were fought in its aftermath: Greco-Turkish, Romanian-Hungarian, Polish-Soviet. Russia descended into bloody civil war, and there are potent arguments that Germany essentially did as well. Italy, despite being on the winning side, had such dramatic societal upheaval that Fascism was born just a few years later.
These consequences are important. The way we talk about nationalism, self-determination, righteous use of violence, and many other aspects of modern humanity, get broadly defined by this conflict. These past few years have been the best time to spread awareness and create debate, but it’s still only a relatively small number of people, mainly those already inclined to talk about it anyway, not a broad cultural discussion.
But if you’d like to find out more, one of the best initiatives is The Great War YouTube channel. Covering the events of the war, week by week 100 years ago, it goes into more detail than any other documentary can using the new media that makes it possible. It is easily the most accessible way to start learning about it.