Norms and Values
The First World War in Historical Memory

The politics of historical memory is evoked to comprehend those political failures in our history that seriously influenced its course. These failures might not have happened if not for the arrogance and irresponsibility of the rulers of the time. The First World War provides an example which is significant for historical memory in Russia, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

November 11, 2023 marks 105 years since the end of the First World War. Despite the seeming distance of the events of that era, they continue to have a significant impact on the politics of historical memory, right up to the present day. In terms of the number of casualties, the scope and ferocity of hostilities, and the role of technology in the conflict in relation to the realities of that era, the First World War had no precedents in history at that time. Therefore, it is no coincidence that it became known as The Great War in the camp of the victorious powers.

Its political nature was no less pronounced. On the one hand, it seemed to arise from a random incident, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo. On the other hand, it reflected serious objective contradictions that had accumulated by that time between its main participants. These include conflicts between them during the imperialist division of the world into colonies, and the struggle for the increasingly global markets for sales and raw materials, and the actively developing arms race, especially at sea. Much as we count the number of warheads in nuclear arsenals today, then the leading powers counted the number of battleships in countries’ navies. However, the race for other types of arms never stood still. During the First World War, tanks, airplanes, and chemical weapons appeared on battlefields for the first time. In France and Russia, the name of the Belgian city of Ypres was later applied to the chemical weapon mustard gas, as it was used there.

In general, the phrase “Nobody wanted war, the war was inevitable” very accurately characterises the then-balance of forces and the level of mutual distrust in international relations of that era.

Therefore, it seems quite logical that in Soviet ideology and historiography, the First World War was referred to as an imperialist war.

This name also emphasises the class nature of that war. First of all, it was a senseless massacre: it was carried out for the illusory goals of the ruling classes and the victims included millions of people. Popular fatigue and horror from the war grew, especially after it entered the positional phase on the Western Front. The French city of Verdun also became a household name. Lenin’s words about the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war characterised this atmosphere of discontent.

The ultimate political outcome of the First World War, which occurred after November 11, 1918, also deserves special attention in our historical memory. The word “Versailles” has also become a common word, but not, when used in this sense, to evoke the beauty of parks and palaces. The total triumph of the winners and the total humiliation of the losers led to the Versailles world order that emerged after the First World War, which turned out to be quite unstable. There are enough works in historiography that reasonably explain why Hitler’s rise to power and his support in Germany were possible precisely because of mass dissatisfaction with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Thus, the Second World War was made possible because the winners of the First World War “went too far.”

Hitler himself repeatedly spoke about “revenge for Versailles” in his speeches. It is no coincidence that after the victory over France in 1940, he decided to sign the armistice in the very same railway carriage and at the same place in Compiègne where the armistice was signed after the First World War. Thus, the “revenge for Versailles” received its symbolic visual form.
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Another result of the First World War was that Soviet Russia, for class and ideological reasons, was almost completely erased from the world order and existed beyond its borders. As a result, the world was completely split into two parts.

For Russia, the First World War received special significance due to its influence on internal politics. The First World War became a historical example of how the attitude of the patriotically-minded segment of Russian society toward those in power can change. This dynamism progressed from the euphoric unity of society and government in the early days of the war to the increasing disillusionment of patriots with their own government and the head of state. Accusations of inefficiency, corruption, unpreparedness for war, sabotage, initial mischief and underestimation of the enemy, and finally, treason against the authorities became increasingly widespread in society. Perhaps the most important accusation and the most acute disappointment was that the authorities were categorically afraid of independent public initiatives to help the front and hindered them in every possible way. As a result, the high feeling of patriotic enthusiasm and national unity that spontaneously arose in the first days of the war, the feeling of almost-sacred involvement in the cause of defending the Motherland turned out to be unnecessary and, in the eyes of many, simply spat upon by the authorities.

The term “simulacrum” as an instrument of imitation policy by the authorities had not yet been invented. However, if we use the language of modern political science, it was the attitude towards the people’s feeling of patriotism as a simulacrum that came to underscore widespread distrust toward the government, and then its rejection and contempt for it in Russian society during the First World War. This didn’t just apply to obvious opponents of the government and oppositionists, but also broad sections of society who previously either supported the government or were politically passive. It’s just that people had a completely natural feeling that during the difficult trials of war, the government (whatever it was) should be together with the people and society. Patriotic enthusiasm exists for this reason, so that society helps the authorities, and the authorities trust society. One cannot even say that these public sentiments were cynically trampled; in fact, they were ignored with extreme arrogance. Pavel Milyukov’s phrase “Stupidity or Treason”, which clearly characterised society’s attitude towards power at that time, also became a common phrase and has been preserved in historical memory to this day.

Our preserved material from that era, including diaries, correspondences, public speeches, court cases and memoirs, reveals the evolution of public sentiment from the patriotic upsurge in the beginning of the war to the increasing dissatisfaction of society with the inefficiency and corruption of the authorities.

Unpreparedness and chaos during mobilisation, inability to provide those mobilised with food and uniforms, poor material and technical condition of the army, lack of ammunition, unprofessionalism and clannishness of the command, as well as the reluctance of the authorities to use civil initiatives to help the front and the persecution of patriotic civil activists — all these are reflected in the documents. The result was that, according to Milyukov, “we lost faith that this government could lead us to victory,” and then the February Revolution of 1917.

The connection between patriotism and revolution in this logic is determined through the stage of bitterness and disappointment on the part of patriots in relation to the authorities.

The government itself, having started the war, gave birth to this patriotic upsurge, and then turned out to be unable to meet the high expectations that the “excited heart of the Russian patriot” (another phrase used by Milyukov) had for it. Historian Vladislav Aksenov emphasises this connection between revolutionary and patriotic sentiments in 1917: “In Russian society at the beginning of March 1917, patriotism was one of the dominant sentiments. From this point of view, the revolution of 1917 was for many a patriotic revolution: the government was overthrown for the sake of saving Russia” [Aksenov V. B. Rumours, images, emotions. Mass sentiments of Russians during the war and revolution of 1914-1918. M.: New Literary Review, 2022. P. 27].

Why remember this now? We need to remember this because the politics of historical memory is not an easy science. It is not only about victory in WWII or Yuri Gagarin. It is evoked to comprehend those political failures in our history that seriously influenced its course. These failures might not have happened if not for the arrogance and irresponsibility of the rulers of the time. The First World War provides an example which is significant for historical memory in Russia.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.