Myths and rituals then are important in giving direction and mobilizing populations in crisis. But what of the production and selection of the myths themselves? There is generally a discrepancy between the experiences and the myths of warfare. To generate a charisma, revolutionaries have occasionally self-consciously staged rebellions that supposedly re-enact archetypes of redemptive sacrifice, as in the case of Irish revolutionaries in 1916. Myth creation is also a recurring process, and there can be a considerable time gap between the end of a war and the crystallization of a hegemonic narrative, in which episodes of cowardice, internal conflicts, and collaboration are forgotten or reinterpreted. Arguably, then, the myths of wars in the long term are more significant for national identity creation than the experiences themselves. In modern China the phrase a ‘Century of National Humiliation’ (at China’s subjection to foreign powers) that initiated a discourse embraced by Kuomintang and Communists alike was popularized only in 1915, seventy-five years after the originating event of 1840, the Opium War (Callahan 2004: 49-50).

Who develops and selects the myths and memories of war and why? Under what circumstances are populations mobilized for collective action and with what effects?

Jay Winter (2006: 58) identifies a wave of public myth construction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when in France (after the defeat of 1871), Germany, and Italy new political regimes sought a historical grounding in a glorious past, and when South American republics celebrated centenaries of independence. Eric Hobsbawm (1983) uses the term ‘the invention of tradition’ to portray such events. In France Maurice Agulhon (1981) dubbed as ‘statue-mania’ the mass construction of Mariannes, which symbolized the Roman republican origins of the French Third Republic. For this reason, many scholars adopt a constructivist position regarding national myths, taking their cue from Ernest Renan, for whom national identity was a product of forgetting as well as remembering. According to them, the relative novelty of public commemoration indicates that such rituals represent not continuity but rather a break with the past, and that they are a phenomenon of mass democratic politics. Memory, they rightly claim, is not an objective datum but a selective process, remembrance, and each act of recalling is shaped by the context in which it occurs (see Winter and Sivan 1999). Duncan Bell rejects the concept of collective memory (transmitted across the generations) as an explanation of the power of national identities, for collectivities, unlike individuals, cannot ‘remember’. The construction and transmission of ideas and sentiments about a purported past nation have to be explained by specific mechanisms (Bell 2006: 73). The past has no intrinsic hold on populations; rather, ‘memory’ is constructed and reconstructed by specific agents engaged in social interaction.

From this perspective warfare may supply raw material and experiences, but the question that needs to be asked is who controls what is recorded and celebrated. John Gillis argues thus that what was publicly memorialized has been selected by those with power, which reflected the interests of the official elites, of men rather than women, and of dominant rather than minority groups (Gillis 1994: Introduction). Others have claimed that military interests in alliance with state establishments lie behind such commemoration: war must be glorified to camouflage the horrific realities so that the state will forever have a ready supply of young male recruits (see, for example, Danilova 2015: 58-9).

Although many myths have political origins, instrumental interpretations of national myths as elite inventions fail to recognize the spontaneity and plurality of myth production, their different purposes, and they also neglect the question of popular resonance. The initiative in commemorating military sacrifice in national terms was often taken from below by a variety of social groups. The post-Napoleonic British monarchical state, dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy and suspicious of popular mobilization, did little to commemorate national heroes. The sponsorship of the Nelson cult came from below by middle-class patriots in burgeoning regional cities and was itself an expression of a developing British nationalism. In Glasgow, Edinburgh, and elsewhere, many port cities, dependent on the navy’s control of the seas, competed to construct monuments to Nelson (MacKenzie 2005). Ex-servicemen’s organizations, such as Napoleon’s veterans, have been to the fore in many countries in promoting and defending ceremonies and monuments honouring the dead (Hazareesingh 2004: Ch. 9).

Official elites have often sought to co-opt war memories and transform and institutionalize them in state schools, public ceremonies, and museums. Under Wilhelm I and II militarist nationalist festivals such as Sedan Day were instituted and gargantuan monuments built, commemorating both ancient and more recent battles in an attempt to extol a Prussian-, Junker-, and Lutheran-dominated state. But the federal character of the state allowed alternative views of the German past based on class, region, religion, and gender (Koshar 1998: 20-3). As Zimmer (2003b: 46-7) argues, Sedan Day celebrations were conducted according to the historical tastes and traditions of local communities and instigated a contestation about German nationhood.

Although I have spoken about the national appropriation of religious symbols, there were limits to this. While national rituals gradually assumed a greater public prominence, they never supplanted religious rites in the private sphere, and most nationalists accommodated ecclesiastical institutions at the state level. As in the case of ‘national humiliation’ days in England, in many countries religious and national sentiments were long intertwined, and this persisted well into the modern period. Where nationalists attempted to displace religion, they could provoke civil war. In France traditionalist revolts led by the clergy erupted in the Vendee against the early republican regime, even as foreign armies were on French soil (Gildea 1994: 26-31). The battle between secular nationalists and Catholics in France continued throughout the nineteenth century, and even the dead were enlisted in this cultural war. Christian competed with republican representations of the dead (in the form of angelic vs neoclassical figures) in cemeteries (Prost 1996).

What is the effect of such divisions and exclusions? Such contentions may enhance rather than undermine a sense of nationality. France was an extreme case of the split between secular nationalism and religion, and even here this was a war of minorities, whereas large masses of the population found no problem in combining Catholic and republican ideals. In practice, wars generally deepened an attachment of individuals to religion in the face of death and calamity, and in time of war churches have traditionally mobilized in defence of the nation. In France the cult of Joan of Arc strengthened amongst republicans and Catholic traditionalists after the humiliation of France in 1871 at the hands of the (Protestant) Prussians, and during the First World War both sides invoked Joan in the defence of French soil. In this period there was a profound national-religious revival in which the secular republic, separated from the Catholic Church since 1905, buried its dead under a symbol (the cross) that was prohibited on all other public monuments (Becker 1998: 117).

Such recurring debates about the nation—about the meaning of particular wars or heroes and the contribution of specific groups and territories to the national project—fill out a sense of the past and take on the character of a ‘family’ quarrel to which only insiders have access. The fact that different groups struggled to claim a privileged place in the national story only reinforces the prestige of the nation, and the struggle offers options to societies that may be of use when established notions are in crisis (Hutchinson 2005: 103-5).

These debates then are never simply about power but about alternative conceptions of the nation. Political interpretations insufficiently recognize the more fundamental issues of meaning at stake in the turn to history, the importance of religious institutions, and the plurality of actors involved in myth-making. First, war myths could be of different kinds, whether of origins, temporal and spatial, of a golden age to inspire pride and emulation, of degeneration and revival. They were often evoked to explain contingency, provide consolation, express hope, and offer direction at times of crisis. The appeal to the past was made through the idiom of collective memory so as to create a sense of continuity with an ‘immemorial’ community that had survived countless challenges.

Second, although there was a general shift from more religious to secular historicist frameworks, religious institutions were also active in memory politics, capable of challenging secular nationalists and ‘explaining’ military disasters through the framework of divine justice and humiliation. This was not confined to the Protestant-Covenantal tradition. Defeat in the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-1 was claimed by the French Catholic Church as a judgement upon the nation for its secular pretensions (Becker 1998: Ch. 3).

Third, myths are created by all participants as an attempt to make sense of major crises, for example the anguish of mass death. While military establishments, concerned to valorize the status of their professional vocation and secure a flow of recruits, may encourage the public glorification of war, they have been only one of many participants in the politics of memory. As we have seen, in the First World War soldiers were active in constructing myths of the comradeships of the trenches and of national sacrifice in the face of extreme suffering: they and their families later redeemed the war as the war to end all wars (Mosse 1990: 3-4). Although the British prime minister Lloyd George proposed the Cenotaph after the war, it was popular pressure that made it permanent, with the government taken aback by the huge response to the ceremonies. In the week following its unveiling in 1920, over one million people visited it and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Edkins 2003: 60-71). Local communities were to the fore in remembrance: some 39,000 monuments were built in interwar France, with scarcely a township without one (Zimmer 2003b: 43-4).

This question of personal suffering raises questions about how far commemorative rituals and myths should be viewed as ‘national’. They might simply express a personal mourning that was delayed or displaced and for which the only available expression was public. During the First World War there was a breach of normal mourning rituals when families lacked the bodies of the military dead who were buried where they fell (Capdevila and Voldman 2006: Ch. 5). We find in Britain and also in France families pitted against the nation state after the war, when requesting the return of bodies from military cemeteries in France. Remembrance might mean many different things. Even when memorials and rituals were public, when placed in village squares, was the loss perceived to be to the national or the local community? Is there often not a contradiction between the sense of loss and the commemoration of the nation, particularly if there is doubt about the worth of the war? Remembrance was compatible with the existence of strong pacifist sentiments in Britain and France during the 1920s and 1930s.

This indicates the complexity of interpreting public commemorations. In spite of this, one can argue that the willingness of large numbers of people to come together to mourn and support permanent monuments to the war dead in the very centre of the capital inevitably implied that the suffering was national rather than simply individual or sectional. This was reinforced by intense public debates in Parliament and elsewhere about how and where the dead were to be buried. Moreover, the fact that in a period of mass death the state alone could develop techniques for finding, identifying, and organizing the disposal of the dead, and was best suited to maintain cemeteries and coordinate ceremonies, tended to result in a gradual appropriation of the dead for the nation state. Participating in recurring collective rituals over time tended to give an overarching meaning to otherwise random deaths, recall the dead to life, and restore agency to those who otherwise feel as victims.

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