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War remembrance in Europe

‘The Army of the Unknown Soldiers: War remembrance in inter-war Europe

The project is dedicated to the transnational history of war remembrance in Europe. A truly transnational European history cannot limit itself – as most comparative studies have done – to the major western European countries but has also to include Eastern European societies and smaller states. Indeed, many symbols, rituals, and discourses emanating from the Great War were European, not national. Interpretations, architectural designs, rituals, and discourses emanating from the Great War were exchanged and adapted to suit specific national circumstances.

George F. Kennan called the First World War the ‘great seminal catastrophy’ of the twentieth century. War did not only bring material destruction, suffering and death, it also undermined the old social and political order. To avoid revolution, the governments and social and political elites everywhere had to explain why war, the suffering of the population and the death of so many young men were necessary. Meaning had to be given to war.

Commemoration of war heroes is nothing new but the proliferation of war memorials to common soldiers is a feature of modern nations and of their democratisation of war remembrance. The building of Tombs of the Unknown Soldier started in France and England after the Great War. It was also taken up by other European countries and by the United States of America, becoming a global phenomenon after 1945. Today more than 50 countries have an Unknown Soldier representing those who died for the nation.

Despite being a global phenomenon and despite its universal semantics, every country viewed the Unknown Soldier, first and foremost, as a national symbol capable of bridging class and political divisions. The openness of the symbol allowed a wide range of different groups to connect with it: communists mourned victims of capitalism; pacifists evoked the memory of the Unknown Soldier to warn against war; nationalists celebrated a national hero who gave his life for the nation. The central Tombs of the Unknown Soldier were simultaneously places where bereaved familes mourned their loved ones and expressed their private griefs.

Not all unidentified soldiers had an equal chance of becoming their nation’s Unknown Soldier. Newly independent states did not believe that a soldier who had fallen in the service of one of the imperial armies was a suitable representative of the new nation. Their Unknown Soldier had to have fallen for the national cause. The remains of the Polish Unknown Soldier were chosen from among the fallen of the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918/19, and the Unknown Soldier of Czechoslovakia was a member of the Czechoslovak legions who died fighting the Central Powers in 1917.

The discourses on the Unknown Soldier reflect the divisions of inter-war societies and show to what extent giving meaning to war was successful or demonstrate – as in the cases of Germany and Austria – the inability to find a consensus about the war. The project focuses on France, Great Britain, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy but will also be looking into the cases of inter-war Austria and Germany, the failed attempts of both democratic republics to create a national war memorial, and why the idea of a tomb of the Unknown Soldier was rejected.

Past events:

23 October 2019 (research seminar), Heather Jones (UCL), Leaving Europe, Privileging Empire? The Changing Identity of the British Monarchy in the First World War

20 May 2019 (research seminar): Katherine Lebow (Oxford), The People Write! Polish Everyman Autobiography from the Great Depression to the Holocaust

25 April 2019 (public lecture): Jay Winter (Professor emeritus, Yale), The Degeneration of War, 1914-1924

26 April 2019 (in cooperation with the History of Violence Network): The Aftermath of the Great War (workshop) 

Chris Read (Warwick): Jon Smele’s ‘Russia’s Civil Wars 1916-1926’ and the ‘new Thirty Years’ War’

Jay Winter (Yale and Paris): The Second Great War, 1917-1923

Klaus Richter (Birmingham): Responses to Territorial Fragmentation: Poland and the Baltic States

Christoph Mick (Warwick): The Army of the Unknown Soldiers: War Remembrance in Inter-war Europe

Martina Salvante (Warwick): Living with the Scars of War: Aftercare, Pensions and Employment for Disabled Veterans

Pierre Purseigle (Warwick): Rebuilding Urban Lives. A History of the Aftermath, 1914-1939