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Fawlty thinking about the aftermyth of war


John Cleese's 'funny Hitler walk' from Fawlty Towers'Don't mention the war!' admonishes John Cleese in the classic television comedy series Fawlty Towers. And of course he himself never stops mentioning the war in front of his hotel's German guests, with ever more embarrassing consequences.

It's a famously funny scene, but not only because it reveals Cleese's character, the hapless Basil Fawlty, at his bumbling worst. It is a reminder that, although we must talk about the events, including war, that have shaped us, we can never do so with complete detachment. To mention the war — any war — almost always ignites debate about whether it was worth fighting, however much the speaker feigns neutrality on the subject. And sometimes, mentioning the war becomes a way of continuing to fight it.

The war that Fawlty would rather not have mentioned was the Second World War but his predicament applies equally well to the mention of its great precursor, which began in 1914.

As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches (variously in July or August, depending on which of the belligerent states is being discussed), we shall be deluged with mentions of it, and they will not stop when the clocks click past midnight on 31 December. The deluge will last at least until the centenary of the armistice on 11 November 2018, and will probably extend beyond that to the centenaries of the peace conferences — there were several, not just the best-known at Versailles — that began in 1919.

For Australians, mentions of war will probably flow thickest and fastest next year, with the centenary of the Gallipoli landings on 25 April, a date that for many has become the de facto national day. And beyond that there are other significant anniversaries we shall not be allowed to forget, most notably those of the great slaughterhouse battles on the Western Front, such as the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917).

Mentioners who want to remind us that the war of 1914–18 was indeed a global conflict, not only the Anglo-German one familiar from popular culture, will also cite other slaughterhouses such as Tannenberg (1914), Verdun (1916) and Caporetto (1917). They will note that the modern Middle East with its discontents was created by the Allied dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, and that the map of modern Europe is a consequence of the collapse of the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov monarchies.

They will trace the decline of imperial Britain to the staggering cost of victory, and the end of European ascendancy to the presence of Japan among the victors and, above all, to the US entry into the war.

Yes, for most of the decade ahead the war buffs will be in overdrive. We shan't escape them, nor should we try. What matters is which lot of buffs seize control of the public narrative, and thereby of the collective understanding of the war's significance.

There will be a swag of popular histories — indeed, they have already begun to appear — with titles like The Year the World Ended (1914, according to the author of that work, Paul Ham). Most of these will follow a formula publishers know to be successful, as the well-stocked shelves of military history in bookshops testify. They will mostly focus on particular battles or campaigns, and will extol the courage and resilience of ordinary soldiers.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm and overtness, these books will feed from, and nourish further, conceptions of national identity as having been forged by the experience of war. The Gallipoli anniversary will be a magnet for accounts of this kind. Most will not be sufficiently critical of received views to ask why a nation that, uniquely among the world's democracies, united itself by peaceful negotiation has since chosen to regard Federation as a lesser achievement than the waste of its youth in an imperial military adventure abroad.

There will be works of academic history, too, addressed to the general reader as well as to professional peers. One well-reviewed example, Joan Beaumont's Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, has already appeared. These works will raise critical questions that the popular histories shun and, like Beaumont's work, they will focus on the home front and its debates about the war as well as on the military action.

Some of the academic historians, like Clare Wright in her article 'A Splendid Object Lesson', to be published later this year in the Journal of Women's History, will vigorously take issue with the militarisation of national identity in the Anzac legend. And as their arguments gain media coverage the critics of the legend, and of received views of the First World War generally, will become targets for politicians, shock-jocks and bully-pulpit columnists. As the real war recedes into an imagined past, the history wars are starting all over again.

The politicians have already fired the first shots, predictably directed at the teaching of history in school curricula. Britain's education secretary, Michael Gove, has complained about the portrayal of the First World War in satirical films such as Oh! What a Lovely War and television series such as Blackadder Goes Forth. Their emphasis on incompetent generals, conniving politicians and mass slaughter, Gove says, has distracted from the sense that the war was a just crusade against German militarism.

Meanwhile, out here in what used be the Antipodean colonies, the Government has taken its cue from Westminster, as it did in 1914. Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has said he hopes a renewed emphasis on Anzac Day will result from the review of the history curriculum that is underway.

As the anniversaries are reached, one by one, during the next four years, many people will wish, Fawlty-like, that the war had not been mentioned. Or they might find themselves saying with Fawlty: 'I mentioned it once, but I think it's all right.' It will never be all right, Basil. The dead are too many. But we still owe them a debt, which we should repay by confronting the legends, the aftermyth of war, with the truth.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Fawlty Towers, Anzac Day, Gallipoli, First World War 1, Second World War



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Existing comments

Many Australians have a family connection with war. I suspect many may subconsciously be trying to figure out its significance.

Edward F | 29 January 2014  

I think it's significant that, almost without exception, ageing Anzac Diggers didn't talk about the war, a number never marched on Anzac Day, and they battled 'demons' for the remainder of their lives. Perhaps we each have our own way of reflecting on horrendous events, and a talkfest doesn't necessarily honour anyone.

Pam | 29 January 2014  

An important article - again- Ray! Your last line is very pertinent. We need to be sufficiently mature, as a nation, to 'confront the legends with the truth'.

vivien | 29 January 2014  

Much overlooked is the 1917 Peace Plan of the hero of peace, Pope Benedict XV. Indeed, his protests against the use of poison gas displeased both sides. He sent a representative to each country to work for peace, and in 1917 delivered the Plea for Peace, which demanded a cessation of hostilities, a reduction of armaments, a guaranteed freedom of the seas, and international arbitration. The American President Woodrow Wilson was the only ruler who answered him, declaring peace impossible, though he afterwards adopted most of Benedict's proposals for establishing peace as part of his 14 point peace plan. During and after the war, Benedict XV gave freely to the war's victims--widows, orphans, and wounded--and established a bureau of communication for prisoners of war with their relatives. After the war he was widely honored for his efforts. Muslim Turkey erected a statue to him in Istanbul, honoring him as "the benefactor of all people, regardless of nation or creed." "To this day, there are many who felt that Pope Benedict XV’s Peace Plan might have brought about a more permanent peace than the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations." Lord, Bob and Penny (2012-06-29). Pope Benedict XV (The Popes in Hard Times) (Kindle Locations 458-460). Journeys of Faith. Kindle Edition.

Father John George | 29 January 2014  

Exactly what is the "truth" we must confront Ray?

Martin Loney | 29 January 2014  

Your article, Ray, brings to mind Samuel Johnson's line about patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. While patriotism isn't inherently evil, of course, it's too often been used shamelessly to enforce compliance for reprehensible causes, and wars and things military are its luckless props.

paulb | 29 January 2014  

For anyone wanting to follow up on the reference, my article is "'A Splendid Object Lesson': A Transnational Perspective on the Birth of the Australian Nation" to be published this year in the American scholarly journal Journal of Women's History. The article demonstrates that prior to WW1 Australia was internationally recognised as a global leader in democratic practice, a fact about which the young Australian nation was duly proud.

Clare Wright | 29 January 2014  

It is important to to avoid the commemorative celebratory feast becoming just a distraction. Ray Cassin's worthwhile piece makes no mention of the 2012 study by Australian, Professor Christopher Clark, of Cambridge: "The Sleepwalkers; How Europe went to war in 1914." In what has been widely acclaimed as a masterpiece study, Clark has thrown new light on the interactions of the Baltic, Russian, Austrian, German, French and British dynamics of the drift into war. More importantly, his work is being treated in the UK , Germany and even China, as having implications and lessons for contemporary conflicts of emerging powers. Perhaps with more effort, WW1 discussion in Australia might be steered to more productive outcomes than mere celebration of past feats of arms or political distraction from pressing issues of the day. For instance, the first casualties incurred by Australia in WW1, occurred at Bitapaka near Rabaul in the capture of a German telegraph station. The annexation of New Guinea followed a couple of days later. The relatively little known history of that battle, the casualties on both sides, and their sequel can be a valuable platform upon which to assess growth of that important relationship from colony to nationhood.

Paul Munro | 29 January 2014  

I had always thought that the shabby treatment inflicted on Germany after WW 1 led almost directly to the rise of Hitler and the horrors of WW 2. False propaganda e.g. German troops raping Belgian nuns was used on a vast scale. There were human bits like the competing armies stopping and celebrating Christmas in No Man's Land. What really threw me and what I knew nothing of was Benedict XV's immense effort for peace. He was also brave enough to write to the Sultan about the Armenian massacres taking place in the Turkish Empire. It is interesting that he seems to have been airbrushed from many accounts of the War. In an age of "heroes", where peace prizes are awarded every year to some dodgy recipients, he stands even more remarkable. I am surprised he was never canonised.

Edward F | 29 January 2014  

FrJG, the particular reference you give gets a scathing review on the Amazon website. John Pollard's Benedict XV: The Unknown Pope and the Pursuit of Peace (1999) might be a more nuanced account (Google it for a peak at some of the pages). Nevertheless, I acknowledge the considerable activity of Benedict XV toward securing the cessation of hostilities. His motives and impartiality have been questioned, but he's not Robinson Crusoe there. There were of course others, including those from the 'left', who also sought the same end. But it seems that we agree at least that there is more to learn from a reflection on the Great War than we are likely to get from those who Ray Cassin calls 'the war buffs', or for that matter from the Commonwealth Minister for Education.

Ginger Meggs | 29 January 2014  

Edward F! Others support your glowing sentiments re Pope Benedicy XV: #Hilaire Belloc wrote: “I had a long talk with him. He is a thoroughly good man, which is not what I had been led to expect! I had thought to see one of those rather subtle and very boring Italian officials---bureaucrats . Instead of that he has something like Holiness in his expression and an intense anxious sincerity. He spoke of individual conversion as opposed to political Catholicism in a way which---with my temperament all for the Collective Church---profoundly impressed me. I was exceedingly glad to have seen him and to have gotten his blessing.” (The Life of Hilaire Belloc by Robert Speaight - 1957) #However, possibly the greatest tribute to Pope Benedict XV came from the Pope who took his name: “Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving , I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war . In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.” Thank You Jesus, for giving us Pope Benedict XV, a true hero in hard times".

Father John George | 30 January 2014  

I must say, Father John George, I am gobsmacked by the evidence on the life and work of Benedict XV. Thank you.

Edward F | 30 January 2014  

There is an interesting review by Marilyn Lake of Joan Beaumont's Broken Nature in this months Australian Book Review; see https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/111-february-2014-no-358/1799-cruel-indeed

Ginger Meggs | 02 February 2014  

"At the end of the war, 6150 people of German and Austrian descent were deported in an act of persecution for which Sir William Deane, as governor-general, issued an apology in 1999"[M Lake] Not forgetting other local WW1 collateral: #A little known minor 1914 debacle occurred with arrival in Kensington Sydney of a Religious MSC Visitator General[V-G],Father Hubert Linckens, to regulate the religious discipline in the young Australian MSC province. This crusade for rigid order occurred with excessive and detailed zeal[even down to promulgating daily standard menus for each community ["porridge at breakfast etc;lunch: one kind of meat;two kinds of vegetables"!] [Though no scandals comparable to today's in the church] #Such extensive rigour chafed the Australian temperament and reactions occurred. After a period of streamlined order ,an anonymous telegram was sent to the Ministry of Defence: "A German Priest,visiting Australia, his expenses paid by German Government. ...Residence at present Kensington College Sydney.Believed to be a spy" #Despite grand 'V-G in house investigations',no religious culprit[wag?] owned up to the telegram. Though a priest suspect was exclaustrated [invalidly, and later reinstated]. #Cross questioned by ministry of defense, V-G Linckens claimed he was Dutch with a German passport. He was never interned. Fr Linckens,to his great credit, was instrumental in gaining the release of innocent German missionary priest prisoners of war. Father himself founded a fine religious congregation of MSC Sisters. [adapted from "Monastery on the Hill", Anthony Caruana msc;NYMU,2002]

Father John George | 03 February 2014  

While the truth is certainly urgently needed, something more is also called for: a search for, and a critical examination of, the reasons why alternatives to massive military engagement were not more rigorously sought and adopted in the years leading up to 1914, and which might have avoided an unnecesary war entirely. I do not believe it can ever be said of any conflict, as many continue to imply, 'total war was inevitable!'

Gil Watson | 20 March 2014  

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