Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Fawlty thinking about the aftermyth of war

  • 29 January 2014

'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