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Reflecting on “The Great War at 100”

2.18.15






Calling it “an abyss of blood and darkness,” Henry James responded bleakly to the First World War, said historian and Harvard president Drew Faust. It disabused the novelist of his optimism about “the whole long age during which we supposed the world to be…gradually bettering,” and drove him to conclude: “Reality is a world capable of this.”

Faust’s comments led off a day of discussion at “In Our Time: The Great War at 100,” the Mahindra Humanities Center’s first major conference of its three-year Mellon Seminar on Violence and Nonviolence, held on February 12 and 13. For many then and now, she explained, “World War I is seen to have introduced a rupture in the history of war.” In the eyes of many historians, she said, the war represents a “watershed” or “black swan” moment—an event that “introduced a level of brutality and revealed a capacity for human cruelty that has shaped our lives ever since.”

Reckoning with the war’s consequences is a challenge matched only by that of accounting for its beginning. At the First Church in Cambridge on Thursday evening, Oxford history professor Margaret MacMillan delivered the conference’s keynote. The author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914—and the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the last two years of “the war to end all wars”—MacMillan suggested that the forces that led to violence on that unprecedented scale could be thought of in terms of the broader “tensions” roiling Europe: between modernity and tradition, globalization and particularism, scientific advances and continuing human “irrationality,” Europe’s militarism and the forces of universal peace. Titled “The Paradoxes of Peace,” MacMillan’s lecture offered a nuanced perspective that introduced the conference’s wider aspiration to contextualize the conflict. In the following day’s three panels, held in the Radcliffe Gymnasium, scholars examined the war’s legacy through historical, theoretical, and cultural lenses. 

“The Transnational Theatre of War,” moderated by Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, explored the experience of the conflict beyond Europe, and across countries’ boundaries. In doing so, the panel of historians questioned how the war’s legacy is remembered, represented, and shaped into narrative. Jay Winter of Yale recounted the experience of helping to found the Historial, an international museum of the Great War, in Péronne, France—designed in a strongly pacifist, transnational spirit—to “de-legitimate” the war through visual means. A breakthrough came, he recalled, when he saw the Hans Holbein depiction of Christ in his tomb, “the perfect Reformation painting.” The orientation of the artwork, showing Christ’s supine corpse, convinced Winter that the museum’s building “shouldn’t be vertical, the language of hope—but horizontal, the language of mourning.” David Levering-Lewis, of New York University, contributed a talk about Africa’s effects on the war. In her presentation, Tufts professor (and former president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers) Leila Fawaz explained that, in the experience of people in the Middle East, “There was no Great War, no noble war. They lived it as a series of small wars.” While researching her book, The Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War, she said, “I searched for heroes” among those individuals who had statues erected in their honor, but came to the realization, “I admired the common people, not their leaders.”

The day’s second chapter began with a “diatribe” about very local history from a self-described “cheeky and ungrateful guest,” MIT history professor Christopher Capozzola ’94, who prefaced his talk with a brief detour into Harvard’s history of anti-German sentiment during and following World War I. Chaired by Thomson professor of government Richard Tuck, and featuring Saltonstall professor of history Charles Maier, and professor of law and of history Samuel Moyn, the panel offered a discussion of how violence is understood, justified, and regulated by states. Eventually, the conversation turned to the question of whether legal and existential frameworks from 1918 could be helpfully applied to current conflicts, such as with ISIS. Capozzola said that for him, what was most instructive was to study how people “grapple with the breakdowns of their institutions,” and to ask, “What are they missing? What are we missing?” 

The final panel examined artistic responses to the war. Yale professor Peter Brooks talked about how it influenced the ways Freud and Proust understood the death drive; Sarah Cole, an English professor at Columbia, traced depictions of the war in literary texts by civilians, who, in their intricate language, strove for aesthetic and moral truthfulness despite their distance from the front lines. Last, Marquand professor of English Peter Sacks discussed how the war changed the visual approaches of a number of artists, including the English poet Isaac Rosenberg. Contrasting Rosenberg’s painted self-portraits to a sketch of himself in the trenches, Sacks drew the audience’s attention to what he called “collisions between the most violent and the most tender” in art from that era.

Punctuating the formal discussions were what conference organizer Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, called “interventions”—meditations on the Great War through the lens of art. Between the panels, students from the American Repertory Theater delivered two spoken-word pieces, each assembled from historical letters, diary entries, and other documents. Thursday night’s keynote was followed by the Harvard University Choir’s performance of “My Soul, There Is a Country,” written by English composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in 1916; the Harvard Dance Project performed after the conference’s closing address by the dean of Yale Law School, Robert C. Post ’69.

Together, the academic and artistic reflections perhaps offered a response to the declaration of World War I veteran Robert Graves, in his poem “Recalling War”: “War was the foundering of sublimities/Extinction of each happy art and faith/By which the world had kept head in air.” In his opening remarks on Friday, Bhabha quoted W.H. Auden, who feared that the war resulted in “an extinction of the spirit of the humanities.” The First World War reminds scholars of the role the humanities can and should play in “difficult situations,” said Bhabha. Considered with a century’s distance, the catastrophic violence underlines, in his words, “what it means to live and to think on the knife edge of barbarism.”

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