Today (4 August 2014) marks the centenary of the beginning of the Great War – or does it? Actually, it marks the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war with Germany – Germany having declared war on France a day earlier. And in just over four years time we will (presumably) be commemorating the end of the Great War – except of course it didn’t actually officially end until the following year. But there is an even bigger problem here: ended for whom?
For Adolf Hitler and his comrades from the trenches, the Armistice simply marked a moment of betrayal, and the impetus to carry on the struggle. There is certainly a strong case for arguing that the Great War didn’t end in 1918 (or even 1919) but rather in 1945, and a number of historians make this point. On the other hand, why not simply argue that the War ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Then again, did the Cold War ever really end? Events in the Ukraine must surely raise this question. And what about events in the Middle East – all a direct legacy of decisions made towards the (official) end of the Great War?
What about the beginning of the Great War? It didn’t actually ‘begin’ on 4 August 1914. Putting aside for the moment the events in Sarajevo at the end of June, isn’t there is good case for arguing that the War began sometime between the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13?
Although these are all fascinating questions for the historian, my purpose in asking them is somewhat different. What interests me is the question of boundaries – and how these link to the question of trauma. As I’ve argued in a number of posts on this subject, the Great War is portrayed as a moment of trauma, a rupture in fabric of history – and one that’s left an enduring legacy. But in order to be portrayed as such the War needs to be circumscribed, to be given boundaries; in fact, it needs to have a beginning and an end (if not a middle, and to paraphrase Lacan, not necessarily in that order).
To put it another way: the Great War needs to be constructed as both an historical and as a traumatic event. That way we can try and make sense of it, and to comfort ourselves that it was a long time ago and, surely, couldn’t happen again. There are some striking parallels here, in my view, with the notion of individual trauma. There is a shared view amongst psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists that the way to treat trauma is to help the individual make sense of it, through some form of psychological or symbolic processing. An important part of this process is to help the individual construct a narrative around the traumatic event; for example, a narrative of childhood abuse. In this way the individual can start to make sense of what happened to them and to find a way to integrate the traumatic experiences into their life history (their own personal metanarrative if you like).
In the same way, constructing a narrative of the Great War as trauma is an attempt to help us make sense of it, and to understand what has happened since. The problem, of course, is that it’s not altogether clear what ‘it’ is in the first place. If the War didn’t, in fact ‘begin’ in August 1914 and didn’t, in fact, ‘end’ in November 1918, then what exactly is this ‘it’ that we are trying to understand? The problem then is that the traumatic event that is supposed to be ‘contained’ within the narrative of ‘The Great War 1914-18’ begins to ‘seep out’ through the boundaries of such a narrative….