I Was There: Room of Voices @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I reviewed the biggest and most conventional of the four exhibitions – Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs – yesterday. Next door to it is a ‘room of voices’ which does exactly what it says on the tin.

I Was There: Room of Voices

Quite obviously the sudden end of four gruelling years of sacrifice, austerity and loss was a major moment for the nation (the exhibition focuses solely on British voices). But people experienced and reacted to it in many different ways.

In this immersive sound installation, 32 people who fought and lived through the First World War share their personal stories of the Armistice. Their voices were recorded by IWM between 1973 and 2013, and form part of the larger IWM archive, which contains a staggering 33,000 recordings relating to the conflict.

The ‘immersive sound installation’ amounts, in practice, to a darkened ‘room’ dominated visually by space age, vertical, fluorescent white tubes embedded in the black walls, a little like a set from Star Wars. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you realise there are also several big black metal columns containing loud speakers, and it is from these that the disembodied voices emanate.

A school trip of 10 and 11 year old girls was in the room when I visited, notebooks scattered across the floor as they listened to these voices from a distant age.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

The selection of 32 voices tries to present a cross-section of society, featuring personal testimonies from people who in 1918 were soldiers, civilians or children, who all had different reactions to the end of the First World War, from the solemn to the celebratory.

There are benches so you can sit and close your eyes and really pay attention to the voices. Listening to the variations in recording quality, in the confidence and education of the voices, made me think less about the specific event and more about the yawning inequalities in 1918 Britain, and the way people accepted conventions of class and deference which we have long since abandoned.

Beyond the dark room, is another, more conventionally lit, space whose wall is dominated by a grid of photos and squares of card. Some of these are photos from the era, but some of them are blank cards inviting you to fill them in with any family memories you might have of the war. A surprising number had been written on by people recalling their grandparent or great-grandparents’ experiences.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

There’s also information about a website which has been set up so that people can contribute their own stories – via photos, texts or audio recordings – to ‘the First World War digital memorial’.

Reflections

I couldn’t help reflecting that, from all that I’ve read, many soldiers in both the first and second world wars returned home and never spoke of their experiences. They came from cultures which respected reticence and restraint. The thing that gave their lives meaning was not to be publicly shared.

And then reflecting on the enormous contrast with our own times, in which absolutely everyone is encouraged to speak out and speak up and have their voices heard and share their experiences, to like on Facebook, to tweet their opinions, to call out, to name and shame, to take a video of it, take selfies in front of it, instagram it, pinterest it, to text and sext it and leave no stone of our passing thoughts unshared and unpublished.

That’s what these voices from the past made me think about – about the events they were describing, of course – but also about the immensely different mindset, culture, conventions and values with which they conceptualised and processed these events.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’
(Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year confirms our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and into the Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes. There were communist putsches in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples, violent conflict had started even before 1914 and continued for another three, four or five after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, the populations of these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these countries were defeated because:

  1. the majority of the population didn’t want it
  2. the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’

No wonder T.S. Eliot, in 1923, referred to James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses as the only way to make sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then in 1911, across the Mediterranean, Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology, mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which had given rise to a host of new small nations, created a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stemmed from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the political violence which plagued these countries in the post war era, and which generally ended up with them being ruled by ultra-conservative or fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access historians have to newly-opened archives in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can know anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us c) because they have to come up with new theories and interpretations in order to keep their jobs.

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the liberal media and political commentators, all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. Historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea they have developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of hide-and-seek which is ‘the humanities’.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative and this is certainly supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current British government which is bumbling its way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so simple-minded to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you begin to wonder whether managing modern large human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing took place across Europe and beyond between 1918 and 1923


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