Nicolas Offenstadt: ‘What is at Stake in Commemoration of the First World War’

Nicolas Offenstadt, one of the leading French historians of the First World War, recently gave an interview to the journal Caesar (reprinted in Mediapart 25 January) on what is at stake in remembrance of the war and the direction he would like to see commemoration take. The thrust of his argument is to warn against the mythification of an idealised national unity as he draws attention to the differences of class, region and generation and the diverse interests in play. He argues, reflecting on what contemporary questions may be posed by the war, that the refusal of war represented by mutineers, deserters and pacifists encourages us to question the role and responsibility of the citizen towards the State.

As a result of a report written by a Commission that included Offenstadt and was headed by Antoine Prost, the French president announced last November that the 740 soldiers who were shot for ‘desertion’ – many of whom were suffering from war trauma – would be ‘accorded a place in the Army Museum at the Invalides’. However Offenstadt finds the President’s comments on colonial soldiers unsatisfactory in that the fact that they were conscripted to fight – sometimes with violence – was downplayed.

He calls finally for a more imaginative approach to commemoration through drawing on the rich cultural heritage associated with the war: the plays, films and songs that were produced at the time.

Interview with Nicolas Offenstadt:

Offenstadt’s latest book on the war: La grande guerre – Carnet du centenaire, Paris: Albin Michel, oct 2013.

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