My next book for The WWI Challenge is Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History by Jay Winter. I actually started reading this book at the very end of last year, but I wasn’t very far into it, so decided to count it for the challenge.
As you can guess from the title, this is a nonfiction book in an academic writing style. It had been on my To Be Read pile for quite some time, because I’d come across many mentions of it in the bibliographies of other World War One-related books I’d read. I’d already read a book by one of the author’s students, as well, which included some related thoughts. Winter concentrated on Britain, France, Australia, and Germany (memorial art and apocalyptic art/literature, in particular).
The book illuminated a number of different, interesting byways that I plan to explore further. Winter shows a whole range of ways that people and communities mourned their war dead, both during and after the war’s end. Dozens of stories about parents trying to locate and retrieve the bodies of their sons were a sad indicator of many, many more stories that will never be told. It was interesting to read of the industry that arose in response, to help parents travel and to help locate the burials.
I was intrigued by how the spiritualism movement of the early twentieth century played into the experience of mourning, as I’d been reading a different book about the rise of spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century. Winter also focused a couple of chapters on apocalyptic imagery in movies, literature, and art. I was interested to learn that there was an apocalyptic movement in art shortly before the war began, though it seems to have been linked more to rising class tensions than to any premonition of global conflict. Especially, I would like to learn more about the popular images d’Epinal sold all over France, and often depicting wartime images mingled with images drawn from Catholic symbolism. I was a little less interested in Winter’s exploration of war poetry, and as I was more familiar with that topic.
I’d recommend the book both to scholars of World War One and to those who love to see that history is always more complicated than you think it is.