On War and Remembrance: An Interview with Jay WinterHistorians/History
tags: Jay Winter, interview
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Jay Winter
Imagining war is the curse of our violent world; we have no choice but to face that task with as much intelligence, compassion, and courage as we can.
Professor Jay Winter is a renowned expert on the cultural history of modern war and its disastrous consequences for all caught in the industrialized horror, soldiers and civilians alike, from around the globe. He is also acclaimed for his knowledge of the imagery that emerges from conflict and forms of remembrance.
In his new book, War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present (Cambridge University Press), Professor Winter examines artistic responses to industrialized warfare, mass trauma, mourning, and memory. He expands his pioneering work on the culture of warfare and remembrance of the First World War to also include the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and current conflicts of counterinsurgency and high technology, as he recognizes and considers the ever-increasing civilian toll of death and suffering in the wars of the past century.
Professor Winter explores the evolution of imaginative creations on war, including painting, photography, film, poetry memorials, and museums, and how these artistic works mediate knowledge and feeling. He also discusses the role of silence and memory, both in art and in the behavior of survivors of war trauma. And he writes movingly of shell shock and the terrible consequences of exposure to the horror of assembly-line slaughter. As the result of his extensive research, Professor Winter finds that framing the memory of anguish and death in modern war leaves little room today for concepts such as glory and sacrifice and martyrdom.
Jay Winter is the Charles J. Stille Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Monash University. He has also taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Warwick, the University of Cambridge, and Columbia University. He is the author or co-author of 25 books, including Socialism and the Challenge of War; Ideas and Politics in Britain, 1912-18; Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning; The Great War in European Cultural History; The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century; and Rene Cassin and the Rights of Man. In addition, he has edited or co-edited 30 books and contributed 130 book chapters to edited volumes.
Professor Winter is also a celebrated public historian. He was a co-founder of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, an international museum of the First World War at Peronne on the Somme (1992). He was also co-producer, co-writer, and chief historian for the PBS/BBC seriesThe Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, which won an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and a Producers Guild of America Award for best television documentary in 1997. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Graz, the University of Leuven, and the University of Paris.
Professor Winter generously spoke by telephone from his home in Paris about his work as a historian and his new book on war and memory.
Robin Lindley: You’re renowned Professor Winter for your books on war and memory, and particularly your work on the First World War. What sparked your interest in the Great War? Was history an interest since your childhood?
Professor Jay Winter: There are two contexts in which my interest in the subject developed. The first is that I come from a family, a part of which was destroyed in the Holocaust. There’s always been a shadow in my life from early on. I was born in 1945.
The Holocaust has an area that’s too dark to go into, a black hole. In a way, I didn’t know it at the time I when I went into the First World War that I was approaching the antechambers of the memories I had as a child and the consequences of large numbers of people being wiped out. The First World War is at one remove from the dark memories of my childhood. It is close enough to draw me too it, but not too close to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The other reason is that, when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, I went to a wonderful seminar run by a great German historian, Fritz Stern, in 1965, and I can say that I’m still in that seminar. I was able to take Fritz, his wife and son to dinner in 2015, 50 years to the day after I had that experience of being in the seminar. I told him then that whatever has happened in the 50 intervening years, he’s the one to blame. It’s all his fault that I became an historian of what in Europe is called the Great War.
What’s more important is that, when I was finishing my BA in the mid-1960s, the context of the Vietnam War influenced me significantly. This context accounts for my interest in the Great War. The Vietnam war, to a degree, was America’s First World War. One war of brutality and futility drew me to another one in my historical work. The American experience of the bitterness, the ugliness of war really hit home in the late 1960s, and countered the myths surrounding the Second World War as the good war. There was a lot of suffering to be sure in 1939-45, and I certainly don’t underestimate that, but it’s in a separate category, one in which war had a ‘meaning’, a justification. Nothing justified the carnage of the First World War, and nothing justified the carnage of Vietnam. This equivalence mattered to me in my early years.
When I was finishing my undergraduate years and decided I didn’t want to stay in the States because of Vietnam and went to Cambridge to do my doctorate, it was partly because I saw a parallel to what was happening in Vietnam and the First World War: a stupid, meaningless war in which suffering was unlimited. We willingly employed staggering levels of violence in attempting to subdue the national liberation struggle in Vietnam, and our leaders lacked the imagination or ability to control it. That sense of the betrayal of the men who fought by the men who led them into the quagmire stood with me for a long time.
I should add that I was entered an undefined field when I decided to write about the First World War. The history of the First World War wasn’t really a subject when I started 50 years ago. It was only beginning to come into focus. The archives were only opening around 1964, 50 years after the start of the war. It was only when I got started that it would be possible to write a fully-documented history of the First World War. Since then, the subject has grown exponentially. I’ve been, to a degree, swimming a stream that I didn’t create but which drew me along with it. It’s a much bigger stream and now it’s both based in universities and in the public domain, and rightly so. I’ve spent a good deal of my life saying there needs to be more public history on this horrible catastrophe of the twentieth century.
Robin Lindley: And you’ve worked in public history. You’ve been involved with monuments, museums, and even television documentaries, as well as your writing for general audiences. How did that come about? Did you also have a background in art?
Professor Jay Winter: I had no background in art.
In 1985, I had a series of meetings which changed my life. A museum designer Gerard Rougeron and a French bureaucrat Alain Petitjean, got in touch with me in Cambridge, England, where I was teaching, and asked me to join a project. It was the idea of a French politician named Max Lejeune, who was a lesser figure in French public life. He was Minister of the Army during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and was a right-wing socialist and patriot. He had his own political machine in the region of Picardy in northern France. He was a local politician. His dad had fought in the First World War. What happened was this. After having worked for 40 years as a political leader in this region, he developed an idea. The idea was to design a museum on the Battle of the Somme in 1916 because his father fought in that battle and had come home at the end of the war a damaged man. His wife and son took the brunt of it, as was the case with so many families all over the world. Lejeune wanted to make peace with his father by creating a site of memory of a battle that clearly injured his father in ways that were not acknowledged at the time. He was never given a pension. This was a son remembering a violent father who had come home after war and had brought the war home with him.
My conversations with the French officials I met were extraordinary. Here was for me the opportunity of a lifetime. I had been trained to write two-dimensional history, but now there was an opening to design a three-dimensional representation of the Great War. I was delighted to join in but tried to suggest that there were ways in which the project could break new ground.The first thing I asked them was why do you want a museum of the Somme? Ernst Junger, the great German writer, said “that was where the twentieth century was born.” I said, “Why not create a museum of the First World War, the whole thing, which was foreshadowed in the Battle of the Somme?” They agreed. And then I added, “Why not really be original and create a research center even before the museum is constructed so that historians of France, Britain and Germany will be able to design it?” What followed was the inevitable question “Combien?” How much?” And I hazarded a guess, which they accepted. I wish I had added a zero or two to the sum, but was delighted that my notion of a research center providing a focus for historians to design the museum was accepted.
Later on in the project, I met Lejeune, and had an important exchange with him. I asked him this question. “When the museum is done and we’re all proud of it, please remember, and bear in mind, you may find that you haven’t succeeded in changing your relationship with your father. This memory project was about him and about your relationship to him, but unfortunately, memory doesn’t heal. It’s neutral. It can hurt as much as heal. It isn’t therapeutic. Remembrance is a human right and we all have it, but to assume that remembering will make your sense of your father more bearable for you, is probably asking too much from this project.” He agreed to think about this and to meet again when the project was complete.
Six years later, in 1992, the museum was finished and we had a drink at the inauguration, where Ernst Junger was the guest of honor. Lejeune said to me, “You were right. I am glad we have seen this through, but as to my father and my memory of him, I’m where I was then.” I think he meant that his troubled memories of his father after the war were still there.
In all this, I have a sense of having been a very lucky man. My first effort at public history was a huge fluke. I was asked by a politician in France to help. By the way, there were several hundred historians of the First World War in Britain and I certainly wasn’t the most prominent, but I think the reason he asked me to do this project was because I was the only historian of the Great War working in Britain who could speak and write French.
So, pure luck. As a result of that, I spent six years trying to figure out what does a war museum look like. It wasn’t trained in art, but a love of art that made it possible for me to contribute to its design.
What happened after that extraordinary moment in Cambridge in 1986 is the following. I went on holidays every summer to a small town in Switzerland called Sils Maria. My family and I always stopped on the way in a beautiful village in Alsace called Kaysersberg where Dr. Schweitzer was born. An absolutely gorgeous city. We stopped for a day, and the next day I had a negotiation with my two children who were then ten and eleven. Like parents and children of all nationalities, the negotiations came down to this: if you do something for me in the morning, I’ll do something for you in the afternoon. In the morning, there was a funny installation in Basel by a man named Tanguley that made noise and farted and everything that children find hilarious. So, I said we’ll go and see it. In the afternoon, we’ll go to the art museum in Basel to see a picture or two.
We ventured to the art museum. I wanted to see a picture by Hans Holbein. We walked up the stairs. One child in one hand, one in the other. We walked into a room set aside for one painting by Hans Holbein. And I said to my children, “Oh my god. Your dad has got to sit down.” This painting knocked me over. It’s a painting of Christ in the tomb with nothing else there. It was done by Holbein at the age of 24 or so. It was unbelievable. It was the most stunning picture I’d ever seen. It shows the Protestant face of the Reformation in every sense brilliantly. It shows a man who is totally dead, realistically described. The feet and even the middle finger dislocated from the crucifixion. Unbelievably real. This dead man was in this tomb, flat on his back. If you or anyone were going to believe that this dead man was going to rise within 36 or 48 hours, you could only do that through faith and faith alone.
Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-22). Kunstmuseum, Basel Switzerland/Bridgeman Images.
This was the perfect Reformation picture. The thing that struck me was that it was a totally horizontal. There were no angels. No putti. No cross. This was death and death alone. And seeing that the Battle of the Somme was a moment that initiated the devastation of the twentieth century, I thought to myself that’s how the museum should be designed: horizontally. it needed to be designed on a horizontal axis, the complete opposite of other war museums that used the vertical as a kind of national heroic uprightness. The Imperial War Museum in London was one I had in mind, but it’s not a surprise that verticality is a language of celebration of the military and of the glorification of war and warriors.
In my view, celebration is an impossible word for the First World War. It has a taste of ashes to it. The word commemorate requires a different approach. It was in that epiphany, in that single moment in Basel, that I saw what the horizontal could do that. This insight helped me join a group of people—I didn’t do it by myself by any means—and design a museum. The Museum to which I contributed has an original design in its use of the horizontal is the basis for its representation of war.
A producer from the PBS system in Los Angeles, Blaine Baggett, came to the opening of the museum in 1992. He got lost by going to Amiens, from which you cannot get to the town of Péronne, where the museum was built. It was there that the German army had its headquarters during the Battle of the Somme, within a medieval castle that had gone derelict. The museum was placed there.
When Blaine Baggett got there in 1992 and he saw a different kind of approach to the history of the war, the theme of his work in television history. He asked me to develop a project on the kind of history presented in what we called ‘the Historial’ of the Great War, a neologism half-way between history and memorial. It is a museum with an unusual name. The following year, I helped him in putting in an application with the National Endowment for the Humanities to do a film of the First World War as a cultural/ historical moment. Together we wrote a proposal and hit the jackpot. We got money from the NEH and several other foundations as well as a couple of million pounds from the BBC. It became the PBS/BBC series,The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century. It won an Emmy, to my delight.
This kind of public history is not to everyone’s tastes. Since those two events 1992 at the Historial and 1996 with the PBS/BBC eight-hour TV series, I’ve spent most of my life talking to other historians, who are deeply suspicious of public history, about the need to get out of the academy and talk to people everywhere about the subjects they care a great deal about and feel a great deal about and whose lives are affected by the subjects we write in the academy.
When you ask about public history, it’s been an absolutely clear objective in my life to use the position I have earned as an academic to go beyond the walls of the academy. I can take risks. Admittedly, I could do it because nobody will throw me out of my job at Cambridge. That’s been my life. In fact, I’ve just this year been appointed emeritus director of the museum of Peronne, the Historial de la grande guerre. Retirement has its own rewards.
Now is the period for the marking of the centenary of the Great War.These last three years have been a whirlwind. I’ve traveled the world talking to groups large and small, mostly university groups, about the First World War because that’s where the twentieth and the twenty-first century all came from.
Public history has been an outcome of the scholarship that I’ve done. I’ve been in the archives and have written and edited my share of books and scholarly articles. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been an academic historian who hasn’t stayed in the academy.
Robin Lindley: Your work has been an influence and an inspiration to so many young historians. I saw the television series you helped produce on the First World War and it was very moving and informative, and certainly captured the waste and futility of that war as it revealed the human consequences.
Professor Jay Winter:I have gained nothing by being a public historian among professional historians because there’s a suspicion within the academy of people who do public history. But I do it anyway. Criticism doesn’t matter.
I do believe that by doing public history, especially history in museums, I’ve understood how objects have narratives in them and I’ve been able to write about art and film and poetry and various other things in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to write about had I not done public history. I really believe that I’ve grown as an academic historian because I’ve haven’t been restricted to the academic sphere.
Robin Lindley: You are a powerful storyteller in your works of history. InWar Beyond Words you speak eloquently and vividly of the slaughter and waste of war, beginning with the First World War and to our time. You explore how the wars are imagined in art. Your book is very wide ranging. Are there a couple of themes that you hope readers will take from the book?
Professor Jay Winter: One of them is why I chose the title, War Beyond Words. The soldiers who come back from war frequently speak through silence. Not everybody. Not every war. Not all the time. But I’ve been struck by the growing awareness of silence as a language of memory. I have been struck too by how the research done on shell shock over the last 30 years has been taken up by veterans’ groups much more frequently now. They are well of the fact that there are a host of reasons soldiers are trapped in silence, through a kind of self-formed cultural code of stoicism, of keeping quiet whatever it is in their war service that is worming through their postwar lives.
I also felt deeply that the wives who have to look out for these men need somebody to speak for them. They are not high on the list of subjects for war films or television documentaries.
When I wrote a chapter on silence as a language of memory, I had very much in mind the emergence of shell shock in the First World War but I also had in mind the relatively recent liberation of veterans’ groups from the notion that psychological injury is an embarrassment or a matter of shame. It goes back to Max Lejeune. Here was a man who was child and, after the war, his father came back and maltreated him. And he still felt he needed to do something to win his father’s love, which was to build a museum. These moments of transmuted trauma where children suffer because the father suffers have spanned the whole century.
Yes, it is true that in the book I published last year under the title War beyond Words, the Holocaust is in the middle of the story I tell in this book. It’s the first time I have had the courage to approach it directly or at least at an angle. The Greek poet Kavafy liked to say that the only way to look at the world to understand it is at a tangent. I think that’s probably true for discussion of the Holocaust.
Silence has a message for us now in our violent times, and many people of different political persuasions and attitudes can understand how powerful a language of memory it is.
And a second message I would like to highlight in War Beyond Words is from the section on martyrdom. The language of al Qaeda is so appalling. Years ago,I began to take a look at the evolution of the concept of martyrdom in the course the twentieth century. I tripped over material related to the fact that, at the time of the Holocaust, the Hebrew use of the word ‘martyr’ began to fade. I wondered about that, especially given the fact that the term martyr does exist in many different contexts, including as I found today in the Armenian community where two million victims of the Armenian genocide were turned into saints or canonized on the 24th of April 2015.
It seems to me that the language of martyrdom was a terrible language to be caught up in. We see how brutalizing it is in the deformation of Islam that al Qaeda and ISIS maintain, but I believe that many other people use the term of martyrdom as a sacred duty or religious act, which unfortunately still lingers around the subject of military service.
I honor those who serve. But to me the fundamental question that I have spent my live trying to answer is: how is it possible to honor those who die in war without honoring war itself? I’ve been trying to answer that in 50 years of work. I don’t claim to have answer. But I know what isn’t an answer. Glorifying war isn’t an answer. Glorifying martyrs in the course of war is not part of the answer.
There is a second message related to that image of martyrdom, which is past in some part of the world and I unfortunately is still alive in some regions still to this day. Words have their own history, and I wanted to show that even among the victims of the Holocaust, there was a turn away from the language of martyrdom, because the mass of people murdered by the Nazis had no choice in the matter. They did not choose to die to affirm their faith. Many had no faith, and what about one and a half million children? Did infants have a choice. Since there was no choice, the word ‘martyr’ in Hebrew began to fade away. That is true in Western Europe too, though not elsewhere.
The same point is developed in another part of the work. There’s a section in the book on the history of the word “glory.” I thought the film Glory on the War Between the States was a fine film, but you couldn’t make that film anywhere else in the world today. Because ‘glory’ has faded out as a way or representing war—in some places, and not in others.
I’ve lived most of my adult life outside the United States and that makes me look at American exceptionalism in different ways. I think the word glory itself is the wrong one. I try to show this through the English war poets whose work resonated because the term glory was in decline. There was no space for it in the vernacular in which a country like Britain thinks about its past. That’s not true with countries like Ireland or France where glory came out of the Roman Catholic tradition or a revolutionary tradition, which still had a vast majority of their populations as adherents. In those places, ‘glory’ flourished; not in England during and after the Great War.
In England, something different happened. That effort poetically to go beyond glory describes something very special in British cultural history that I felt and have known through my life. I raised my children in England and came to know the war poets. That word glory is one that I hope people will look at differently from reading my book.
Robin Lindley: You did exhaustive research by going through millions of pages of books on computer to find uses of “glory” and “martyr” over several decades.
Professor Jay Winter: Words have a life history too, not different from objects or politicians. They have a history and they change sometimes and then they change back, just as people do. I believe that one of the advantages of cultural history is that it’s about how people try to make sense of the world in which they live and, given my subject, how people try to make sense of the violent world in which they live.
The word glory hasn’t been brought up to date. But now, I hope we can look at what comes from war with a post-glorious vocabulary, and see that anyone who launches into it becomes a victim of war. The equivalence of the soldier and the civilian as those who are ground down by the institution of war should be one of the themes that any reader of the book will appreciate. I can understand that not everyone will agree with that, but I hope it does register with readers. This argument is an extension of what I have tried to say in public history, an attempt to reach those who are passionately concerned about this subject and study history as a kind of moral philosophy in this way.
Robin Lindley: You stress in the book how war has increasingly targeted civilians over the past century. You capture that in your first chapter on visual art and the increasing occlusion of the human face in painting and sculpture from the post-First World War expressionistic, haunted figures of Otto Dix, to the distorted, cubist figures of Picasso’s Guernica, and then to the more abstract, post-Second World War work of Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. And the cost to civilians in war becomes an ever-greater theme through the century.
Professor Jay Winter: Yes. I think I could have developed that more. War has become machines, drones. No human faces. People who target assassinations in Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever, don’t see their target. They press a button in Nebraska. There’s something about the absence of the human face in the cultural history of war about which we need to think more.
In fact, there’s a brilliant exhibition now in Paris on Picasso’s Guernica that has most of his trial drawings and sketches. What it shows is that the bombers aren’t there. We don’t see them. In fact, in the scene, the bombs are still going to drop. The bombers are symbolized by a realistic light bulb, the product of the technological, destructive force of science making possible the presence of bombers coming over Guernica in 1937. At this very time, there was a world’s fair in Paris celebrating science 300 years after Descartes work on scientific method.
My feeling is that what Picasso caught with his genius was that the human face was no longer inflicting these injuries. The only human faces that we see are those of the victims. Not the soldiers. Many artists went further in making it clear that the cult of the face had a hypnotic effect with Hitler. We know this from Leni Riefenstahl and other filmmakers that photography had an effect in convincing people that this was a god. To turn away from Hitler’s face is necessary in some post-war art.
The other side of the coin is my chapter on photography where the First World War soldiers, through the Kodak Company, could take their own photos and images of war in such a way that military censorship completely broke down. There’s even evidence that censors themselves broke the rules by taking photos. Everybody took photos.
With the centennial of the First World War, there’s been an enormous wave of donations of family archives, especially here in France as the result of an appeal by the National Archives of the National Library for anybody to bring in their uncle’s valise that had been hidden in the attic and hadn’t been opened for years. Sixty thousand donations of family collections have come in, and most have photographs in them. They are not photographs of nice scenes necessarily. They are photographs of the ugliness of war. It means that there was a much greater recognition on the part of soldiers as to how awful industrial war really is. If we only look at the photojournalism of the First World War, which is very important, they are not the images taken by ordinary soldiers.
The history of new archives of the Great War, which I followed over the last four years, fed into that chapter on photography as a way the soldiers of the First World War wrote their own visual history of that war. It is also the prehistory of Abu Ghraib. Ugliness comes out of wars, usually because soldiers have photographed it. Who can say how many more instances exist of what I’ve found. I’d have to have another 50 years of research before making greater claims.
I did want to say that photographers saw the face of war. They didn’t only photograph baseball games.
Robin Lindley: You stress in your book the photographs of cadavers during the First World War.
Professor Jay Winter: Yes. These kind of photos were supposed to be nonexistent. The historiography of this subject was that nobody did it, when you were viewing your own dead. A photo of an enemy corpse was ok, but your own dead were off limits. Not so. Then I started digging around in the photography collections of doctors. Of course, they did it. Medical doctors are trained to photograph bodies and treat them as sites of care where they can bring people back to life sometimes. They are cold and crude, but not always. There isa medical gaze, a vision of what photography should look like.
The point I tried to make was that there’s been a lot of sanitization of the photographic evidence of the war, and it’s time for it to stop cleaning up the photographic history of war.
Robin Lindley: In your chapter on film, you note the difficulty filmmakers have had in capturing the reality of modern war. Are there films you’d recommend for readers?
Professor Jay Winter: The greatest war film is Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion. It shows not a single battle scene, but says more about war than any other film I know. It is a masterpiece.
Robin Lindley: You also deal with imagery addressing the Holocaust in your book. What have you found about the artistic responses to the Holocaust?
Professor Jay Winter: One of the strangest things about the memories of the Second World War is that the perpetrators have disappeared. Holocaust memorials are about the victims. But who did this is a question for which there is no visual answer in most commemorative projects.
In many respects, the German Federal Republic has done a remarkable job in accepting responsibility for the crime. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But there’s almost nowhere that I know of, and I’ve been to Berlin many times, where you can see above ground the faces of the killers. There’s a below-ground museum called “The Topography of Terror,” on Friedrichstrasse, in the Gestapo torture rooms. And there’s one extraordinary museum in Wannsee where tactical decisions on how to organize the Holocaust were made. Eichmann was there. It’s set in a beautiful house with a table set for business meetings and the invitations in German said: “You are cordially invited to discuss the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem. Breakfast will be served.”
There are very few instances where you see the killers. And for me there is an additional level of difficulty.Almost all of the commemoration of the Holocaust has been to contemplate something that is almost beyond my capacity to imagine what it means for one million five hundred thousand children to be murdered. The numbers go beyond my capacity to grasp. At the same time, the necessity to make clear that the crimes against humanity that the Nazis committed must not become a guide for future generations has only partly succeeded.
The Armenian genocide was there before and still, the American Congress and presidents, including Obama, refuse to make a statement that the killing of two million Armenians was genocide. Even Bill Clinton had trouble with the “g-word.” Even Obama was subject to State Department concerns. Writing about genocide is a necessity for historians.
I feel that while Holocaust commemoration has been an important and positive step, it has not admitted that in both world wars were moments of assembly-line killing of internal enemies, and the first was the Armenian genocide and the second was the Holocaust. I don’t believe that we have any way yet of honoring that legacy, that sequence. It’s a very difficult matter because I am the last person to believe in the study of comparative suffering, to say that one group is more important than another when one that deals with these catastrophes. But I do believe that there’s something about Holocaust commemoration which is odd and incomplete.
I’m here speaking to you today by telephone in Europe where I’ve been most of my life. Where are the killers? I posed this question in Chile where they have a museum of memory about the Pinochet years. It’s all about the victims, the murdered people. The killers aren’t mentioned at all because they’re all across the street, in government buildings and apartment houses; everywhere. Some may have faced judicial review, but most of the killers are still out there and they’re untouched. Unfortunately, you even find this true in Germany. The people who did the Holocaust are way more numerous than those who were put on trial, and most of those who were put on trial were acquitted.
My view is that Holocaust commemoration is a very difficult subject. At Yale, I’d end my lecture course on European history on this subject saying “If you want to do Holocaust commemoration, don’t put up a monument. Go and do some volunteer work for human rights. In my view, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, is a monument to the Holocaust. Commemoration is about what we do after we visit monuments and sites of memory.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your stress on human rights in the book. There was a memorial you mention where people could sign the memorial as a way of promising to fight fascism.
Professor Jay Winter: That’s an extraordinary monument in Hamburg. It says, first of all, that memory is not enough. Action is what matters. I remember a phrase from my childhood encounter with the Talmud: “first you do, then you talk about it.” The idea of creating a monument isn’t enough. You need to do something that comes out of your contemplation of the horrors of the past.
The monument in Hamburg is even more special. It makes my point about horizontality being the language of twentieth century commemoration. It started off as a 30-meter high tower on which people wrote their names, and the tower was lowered so more people could write their names to the point where the tower was flat; verticality became horizontality. And it says, “Now is the time to act.” The monument itself is a vehicle toward working for human rights. Not the end of the story but the beginning.
Robin Lindley: In a way, your book is a plea against war and nationalism and for protecting human rights.
Professor Jay Winter: The subject of nationalism has always been puzzling for me because, it seems to me, that the best love of country is to stay out of wars. The real patriots are the people who don’t go to war. I’m not demeaning those who do. I don’t say that for a moment.
The emphasis on patriotism as expressed by military valor is a very limited notion of the term. Honoring those who die without honoring war itself is so difficult when patriotism takes over as a militarized concept. The issues are long term. They are deep within us and affect everybody who has an interest in twentieth and twenty-first century history.
I edited the three volume Cambridge History of the First World War, which is the first time the war has been written about from a transnational perspective. War is profoundly transnational. Nations are less important than themes, so there’s a chapter on shell shock and a chapter on naval power and a chapter on air power, but there’s no chapter on the United States or Britain. The reason is that war was so big that it blurs these borders very fast and makes the distinctions between life and death the only ones that matter.
Robin Lindley: You comment that war has been delegitimized in some nations, but not in others such Russia, the Middle East, and the United States. That seems a very timely observation as we now are dealing with a bellicose administration.
Professor Jay Winter: Now that war is so sophisticated and technologically driven, it’s almost impossible to focus the violence on a specific target. Israel is a very remarkable military power and it fields a sophisticated army that is not trying to kill Palestinians. And yet it can’t stop killing Palestinians.
Even the most sophisticated combat force in the world is unable to control the violence it inflicts on civilians. I know Israel and have taught there. It is not an evil state; it is a garrison state, where the military kills civilians almost every day. We only read about the worst incidents.
The delegitimization of war for me means that war is not a political option in Europe today. It just isn’t. It may be that Western countries turn to violence in certain cases, such as in Iraq in 2003. But even then, what Tony Blair did was to delegitimize war in Britain. He lost completely. He lost control of his party. He lost respect of virtually everyone who realized he was lying through his teeth about weapons of mass destruction. And the reason he lied was because he couldn’t get his people to go to war without there being proof of some monstrous and imminent danger. To me, that was a good example in 2003 where populations were not prepared to go to war any more for national honor—or for respecting tradition, or for making sure the interests of our nationals abroad are respected. They needed an existential threat, and Blair used lies to persuade them of such a threat. Once his lies were exposed, then his decision to go to war was exposed as a criminal fraud. No one for the foreseeable future will try to do so again in Britain or in France or in Germany.
All of those nineteenth century ideas about the national recourse to war are over; yes, in some places. Not in others. That means that the state is no longer what it used to be. The state was defined famously by Max Weber as an institutional monopoly on the use of physical force and violence.
I think warfare in the twentieth century has made war no longer an option in some countries. The disparity between different parts of the world explains all kinds of foreign policy differences between one part of the world and another.
What about in the United States?I believe that the United States is a house of many mansions. The story I tell is also an American story, but it isn’t the only American story, and it isn’t the dominant American story.
I use the word American exceptionalism differently. America has had an exceptionally bad history in a number of respects. One is in terms of race relations. But the other is the use and abuse of the military for political advantage by both political parties. I don’t think the Democrats do much better, so this isn’t anti-Trump. Somehow that word glory is still in the American political vocabulary and, until it fades away, I’m not so sure the behavior of politicians will be any different than they are today.
Robin Lindley: That gets me to the discussion in your book of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and how you see its success as a war memorial.
Professor Jay Winter: In my view, the only essential element to a memorial is reference to and insistence upon the centrality of the dead. You can create memorials for many reason, but the fundamental reason for war memorials in the twentieth century is that wars have claimed so many lives. So the dead have to be front and center.
What Maya Lin did was go back to the First World War and take Sir Edwin Lutyens’s brilliant design set on the terrain of the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval and translate it into a language of remembrance in a better way, in my view, than Lutyens’, for one simple reason. She provided a place where the dead could be brought home symbolically in the nation’s capital. This was a moment when the dead came home symbolically in Washington when her monument was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, despite the fuss over it, despite the quarrels over her being an Asian American woman artist. All that aside, she provided what is critical for war memorials: a place for mourning and only for mourning. Nothing else.
When she designed this giant gash in the ground, she provided a space for the names, all 58,000 of them. And every name equals everyone else’s name, and they are organized chronologically from the date they were killed. Her utterly horizontal design requires you to go down into the earth for mourning in order to recognize not only the names of those who died but, through a highly polished stone surface, to see your own face in the act of remembering, to be implicated in this event which is not just history but viscerally lived by any American who was alive at the time. And I hope that those who come after realize when they visit this astonishing war memorial what a horrible tragedy and mistake the Vietnam war was.
So her genius, in my view, is horizontality and simplicity in the sense of having one central theme which is that the only thing that matters. All that matters are the names of the dead. The names are all that is left of these people, and the names themselves move people to touch them. Every time I’ve been there, there’s this measurement of loss about it. You not only need to know what you’ve lost, but what you haven’t lost to be able to get up and go back to your life. There’s a difference between mourning and melancholia. Touching their names is an important act of remembrance.
I think the way Maya Lin’s design works is astonishing. Hers was an act of genius: to make the stone so highly polished that you are not outside the memorial. You are inside it.
Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. (National Park Service)
Robin Lindley: I was very moved by your account of poet Ted Hughes and his father who survived horrific combat in the First World War and suffered from shell shock after the war. I’m also interested in this issue. My dad was a veteran of horrific combat and long periods of jungle fighting during the Second World War and suffered serious wounds and displayed some symptoms of shell shock or post traumatic stress disorder. I’ve read that some neuroscientists believe that the children of trauma survivors may also carry some of that trauma suffered by a parent.
Professor Jay Winter: Yes, I’ve been fascinated by much recent scholarship on the question as to whether trauma can be passed on to later generations. So far, I’ve read a lot of the neurological literature on epigenetics. There have been one or two experiments that suggest a possible form of transmission through a kind of chemical process that can switch genes on and off. That’s the most interesting epigenetic finding, but it hasn’t been replicated and it hasn’t been accepted by most scientists. I’m prepared to keep an open mind on that.
What I do know is that families of veterans have suffered from the fact that so many of them do not acknowledge the degree that psychological injury accompanies physical injury or may happen without physical injury. And it’s this which parents and groups of veterans in United States, Britain, and Australia, to whom I have spoken are now very sensitive.
It’s important, and most people realize this, that wars don’t end when the fighting stops because the soldiers take the wars with them when they come home. Only by the recognition of the nature of the long-term damage that wars cause can we actually do justice to these veterans and to the children like you who lived with that father and those experiences in your formative years.
The notion of veterans being unacknowledged victims of war is something I think is very important. If anything, the reception I’ve had so far for the book shows a lot of veterans who have written me are grateful all the help they can get in breaking through the silence that surrounds the psychological burden that soldiers bear not only in wartime but after.
Robin Lindley: And Ted Hughes attempted to deal with his father’s First World War experience and shell shock through his poetry. You explore what Hughes wrote in your book.
Professor Jay Winter: Ted Hughes was a powerful man and a big man who had a striking physical presence. He was an undergraduate at the same college where I taught for 25 years in Cambridge. His poetry is poignant and moving. His described his fear as a child of his father’s silences and how something [his father] was unable to say terrified him.
In my reading of it, what happened in polite conversation is this: when Ted grew up, if talk turned to the war, Ted’s father would turn to the wall and say absolutely nothing. This contrasted with other members of the family and other people outside in such a way as to make him feel that the horrors of Gallipoli and the Western Front where his father was wounded. He heard his father’s shouts at night. His description of nightmares of crabs coming to devour the world struck me as a statement of the inability of his father to give his son any indication of what it was that made war memories so appalling that he could never speak about them.
Hughes was not unique. For poets to think about silence is to speak about a language of memory. I really believe that silence isn’t the opposite of memory or forgetting, but it’s a way of saying something that can’t be said in conventional speech. Watching his father speak of war by saying nothing is what Ted translated into this great poetry he wrote.
Robin Lindley: You write that the best defense against war is the human imagination. What are you seeing in terms of responses to the art and memorials you write about? I have a couple of friends who are acclaimed fiction writers, and they pondered the meaning of their art and the value of their art in terms of creating change or having any effect on people or if anyone cares.
Professor Jay Winter: I don’t know if you feel this, but the older I get, the more
optimistic I am.
I don’t measure the influence of my work or anyone’s work in our own time. It’s too soon. We can’t tell. All we can to do is appreciate the ranges of artistic talent on war that is available now in which women have a full voice and civilians can speak of their rights to life and limb in the same way soldiers do. That wasn’t there before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There have been moments in my life of very small steps forward and I believe in the delegitimization of war that is in its embryonic form and the measurement of its progress is going to be a matter of generations.
I don’t share your artists’ concern about who cares? I’ve never written a book that I would measure in terms of readers’ responses. I’ve been happy when I’ve gotten the responses, but when I haven’t had them, I still went on hoping that the next time I wrote that I could say something true about war.
I’m still searching for that truth. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I think the subject will not go away. Therefore, my contribution of any small element of understanding of the catastrophic effects of warfare in the twentieth to twenty-first century is worth doing whatever the echo or absence of echo that you feel or hear.
Robin Lindley: What are you working on now?
Professor Jay Winter: There are two books I’m in the middle of. One is called The Second Great War and what I try to do is persuade readers that the war didn’t stop in 1918, but from 1917, from the Russian Revolution on, there was a second war just as deadly as the first, and it didn’t stop until 1923. I try to say that there’s a greater war than the Great War that started in 1914, but it didn’t end on the eleventh day of November 1918. That was true on the Western Front but that was true nowhere else.
A second book is a book of images that I call The Face of Silence. I’ll talk about silence as a language that we can hear in many places in our social world. Clearly silence happens in churches and synagogues and silence goes on in political and family life. And there’s traumatic silences unfortunately in many hospitals. Then there’s the silence in the performing arts: in music, mime and ballet and various other arts. I want to capture the multivocality of silence.
I’ll do that and, as a retired man, I’m free. I enjoyed teaching. I loved my students. But this is a good time of life and I feel I’m a very lucky man to be here.
Robin Lindley: I’m grateful for your optimism and continued work Professor Winter, and I look forward to those forthcoming books. Thank you for your thoughtful insights. And congratulations on your new book War Beyond Words.
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