"My Peter, I intend to try to be faithful ... What does that mean? To love my country in my own way as you loved it in your way. And to make this love work. To look at the young people and be faithful to them. Besides that I shall do my work, the same work, my child, which you were denied. I want to honor God in my work, too, which means I want to be honest, true and sincere ... When I try to be like that, dear Peter, I ask you then to be around me, help me, show yourself to me. I know you are there, but I see you only vaguely, as if you were shrouded in mist. Stay with me..." - Kathe Kollwitz (artist), in a letter to her son Peter, who was killed in WWI
This excerpt from a letter by Kathe Kollwitz, whose heartbreaking sculpture and prints encapsulated the loss of an entire generation, also addresses some of the concerns at the heart of Jay Winter's "Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning," which explores intellectual territory already trodden by the likes of Paul Fussell in his "The Great War and Modern Memory" and George Mosse in his "Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars" (which I reviewed for this site in January.) Unlike Mosse's book, which looks at larger national and cultural factors, Winter hones in on how people coped with tragedy on a level unknown until the trench warfare of World War I. In the second half of the book, he looks at different artistic media - film, popular art, novels, and poetry - in an attempt to distill how they dealt differently with the loss, guilt, and trauma that was visited upon them by the War.
We often think that the soldiers who fell in the War as Americans or Europeans, but of course some were from as far away as Australia. Winter argues that this affects the way even the most fundamental ways we relate to the War, especially the way that we mourn. He tells the story of Australian Vera Deakin (daughter of the pre-War Prime Minister Alfred Deakin), who was one of the most active members of the Australian Red Cross and searched endlessly for missing and unidentified soldiers. Families in Western Europe (where Winter spends most of his time in the book) read of their losses within days for the most part, but it sometimes took weeks or even months for those in Australia. Worse yet, some simply heard nothing more than that their loved one was "missing in action," and many never heard anything at all.
Culturally and aesthetically, we think of World War I as being the cynosure of modernism. However, Winter argues that in order to grieve, Europeans looked backward instead of forward. Spiritualism saw a huge resurgence during the War years. It was just one of the "powerfully conservative effects of the Great War on one aspect of European cultural history." Instead of a burgeoning modernism, these years were much more dominated by Victorian sentimentalism and traditional religious and spiritual ideas.
The second half of the book turns toward the arts for clearer insight on how grieving occurred, on both personal and national levels. One of the most interesting parts here is Winter's short history of Images d'Epinal, a tradition of popular, often kitschy, French folk art that was very popular at the time, and often catered to aforementioned Victorian ideals and religious feelings. Again, the focus is on realism and the representationalism of the past, not the avant-garde. Winter ends by jumping all the way to World War II and noting how the grammar of mourning had changed in the wake of the Shoah. To quote Adorno, "It is barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz." Not long afterward, we start seeing the rise of even more self-consciously abstract and anti-representational in all different kinds of cultural expression. It would seem that much of the art world at the time agreed with Adorno's appraisal.
In the end, this book was not merely as good as the Mosse, which struck me as brilliant and well-argued. Nevertheless, Winter's revisionist cultural history of World War I being a time of aesthetic conservatism and tradition is one worth considering; there is certainly enough evidence to both support and refute it. I plan on reading his "Remembering the War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century" soon.