How should we commemorate wars? Lessons from the nineteenth century

Karine Varley (Photographer)

Research output: Non-textual formWeb publication/site


The controversy triggered by former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s comments about how the First World War should be taught and remembered has brought war commemoration to the forefront of public debate. As Britain and the wider world prepare to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, a series of other important anniversaries in 2014 and 2015 have raised wider questions about how and why wars should be remembered. Concerns about the politicisation of war commemoration in particular have triggered fresh debates about the role of government in shaping the commemorative agenda. Looking back beyond the First World War, the history of how war commemoration developed in the nineteenth century shows that it has always been intensely politicised. Shifts in attitudes towards death in war meant that any losses on the battlefield had to be justified. War commemorations therefore grew from efforts to portray soldiers’ deaths as sacrifices for a higher cause. The experiences of war commemoration in the nineteenth century provide a useful model for today’s policy makers about the role of the state in such a sensitive area. The limited involvement of central government in Franco-Prussian War commemorations enabled communities to express their own memories in ways that were meaningful to them. Rather than seeking to put forward a single, potentially divisive and exclusionary version of the past, government facilitated the development of multiple memories. Policy makers today should understand that debating the nature of wars, and how and why they were fought, does not dishonour the memory of the dead. It is important that respect for the sacrifices and heroism of the dead is not used a justification for curbing debate.
Original languageEnglish
Media of outputOnline
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2014


  • commemoration
  • war
  • First World War
  • centenary


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