Dr. Neil Faulkner FSA is an archaeologist and historian whose specialisms include the First World War and the Russian Revolution. He works as a writer, lecturer, editor, and occasional broadcaster.
He has directed archaeological field projects in Britain and Jordan, and is currently involved in projects in Italy, Spain, and Albania.
His many books include Lawrence of Arabia’s War, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, and, forthcoming in September 2018, A Radical History of the World.
Public commemoration of the centenary of the First World War has been shaped by two closely-connected currents – resurgent nationalism and academic revisionism. Nationalism, racism, and fascism have become major forces in European politics since the 2008 Crash and the onset of the Age of Austerity. In this context, politicians have been eager to embrace fashionable ‘revisionist’ approaches to the First World War. The First World War has come to be viewed less as a collective human tragedy, more as ‘necessary sacrifice’.
This view depends upon a sharp narrowing of historical perspective and imagination. Revisionists largely ignore the essential dysfunctionality of the European state system in 1914 and the central significance of Great Power imperial rivalry in the countdown to war. In practice, they adopt the nationalist perspectives of contemporary elites. This is mirrored in official practice. The British Government, for example, has been laying paving stones to commemorate First World War medal-winners in their birthplaces, projecting a message about ‘heroism’, ‘glory’, ‘duty’, and ‘sacrifice’.
Revisionists are also largely indifferent to the powerful anti-war, radical, and revolutionary mass movements that eventually brought the war to an end. Again, in practice, they adopt the class perspectives of contemporary elites. Of special significance is the virtual invisibility – in collective historical memory – of the European revolutionary wave between 1917 and 1923. In St Petersburg, for example, while the centenary of the Russian Revolution was almost completely ignored last year, Tsar Nicholas II is revered like a saint and Stalin is treated like a nationalist icon.
This paper will conclude with an urgent appeal for a defence of historical truth, scientific method, and humane values against the tide of nationalism, racism, and fascism polluting European politics.