For the last couple weeks I was taking a class about how WWI changed the face of heroism. It was really interesting, and since it’s been a while since I’ve posted something historyish I figured I would give you all a watered down version of what was discussed.
First, this was a British class, so it focused on the UK, France, and Germany.
We started the class talking about what a hero was. How it was defined and how that definition changed. Before WWI, the image of a hero was strongly based on Classical heroes, so Greek and Roman warriors like Achillies, Hector, and all the Demigods; as well as Knights with their pure and chivalric images. Usually this translated into individuals of high social standing, who were officers, becoming the staple “heroes” of whatever war or battle was being celebrated.
With WWI that image slowly changed. This was war like nothing that had been seen. Technological advancements as well as the social repercussions of Total War made sure that every citizen was somehow affected. The image of a hero slowly changed to represent the everyday soldier, who out of a sense of patriotic duty went to war, of the women who sent off their husbands and sons, and of the nurses and medics that risked their lives to save others.
The change of the “hero image” was also very clear in memorials and monuments post war. And this brought in another element of discussion that was very interesting – how Germany, the defeated nation, honored it’s fallen soldiers. Ultimately, it did so from a point of collective mourning. The UK, France, and US saw a surge of the unknown soldier memorials – holding the average soldier as the ultimate sacrifice for their cause.
The last element we looked at was how WWI heroism is seen today. Most interesting are the alternate perspectives that have gained ground. In the 1920s and 30s the war was still living memory, people brought their experiences of the war to life with the new advancements of film. The 60s, 70s, and 80s provided recognition to unconventional heroes, like deserters and contentious objectors. In the 1990s and 2000s we see nurses and animals getting new attention as heroes, as well as a look at the psychological repercussions.
One of the elements that I found fascinating was the issue of how German remembrance continues to suffer. With the rise of Nazism came the use of WWI heroes to support their parties message. Therefore WWI heroes became tainted by the atrocities of the Nazi regime in WWII, most notably the “Red Baron.” German heroism shifted to acknowledging heroes as those who resisted war and those who stood against the Nazis, as military heroism had become too synonymous with Nazi terrors. Today they are still struggling with this, especially after reunification in the 1990s – how can they remember the lives of those who were killed in battle without celebrating the horrors of WWII?
I found it interesting to look at these remembrances and shifting views of heroism in relation to the US. Really, we as a nation don’t focus too much on WWI history. When I did look into our propaganda I found a very different message than what Europe used. However, I noticed that our memorials, going back to the Civil War and arguably the Revolution, have always focused on the average soldier. So maybe we had a leg up on this shifting of heroism?