The centenary of the First World War – WW100, it’s dubbed in twenty-first century parlance – resonates on all sorts of levels for New Zealand. It’s a time to remember, a time to share family stories of the day; a time for sadness, and a time to recognise just how profoundly that war shaped New Zealand’s sense of itself.
Still, there’s a difference between how we see those events now and the way they were seen at the time.
That’s where historians come in. Although there’s a popular notion that anyone can ‘become’ a historian by assigning themselves the label and then copying data from archives, the reality is that it’s a learned profession like any other – and one of the key skills is how to evaluate the material. That includes being able to recognise the ‘lenses’ that come between us and the original events, and how to understand the way people at the time saw things.
After all, they were products of their own past too. And they didn’t know their future, any more than we do.
Needless to say, no two historians agree on how to do that. We know what happened – the data is clear – but the why is usually debatable. That’s because we’re dealing with the fuzziness of societies. And so history, as an intellectual discipline, goes through cycles of interpretation – typically generationally.
My own stuff, incidentally, has been labelled ‘post-revisionist’ because the angle I’ve taken in both my popular work and my technical studies – including peer-reviewed papers – does not accept the ‘revisionist’ view adopted in New Zealand’s universities in the 1980s.
So – how do we view the First World War? A century on, we’ve lived through the Second World War and through the Cold War; and all of these have created new lenses through which society has viewed and re-viewed the events of 1914-18. The post-Vietnam anti-war view, in particular, had a profound effect on the way the First World War was seen in the 1980s.
To my mind, a major history project launched back then – in which the words of New Zealand’s surviving First World War veterans were ‘captured’ before they were lost forever – was heavily slanted by post-Vietnam pop-intellectual sentiment. This framework led to a style of questioning that – to my mind – also led the interviewers down particular tracks. They never got to grips with how these people thought at the time.
More soon. Meanwhile, I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015