World War I changed culture of mourning, says Yale professor


World War I changed the culture of mourning in Europe and acted as a crucial brake on progress, says Yale professor Jay Winter in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Winter, who has curated the exhibition Missing Sons, at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic in Bonn, points out that many World War I soldiers simply vanished and that families often had no specific gravesite at which to mourn.

‘Half of those who died have left absolutely no trace,’ he told the newspaper, ‘they literally disappeared.’

Part of the reason for this was the effect of repeated artillery bombardments and the difficulties involved in removing the dead from No Man’s Land.

‘The notion of a ritual set of practices that had been in existence for centuries collapsed completely,’ added Winter. ‘In their place there were all kinds of unusual practices like spiritualism, like visiting séances to try to hear the voice of the dead to receive some kind of a message. These are indicators of what I would call a cultural crisis.’

‘I think the link between World War I and the present times is the cult of names. The names were the things that mattered. The names are all that mattered.

‘In war memorials you’ll see them, in churches… What matters is the list of the names in the parish or the town, the school or the university. It is the names. It is a way of bringing the bodies back home in a metaphorical sense of the term. Those names defined families that were empty, that had absences.’

Winter suggested also that the effect of World War I on European history has been far-reaching and remarkably negative.

‘Fundamentally, World War I was the moment when the first phase of globalisation was destroyed. Now we are in a second phase of globalisation and European reunification shows in some respects what might have happened had there been no World War I. Then 1914 happened, the economic crisis, the Nazis. It has taken us an entire century to get back to where we were in 1914.’

To read the original interview, click here.

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