The role of the scientific committee, by Antoine Prost
The centenary of the 1914-18 War might be seen as a sort of 11 November to be commemorated every day in 2014, and throughout the four following years for that matter. Prayers and remembrance are without doubt essential, and we owe it to the 1,400,000 people who died during this war, including the 71,000 “colonials”. But they alone are not all there is to the meaning of the commemoration. There is a fear that we may end up tiring of the repetition of the platitudes about the war – but platitudes because they are essential – : behind the sound bites like the entrance to mass death, European civil war, the matrix of the XXth century or the united Nation, what do we mean exactly?
The scientific Committee of the Centenary Partnership Program has no interest in choosing the messages to be conveyed by the commemorations: it has no legitimacy in this field which is the business of the highest offices of State. Its role is more modest.
It primary role is that of a scientific guardian. It is a watchdog which serves to warn about the pitfalls to be avoided. It has the responsibility of sounding the alarm when there are excessive simplifications, or exaggerations – for example, David Cameron, who following incorrect advice, wrongly stated that the British army had lost 200,000 soldiers in one day during the battle of the Somme! – mistakes, omissions, dubious interpretations like those which blame the “Treaty of Versailles” for the advent of the second world war, exonerating Hitler from any responsibility along the way.
On a positive note, the Committee must fulfil a second function, of a pedagogical nature. It must provide information on the conferences, exhibitions, documentaries or fictional works, and draw attention to books, as well as to the various commemorative events. It must also encourage genuinely scientific contributions to the debates which will certainly be captivating. The fact that it has a very diverse make-up, and because it comprises French people and foreigners, historians of various events and representatives from the fields of culture and education, shields the Committee from the temptation of favouring an orthodox approach. All that is needed is for the debates to be fuelled by a quality of information and reflection which allows one to understand just how this major event changed the world order.
All in all quite a tall order, one would say.