Oberhausen sits where the Ruhr joins the Rhine, crammed into the biggest conurbation in Germany with Dusseldorf, Essen, Bonn and Dortmund – 12 million people altogether. The whole area was flattened during the Second World War’s bombing raids so it’s hard to find much in Oberhausen predating the 1950s but the heavy industry of the region had made it the powerhouse of the German military machine in both wars.
Krupp, based in Essen, was the biggest company in Europe at the start of the First World War, selling weapons to the world, with the Ottoman Empire its biggest customer. Shells fired from cannons made in the Ruhr valley killed thousands, including many of the casualties at Gallipoli.
Knowing the dread history of Krupp, you can imagine my supercilious British chuckle when I noticed the name on the hairdryer in my hotel. Here was an armament of a much more domestic kind! Having stood next to a German cannon in the Rhineland Industrial Museum, how could such a mighty company sink this low, I thought?
It was only later that I realised that there were two Krupps – one makes big things in steel and the other (Krups) hairdryers and coffee machines.
So I started thinking about inventing histories. My prejudices meant that I had wanted to see Krupp brought low so I loved seeing the plastic hairdryer hanging from its flex next to the bathroom tiles. But I was wrong: I had invented a little bit of history. During the conference I was given the opportunity to develop this idea. People had come from all over Europe to discuss how each country was looking back at the First World War. I was there with two of the students who went to Gallipoli in November 2014, and during the two days in Oberhausen we met academics and young people from Germany, France, Romania and Italy, as well as projects involving many other countries in Europe. Here is the text of the talk I gave at the end of the conference.
What brought us together here in Oberhausen in February 2015? Obviously it was the subject of war that brought us here, but actually the event has been about meetings. These haven’t just been meetings between people, but also between:
- past and present (looking back at the past, but making meaning of it in the present)
- old and young (old minds looking back, young minds looking forward)
- different countries (Germany, France, Britain, Romania, Italy and several others)
- different histories
It’s the different histories which interest me most. Of course we can never know the full story of what happened in history: once the moment has passed it is dead and gone. History is only alive as a story constructed by people living now. This means that we write our own history: there are as many histories as there are people. Our experience of the past is coloured by our knowledge, feelings, gender, economic situation or nationality. Each country has its own national perspective, and this has been made very clear in the history I am working with – the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, which was a defeat for the Allies and a victory for Ottoman Turkey. Every country sees it differently: for Turkey, Australia and New Zealand it was a heroic struggle representing the birth of their post-imperial national identity; the French have almost erased it from their history, as it has been seen as ‘someone else’s war’, and in any case was largely fought by soldiers from their former African colonies; for India and Ireland it was mixed up with turbulence at home related to breaking away from British rule. Very few Germans were involved so it’s seen as a sideshow, away from the main action, although it is very significant to their large Turkish immigrant population. In Britain people look at Gallipoli with some shame, as it represents imperial hubris.
Perhaps you will argue that the more comprehensive our knowledge, the more accurate our history? I still maintain that we select what we see as ‘relevant’ to the story we want to tell. Today we want our history to reflect our awareness of globalisation, ethnic diversity, emotional wellbeing or secularism. Today’s historian cannot possibly see the world in the same way as the historian of a century ago. We search the past to find the roots of today’s concerns.
This conference has brought together two very different groups of historians – the academics and the young people. We haven’t crossed over as much as we should have done, as we can learn a great deal from each other. I have been part of the schools’ conference, and it has been a real privilege to meet so many intelligent, confident, passionate and articulate young people. For them, history must be about the future: they have their lives ahead of them and they need to understand why we see the past as we do. History is the context for their future. The projects they have brought to Oberhausen reflect their desire to create their own view of the First World War – how and why we remember, how we can avoid conflict, how we should honour heroism and sacrifice, how we might act under the extreme stress of war, or what it means to be a comrade. In one of the projects, in Berlin, students asked journalists and children the same question: ‘do you think there will be a Third World War?’ The journalists said ‘probably not’ but the children felt there probably would be – a very worrying thought, and one which shows how important it is to learn lessons from the past, and how uncertain the future must be for people growing up today.
I work with museums, and I trust the object more than the written word. The Scottish writer Andrew Greig has written ‘Sometimes the more you know, the less you see. What you encounter is your knowledge, not the thing itself’*. Some of us were privileged to be able to visit Friedensdorf International, where 300 ill and injured children from global war zones including Afghanistan and Angola were recovering in safety before returning home. For me, this visit put our conference into context: here we met ‘the thing itself’, history in the making. Here were today’s war veterans.
* ‘At the Loch of the Green Corrie’, 2010