War and Public Memory Cover

War and Public Memory

Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Europe

David A. Messenger

University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2020, 256 pages

Book Review published on: July 31, 2020

Europe, throughout the twentieth century, endured incessant discord resulting in numerous wars being fought for a variety of reasons, including exerting power and control, expanding territory, acquiring resources, and imposing ideologies. War and Public Memory: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Europe is an engaging and thought-provoking book that explores “how memory and commemoration of war in the twentieth century has shaped the identity, discourse, and practice in many different European nations.”

Although the academic field of memory studies involves multiple disciplines including anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, and communication studies with various research approaches, David A. Messenger, a professor and chair of the History Department at the University of South Alabama, uses discourse and visual rhetoric analysis as a framework to examine nine case studies involving wars between Europeans ranging from World War I to the Bosnian War.

Written in a style that is educational and easy to read, Messenger reviews and defines terms, describes various academic approaches to the study of collective memory, and explains why he chose discourse and visual rhetoric analysis as a framework to examine nine select wars fought on European soil in the twentieth century. Each of the case studies involves a war that resulted in a higher proportion of civilian deaths when compared to the deaths of armed soldiers. Within this context, he transitions to each case study. Messenger posits that by examining public commemorations of places, events, and people, you can discover “how the social and cultural memory of different European societies has developed, been debated, and can change over time.” To help frame each case study, he provides the historical background of the conflict and focuses on answering four questions: Where is the public space—in parks, museums, cemeteries, government buildings—used to commemorate past wars? Who are the actors involved in pushing to make memories of past conflicts broad and shared? How do such commemorations, statues, and museums change over time? How does discourse about wars change?

Messenger clearly shows how a legacy of violence and destruction perpetuated by wars in Europe has and continues to impact the psyche of Europeans, and these memories manifest themselves in various public locations and artifacts. His discussion of “institutional memory” at the local and national levels regarding World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust and experiences in communist Eastern Europe was intriguing. His analysis illustrates not only how these experiences and memories led to further conflict depending on the perspective (victor, perpetrator, collaborator, or victim) but also provides evidence showing significant changes and patterns of how these wars are remembered by some countries.

War and Public Memory provides an opportunity for academic scholars, researchers, and military professionals to better understand “collective, social, and cultural” memory of war. The subject matter is relevant today because the collective memories of war at the local and national levels, especially in regions like Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, continue to influence policies, drive behaviors, and contribute to ongoing conflicts throughout the world. Well crafted, this book has numerous pictures of public “artifacts” of memory to complement the narrative of each case study and is an excellent example of an interdisciplinary research approach grounded in history. I highly recommend this book; it would make an excellent companion to Joseph S. Nye Jr. and David A. Welch’s Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Leavenworth, Kansas