Outline of the Historiography

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12


We may think that the historical study of the First World War is largely complete and that everything has been said and done concerning this foundational event. However, during the current commemorations of the war’s centenary, a memorial polyphony—which sometimes, especially with the marketing of spin-off products, seems more of a cacophony—shows how this conflict remains an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

In addition, the Great War has become the subject of an ongoing debate, particularly in the past few decades and especially in France. School programs have accompanied these historiographical developments.  Therefore, in this occasionally confusing context, it is important that teachers who cover this period be able to put these reflections into perspective, whether they issue from different fields of research, or from the wide range of productions, scientific or not,  that deal with this subject.

Studies begin everywhere, immediately after the war

Since the beginning of the historiography of the First World War in the early 1920s, the focus has varied considerably according to country. In Germany, the study of the Second World War and the “final solution” has tended to relegate other subjects to a subordinate level. The rich body of research on this period has centred on the political and diplomatic history surrounding the causes of the war and Germany’s specific responsibility in the triggering of the conflict. There is an ongoing polemic regarding the work of Fritz Fischer (essentially, his 1961 book, Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914–1918, published in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War). Also in Germany, following a similar trend in France, a historiography based on the social and cultural history of the First World War developed in the 1970s; particularly since the 1990s, it has dealt with themes such as the memory of the conflict during the Weimar Republic, the combat experience of soldiers, and the survival of certain forms of violence in the post-war years—a survival which, according to George Mosse, explains the subsequent “brutalization of societies” and the violence of totalitarian regimes. Even within these historiographical currents, “the question of the responsibility of the various European nations for starting the war remains a central one” in Germany and in the other countries, as shown in the recent works of historian Christopher Clark.

In the United States, in Canada, in Italy, and in the United Kingdom, traditional military and political history, often biographical, was renewed by social and cultural approaches that focussed on other fields of inquiry such as enlistment and conscription (nation and race) and other aspects of wartime involvement (gender, class, race). The political history of the building of the nation-state was enriched by studies on the exercise of power and the transformation of state apparatuses in a time of total war, and on state intervention in the economy and the structural forerunners of the welfare state.

In a general manner, the conventional chronological markers of 1914 and 1918 are being challenged by some historians. This applies to the belligerent countries in geographical areas outside Europe such as the United States and Canada, but it also concerns events in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire and its Asian and Polish fringes. Indeed, these regions were involved in wars of different kinds both before and after the 1914–1918 period: civil wars, wars between nations, and revolutionary wars wreaked havoc in Europe between 1912, the year of the First Balkan War, and 1923, the date of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, which redrew the map of the Middle East and sounded the death knell of the Ottoman Empire. These new studies are essential for a perspective not only on the roots of the First World War but also on its very significant geopolitical consequences, especially in the Middle East.

French First World War historiography: Lively, complex debates

Historical research addressed the First World War as soon as it ended. In France, several historians writing from the 1920s to the 1960s had experienced the war personally, such as Jules Isaac, Jacques Meyer, André Ducasse, and lastly, Pierre Renouvin, a towering figure in French First World War historiography.

The complex debates among French First World War historians during the last few decades have revealed the need for a synthesis, particularly for the benefit of teachers, who must acquire an adequate historiographical distance regarding certain sensitive, even controversial matters. The first to attempt to carry out this historiographical synthesis were two highly respected historians, Antoine Prost and Jay Winter, who collaborated in writing an essential reference work, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present. In the introduction, Prost and Winter give an idea of the huge volume of studies on the war since the 1920s and the magnitude of their own task, which included the examination of over 50,000 articles, films, television programs, and Internet sites in one French documentation centre alone (the Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine de Nanterre). They also mention that a symposium organized in Montpellier for the 80th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 (entitled La Grande Guerre 1914–1918: 80 ans d’historiographie et de représentations) revealed a sharp increase in publications on the Great War during the last decade of the 20th century. Almost 20 years later, a similar observation can be made today, on the occasion of the war’s centenary. Indeed, a large number of documents have appeared at the beginning of this commemorative period, as much for the academic community as for the general public: books, conference proceedings, peer-reviewed articles, lecture series, documentaries, etc. National governments and other institutions are also taking an active part in this movement. For example, in 2012, France created the Mission du Centenaire, an inter-ministerial public interest group initially made up of seven government ministries, six public organizations, two national associations, a university, and a cooperative. The Mission was mandated by the government to organize and supervise the commemorative program, and a scientific committee presided over by Antoine Prost was charged with writing comments and making recommendations concerning the orientations and content of the program. The Mission and the scientific committee also give their expert opinions on the various projects that are submitted to it in hopes of obtaining official centenary certification.  

It is in this framework that conferences are frequently held to discuss new research directions. One example among many is the international symposium entitled “Workers and Soldiers: Colonials in the Great War.”

The principal orientations of French First World War historiography

According to Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, three “historiographical configurations” can be distinguished in First World War studies since the early 1920s. At first, the subjects of study were largely military and diplomatic. This history was written in the immediate aftermath of the war, as much by political and military leaders as by professional historians. “Very rapidly contemporaries understood that they were living through an exceptional event, of epic character, which formed part of history on the grand scale. They named it the Great War already in 1915.” This research path was charted by issues related to politics, and studies concentrated mainly on the dominant question mentioned earlier, i.e., responsibility for the war. The chronicling of the conflict, therefore, did not venture beyond the most easily provable events: the main battles and major events, diplomatic negotiations, and the causes and the consequences of the conflict. The archives consulted were essentially official and diplomatic sources. This research approach, in the tradition of “battle history”, made the war a subject that was “seen from above”, to use the expression of Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and not one that involved combatants and civilian populations.

A major historiographical rupture, one that did not only concern the Great War and which reflected the growing embrace of social history, followed the Second World War. The choice of research subjects concerning the First World War was strongly impacted by this change in historiographical paradigms. Under the influence of Marxism and Structuralism, research began to centre on the lives of soldiers and civilians. The history of the war was henceforth “seen from below”, through a more quantitative approach and tools.

Later, during the 1980s, in a context of Franco-German rapprochement and the discrediting of Marxist interpretations, a new historiographical tendency emerged, which purported to be first and foremost cultural, but did not renounce the methods of social history with its statistical and quantitative tools. Thus, the new tendency combined both cultural and social history. Eventually, cultural history, which had long been inferred in social history and even in political history, became a veritable historiographical tendency in its own right, with its own tools. The history of the First World War was still being told “from below”, but it also addressed specific cases, an approach that established the premise of a reflection on and a method for the “micro-history” to come.

Historians such as Jean-Jacques Becker and Antoine Prost, relying on previously unexplored sources, were interested in people—the combatants and those on the home front—not only in institutional versions or battles, thus shifting the focus to combat from the soldiers’ point of view. Still later, in 1992, the Historial de Péronne, created by a historians’ collective (made up of Jean-Jacques Becker, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker) on the site of the Battle of the Somme, combined a memorial museum and a research centre with the objective of developing a new perspective on the conflict. The founding of the Historial was followed in 1994 by the Guerre et cultures colloquium, which officially consecrated this new approach to the Great War. The paradigms of these historians continued what social history had begun, that is, the substitution of the view “from above” by one “from below.” However, the fundamental paradigm and true innovation lay in their focus on the concept of patriotic consent that supposedly characterized the mass mobilization process in the belligerent nations.

In 2000, historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker synthesized their approach in a key work, 14–18: Retrouver la guerre, in which they defended the idea of the brutalization (or “ensauvagement”) of people and societies at war. The term “brutalization” was first used by American scholar George Mosse in 1990 in his book Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, and it immediately became an important concept in the new historiography. The aim of the historians of the so-called “Péronne school,” or “consent school” is the analysis of European societies at war, turning away from the history of the causes and consequences of the conflict, and therefore away from the military, political or geopolitical spheres. In this approach, the research deals with the history of civilians as much as with that of the soldiers. It focusses on the links that bound the combatants and others at the front to the people in the rear. Within these innovative paradigms, since the 1990s, new studies have proliferated, exploring aspects of the material culture and living conditions in wartime, among other subjects. The particularity of these studies is the emphasis they place on social consensus rather than on social conflict. Indeed, they are based on the postulate that the populations of the belligerent countries consented to the war from the beginning, and, with rare exceptions, they remained committed until the end, which explains why this tendency is referred to as the “consent school”. These studies also ask the question of how the consensus on mobilization was formed and how it was subsequently maintained throughout the war, despite the unendurable situation at the front and in the rear. An investigation of behaviour and practices reveals a wide range of aspects of civilian involvement in the war effort. This renewed approach to the Great War relies on a new historiographic concept: that of the culture of war, an element that was necessary to internalize hostility towards the enemy, enough to mobilize the population to an extraordinary degree and for an extraordinary length of time. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker define their concept of the culture of war as “a body of representations of the war crystallized within a veritable system that gives the war its deep meaning (...). A ‘culture’ (…) inseparable from the spectacular resonance of hatred towards the enemy. A hatred which is, naturally, differentiated according to the enemy faced, but which penetrates the entire field of representations.”

For Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, the culture of war consists of a set of mental tools, as complex and all-encompassing as culture in general, and it is this that determines, and even nourishes, the progression of war and the fact that everyone consents to it. In this perspective, they consider that the causes of the violence and the long duration of the Great War can be found in the populations’ mentality and profound, internalized representations.

For a decade, these stimulating ideas dominated French First World War historiography, but at the same time, they also provoked boisterous debates and significant opposition in the research community.

The central question: How did the combatants hold on?

A central preoccupation currently engaging French historiography is the attempt to understand how soldiers at the front managed to endure such horrifying conditions for a period of years. In a wider sense, the question also extends to the civilian populations and their significant, sustained involvement in the war effort. These are the points that have touched off the liveliest historiographical debates among French First World War historians since the end of the 1990s, and they have become even more controversial since 2000. While trying to avoid any binary simplification, an explanation of the main elements of debate is offered below:

“According to the French historians associated with the Péronne research centre (Historial de la Grande Guerre) known collectively as the ‘school of consent’, the soldiers, like the rest of the population, largely agreed to the war effort, in a consent pertaining to the culture of war described above.”

However, for these same historians, our difficulty today in understanding this phenomenon is due to the significant gap between the meaning that men and women gave to war at the beginning of the 20th century and its total absence of meaning for us today, in our awareness of its outcome and its absurdity. Therefore, we should avoid the anachronism that would result if we transposed our present-day vision of the event onto that of the societies of 1914. Our vision, moreover, is in large part inherited from the pacifist movements that arose precisely after 1918.

For these historians, one reason for the enduring impact of this consent was the solidarity that existed among groups of combatants and between the front and the rear. However, consent was also justified by the commitment of Europeans to their respective nations, their patriotism, and their hostility towards the enemy—phenomena that would explain the failure of army mutinies. In this view, the universal participation in the war effort resulted from “a groundswell from the base more than from propaganda imposed from above” by the respective national governments.

On the other hand, a major historiographic trend that developed some time later is diametrically opposed to the consent concept. In the paradigmatic context of social and cultural history “from below”, the subjects of studies became increasingly diversified and far-reaching. However, in exploring this new territory, the opponents of the Péronne historians came to view war as the outcome of an imposed violence. According to them, if the soldiers held on for so long, it was because they were caught in a complex web of constraints and had no real choice. These constraints, mutable, multi-faceted, and internalized to varying degrees, consisted of military justice, discipline, a culture of obedience, pressure, and bonds with the home front. The anti-consent historians reject the validity of the idea of a culture of war, considering that, given such a network of constraints for soldiers and civilians, it was more a matter of obedience and submission than consent. Thus, for these historians, a political and social approach is needed as much as a purely cultural one in the study of the Great War. No longer simply focussing on the acceptance of the war by the soldiers, the debate has extended to the role of the state, which harnesses members of society from an early age, uses effective propaganda measures, and derogates peacetime laws. The historians of this tendency also rely on another concept that they argue was a factor in mobilisation: the culture of peace that allowed the soldiers to tolerate conditions in the trenches, through, among other things, their memory of peacetime and their strong links with people on the home front.

This same historiographical tendency also rejects the concept of “brutalization”, finding it overly simplistic and even misleading in the specific case of the violence that prevailed in the first world conflict. In addition, the idea that brutalization characterized European societies in the post-war period is contestable for France and other countries; in the view of these historians, the passage from the violence of the war to political violence described by George Mosse applies exclusively to Germany.

Nonetheless, a consensus has been reached on certain points of this debate. Thus, historians such as Antoine Prost hold that there was indeed consent, while in his PhD thesis on French war veterans, he shows, among other things, that the hostile representation of the enemy in the French population, if real at the beginning of the war, diminished over time.

Although the culture of war concept may seem useful and is not contested by all historians, it is insufficient to account for the ways that very diverse social groups and individuals resisted pressures during the war (the example of army mutinies is one among many). In the same order of ideas, historian Jay Winter prefers the expression “cultures of war”. The use of the plural makes it possible to draw useful distinctions and include important nuances, according to country, region, social class, and gender, and emphasizes that a culture of war cannot be apply to a whole culture, and cannot be generalized without making the necessary modifications to it.

Here, we can turn to one of the conceptual tools of micro-history: Carlo Ginzburg’s idea of the “flexible cage”, leading to the question: To what extent does culture act upon individuals, and to what extent does it allow them the capacity to form strategies and make individual choices?

Finally, questions regarding sources, particularly witness accounts, are also fiercely debated by the adepts of these different historiographic tendencies.

“Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker remind us that in the difficult conditions for writing during the war, and in the framework of a pacifist remembrance of it,” personal testimony should be approached with much precaution. Their opponents, on the other hand, reproach the historians of consent for relying too much on the testimony of elites. André Loez points out that the sources used by historians are the writings of a restricted number of educated soldiers, whereas the rank and file did not express or record their thoughts: “It should be agreed that if corroborations of the ‘culture of war’ only appear in the writings of intellectuals-authors, its generalized character becomes strongly relative. From the point of view of this complex relationship with the social status of the witnesses, we can only be surprised by the harsh criticism levelled at the work of Jean Norton Cru.”

Canadian First World War historiography

In Canada, rather than a debate between opposing schools, there are two First World War historiographies: an English- and a French-language one. Only the first of these is truly active. Canadian historians working in French keep abreast of the principal advancements made by their Anglophone colleagues by reading their works in the original English, or in French translation. The few significant texts on the Great War issuing from French Canada are rarely referred to by English-Canadian specialists, and are sometimes totally ignored.

The major diplomatic issues are barely touched upon, as, in 1914, Canada depended almost completely on Great Britain in the areas of defence and foreign affairs. On the other hand, reading the biography of wartime prime minister Robert Laird Borden gives us a good idea of how this leader used the sacrifices made by Canadians in the war to advance the cause of Canada’s autonomy from Britain.

The Canadian government, in consideration of the enormous military, economic, social, and financial efforts made during the Great War, established a program in the National Defence Department to chronicle the history of the conflict. This initiative was entrusted to several good amateur historians who had been combatants themselves. However, until the Second World War broke out, nothing had been accomplished, neither regarding the battles in which Canadians had fought, nor regarding the experiences of the 7.5 million Canadians on the home front. It was only when Colonel Charles Stacey created the History Service during the last world war that the military history of Canada began to be properly recorded, even though the emphasis was on the 1939–1945 years. Nonetheless, Stacey and his colleagues, holders of doctorates and recognized specialists in the academic world, established a solid foundation for the development of the study of Canadian military history in English-Canadian universities, which resulted in an abundance of serious research work that began in the 1960s and continues today.

English-speaking universities in Canada have long included the study of military history in their academic programs, whereas the subject is totally absent from the study programs of the French-language universities. This absence has certain undeniably harmful consequences: for instance, a historian who studied in French in Quebec and takes a job at National Defence must first study the country’s military history for a period of years before assuming his or her functions, while a colleague who studied in English will be ready to start productive work just a few weeks after being hired. The fact that the Royal Military College Saint-Jean lost its university status to become a CEGEP (college) in 1995 did not help this state of affairs. That said, this historiographical survey should include a recent book by Jean Martin, who was one of the historians at the College who had to be “reformatted” after earning his doctorate there and has been with the Directorate of History and Heritage for some 15 years now. In Un siècle d’oubli: Les Canadiens et la Première Guerre mondiale (1914–2014), this author asks a number of questions, one of which deals with the proportion of Canada-born among the 600,000 men and women who enlisted and served as Canadians between 1914 and 1919. Although it is not possible to provide a definitive answer to this query, Martin concludes, as others had done before him, that French-speaking Canadians made up a much larger contingent than is commonly thought, when their participation is measured against the total of the native-born in Canadian regiments. It should be remembered that, even taking conscripts into account, only a little over 50 percent of enlisted men and women were born in Canada: without the French-Canadians, the majority of the 600,000 would have been foreigners, most of whom were born in the British Isles.


We have seen that the stakes involved in the teaching and the remembrance of the First World War are both weighty and international. On one hand, this war is seen, consciously or unconsciously, as a watershed event that set a precedent in a century considered the most violent in history, a period which would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. Like George Mosse, many historians view the Great War as the precursor of the most baleful aspects of the 20th century: concentration camps, genocides, disregard for civilian lives, totalitarian regimes, and the Second World War.

At the same time, there are real social and political demands surrounding the study of the Great War. Certain themes in particular have raised not only historical but also political controversy in some of the countries that fought in the war—we can mention the French soldiers who were shot “as examples for others” in this respect. In the United Kingdom and Canada beginning in the 1980s, and in France in 1998, under the initiative of French prime minister Lionel Jospin, calls for the reintegration of those executed soldiers into the collective remembrance of the war have been recurrent (see the “Involvement of the State” file for details on this debate). In Canada, the principal matter of debate regarding the First World War has been conscription and the division it created, followed by the subject of Canada’s increased importance on the world stage due to its participation in the war.

In this context, we should remember that the knowledge and teaching of history are not meant to arouse compassion or to pass judgment through an often anachronistic interpretation, nor even simply to carry out a “duty of memory”. They are carried out above all as intellectual exercises founded on the desire to explain and understand the past, as valid as the debates engendered not only in the discipline of history, but also in the political and societal arenas—and this on a worldwide scale rather than limited to the Eurocentric viewpoint as has often been the case where the First World War is concerned.


Bibliography / Webography

  • Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14–18: Retrouver la Guerre, Paris, Gallimard, Coll.  “Bibliothèque des histoires,” 2000.
  • Robert Boyce, Sabine Jansen, Pierre Purseigle, and Marie Scot, “Introduction,” Histoire@PolitiquePolitique, culture, sociétés (electronic journal published by the Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po), No. 22: Historiographies étrangères de la Première Guerre mondiale, 2014/1.
  • François Buton, André Loez, Nicolas Mariot, and Olivera Philippe, “1914–1918: Retrouver la controverse,” LaViedesIdées.fr, December 10, 2008.
  • Cabanes, Bruno, “Un drame à la mesure du monde”, L’Histoire, No. 61: 14–18. La catastrophe, 2013/10, p. 17.
  • Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, London: Allen Lane, 2012.
  • Julien, Élise, “Antoine Prost, Jay Winter, Penser la Grande Guerre. Un essai d’historiographie,” Labyrinthe, No.18: La recherche dans tous ses éclats, 2004, pp. 47-52.
  • Julien, Élise, “À propos de l’historiographie française de la Première Guerre mondiale,” Labyrinthe, No. 18 : La recherche dans tous ses éclats, 2004, pp. 53-68.
  • Patin, Nicolas, “La Grande Guerre: un angle mort de l’histoire allemande?,” Histoire@Politique. Politique, culture, sociétés (electronic journal published by the Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po), No. 22 : Historiographies étrangères de la Première Guerre mondiale, 2014/1.
  • Prost, Antoine, Les Anciens Combattants et la société française (1914–1939), Presses de la FNSP, 1977, 3 Vol.
  • Prost, Antoine and Winter, Jay, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present, Cambridge University Press, 2005 (in French, Penser la Grande Guerre: Un essai d’historiographie, Paris: Seuil, Coll. “Points. Histoire,” series “L’histoire en débats,” 2004).
  • Wirth, Laurent, “The teaching about the First World War in the school syllabuses” in the site of the Mission du Centenaire.
© Réseau Canopé, 2015