Poetry, politics and war in the archives

On June 18, the opening day of the Bodleian’s WWI centenary exhibition ‘The Great War: Personal stories from Downing Street to the trenches’, the curator, Mike Webb, joined in conversation with representatives of two other institutions staging similar exhibitions: Frank Druffner, from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach; and Julien Collonges, from the Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire Strasbourg. They were joined by Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, and by Christophe Didier, director for development of collections of the BNU Strasbourg, for a panel discussion on the theme of exhibiting the history of WWI. A partnership between these three institutions has included some reciprocal loans of manuscripts for display in this centenary year, with the aim of exploring the connections between national histories and the archival collections that hold memories of the War.

The discussion on 18 June, moderated by Stuart Lee (English Faculty, and director of The First World War Poetry Digital Archive), considered questions including how much historical truth is conveyed through poetry; how to tell the story of individuals during the war, and whether at the same time to acknowledge their later reputations;  and the roles of libraries and archives as repositories for national memories of war.

Profound differences in the national attitudes to the memory of WWI and the historical debates that have been generated around the centenary were explored in this discussion. It was evident that the three exhibitions, primarily shaped by the available collections in each place, were also responding to different audiences and contexts. Mike Webb described his approach in the Bodleian exhibition, which traces the history of Oxford connections with the war up until 1916, as seeking immersion in the historical moment, maintaining the immediacy of the impressions of fast-moving events as captured in letters and diaries, such as the diary of Lewis Harcourt, a member of Cabinet during the War, who in July 1914 recorded his deep dislike of the belligerent attitude of Winston Churchill. This curatorial approach contrasted with the challenges described by Julien Collonges, who will use the Strasbourg exhibition opening in Autumn 2014 to explore the work and relationships of three poets: Ernst Stadler, Charles Péguy, and Wilfred Owen. Collonges found in planning the display that he had to tell the story not only of the days of 1914, but of the post-war reputation of the poets, and this was both rewarding and problematic in the case of Péguy, whose patriotic verses have been appropriated by right-wing nationalists, with resonances for the later history of France and Europe.

The shadow of later events also falls on the survival of material; asked what single item the Deutsches Literaturarchiv would have liked to display, Frank Druffner described an album of drawings by the writer Ernst Jünger, who was also a noted entomologist, of insects in the trenches. The album was lost during WWII.

This event was supported by the Institut Français, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Oxford German Network, the Fonds culturel franco-allemand, the Maison Française Oxford, and the Bodleian Libraries

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