Jay Winter on war, memory and silence

This week, we teamed up with the Connecting Memories Research Initiative in the School of Literature, Languages and Culture to bring Jay Winter (Yale) to Edinburgh. Almost a hundred people came to hear one of the world’s leading experts on the history of memory talk about war and silence. You can read Anita Klingler’s report on the talk below. You can also listen again via Audiomack or on the CSMCH podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ in your favourite podcast app).  

Jay began his talk by emphasising that, although there has been a “memory boom” within the historical profession, the term still has not been adequately analysed. Furthermore, he also posited that his central claim – namely, that “language frames memory” – required further analysis. Memory, as Jay reminded the audience, comes in many forms, among them visual, auditory, textual, or intertextual.

The main focus of the talk, however, was on just one domain of, specifically, auditory memory, namely silence. Jay proposed that the link between silence and the psychological injury resulting from the First World War, generally referred to as shell shock, must be examined more closely. He stated his conclusion early on, which was that there was a significant discrepancy between the official estimates of the numbers of shell-shocked British soldiers, and the real numbers of men who suffered this psychological injury.

Jay introduces the concept of silence

In this context, it is also crucial to note that the First World War did of course not end on 11 November 1918, but continued on, in various guises of revolution and civil war, and with extreme levels of violence, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Jay spoke of a resulting “civilianisation” of war in those areas, again raising the numbers of people directly affected by the psychological damage of war.

While shell shock had many different symptoms – among them stupor, paralysis, trembling, and nervous collapse – one of its manifestations was silence. Jay identified three different types of silence:

    1. Firstly, the silence of those who cannot speak, either because the war left them mute, or, more significantly, because they did not think anyone would listen to what they had to say.
    2. Secondly, Jay listed the silence of those who choose not to speak, either due to gender codes which forbid, especially, men to speak about certain physical and even more so psychological injuries, or due to a general reluctance to relive the past; or to cover up the past for personal or political reasons.
    3. The third silence was the silence of groups, or collective silence, which occurs when a group agrees to not speak about certain subjects either in public or in private. Importantly, Jay stressed that silence was not the same as forgetting; just because a memory was silent, did not mean that it was not present.

Jay then went on to identify a number of different social constructions of silence, as well as domains of silence. He traced the construction of silences from their creation in a social space, via the price paid by those who transgress these social rules, to the way that, once the silence is broken, the taboo subject becomes a matter of discussion and debate, and, usually, the subject’s taboo status does not last long. As an example, he pointed towards Spain’s ongoing struggles to come to terms with the crimes of its Francoist past.

As the domains of silence, the places where silence exists and what it looks like, Jay listed four key areas. These were:

    • liturgical silence, accounting for certain topics, such as the presence of evil in the world, which believers know not to ask about;
    • political silence, which denies political crimes or errors;
    • essentialist silence, which Jay used to describe the idea, that only those who lived through an experience can adequately describe or speak about it;
    • and lastly, familial silence, an unspoken agreement never to speak of certain family conflicts.

Each of these silences relates to war in particular ways, posing questions such as: How are the cruelties of war possible if God is good? How should a state or society treat war criminals? Can only soldiers understand war? And most significantly for this paper, how did the things left unsaid by shell-shocked soldiers affect their families, especially their wives and children, who often had to suffer under the violence meted out by their silent, traumatised but undiagnosed, husband or father?

In analogy to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative speech acts, Jay characterised silence as a performative non-speech act, the silent performance of the terror endured during the war. He suggested that, while official estimates put the percentage of shell-shocked British soldiers in the First World War at 2%, the real figure was closer to 20-40%. To arrive at this estimate, he compared the official estimates of shell shock at the Battle of Gallipoli with official estimates from other battles, for example the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, which he considered similar in intensity of fighting but where numbers of shell shock diagnoses were notably higher.

This method led him to conclude that between 4-8 million British soldiers suffered from shell shock as a result of the First World War. If the average family size was assumed at three, he continued, this would bring the number of people affected by shell shock, either directly or via a family member, to 12-24 million people.

Jay was passionate about the impact that this discrepancy had, and continues to have, on those men affected, their families, and British society more generally. It was militarily opportune for the British Army during the First World War not to admit to higher numbers of shell shock, as this would have had an adverse effect on recruitment; this tendency, Jay implied, continues today. His thesis was that Britain had never recovered from the First World War, and that the collective silence about the real damage done by it continued to affect people today, the descendants of World War I veterans, as well as the families of current active service members.

Jay also explored several moving literary examples of silences becoming manifest in the writings of Ted Hughes and Anna Akhmatova. He ended his talk by indicating some of the goals he hopes that his research will achieve, including meaningful change regarding how psychological damage is dealt with in the armed forces.

The talk was followed by a brief comment by the founder of the Connecting Memories research initiative, Paul Leworthy, and a stimulating, wide-ranging question and answer session with the audience.

Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany.