The History of Conflict in 2016

Dr Geraint Hughes

The advantage I have as director of the Research Centre for History of Conflict is that I can look back, rather than forward, and like many historians I really do not enjoy making predictions. From an RCHC perspective, there will be plenty for us to commemorate and debate.

2016  will mark the centenary anniversaries for the battles of Jutland (the definitive history of this clash between the Grand and High Seas Fleets, being that written by Andrew Gordon) Verdun and the Somme. The latter will no doubt assume a high profile with the British public, mainly because of the disastrous losses the British Army suffered on the first day (60,000 casualties, 20,000 killed). While military historians debate whether the Somme marked the beginning of a learning curve for the Army, the human cost of 1st July 1916 and the fate of the ‘Pals’ battalions still shapes popular perceptions of the battle and the war itself. I would expect the Verdun commemorations to be characterised in the spirit of Franco-German reconciliation, as exemplified by Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl’s symbolic holding of hands at Douaumont Ossuary in September 1984.

For Ireland, the centenary of the Easter Rising will be an important public event, soured the controversy over Sinn Fein’s politicisation of the rebellion against British rule. Irish historians and the general public have started to rediscover World War One, and whatever the retrospective significance of the Easter Rising Republicans do not like to be reminded that it was the struggle against Germany – rather than the botched rising by Patrick Pearse and his comrades – which preoccupied the majority of Irishmen and women, not least with the sacrifices made by the 16th and 36th Divisions of the British Army on the Somme. Easter 1916 will still have historical resonance, although its commemoration will symbolise the normalisation of Irish-British relations.

But there are other anniversaries too. From a Second World War perspective, it is 75 years since the East African campaign, the second Anglo-Iraqi war (with the overthrow of Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis regime) and the ‘small war’ in Lebanon between Vichy France and the British empire and the Gaullists, the Nazi conquest of Greece and the British-Allied defeat at Crete, the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Operation Barbarossa and the outbreak of the Pacific War.

As for the post-war era, this year will be the sixtieth for Suez, and aside from the usual commentary about the ‘end’ of British imperialism in the Middle East, we may also get a discussion on the other legacies of the Suez conflict – the rise of Israel as a regional military power, the origins of the USA’s engagement with the Arab world in the form of the ‘Eisenhower doctrine’, the impact on the ‘special relationship’, and also the rise and fall of the secular pan-Arabist nationalism exemplified by Jamal Abdel Nasser. The aftermath of Suez also saw the deployment of the first United Nations peacekeeping mission, with the UN Emergency Force. The sixty years of blue beret/blue helmet missions will be the subject of a forthcoming volume by the Round Table, the Commonwealth journal of international affairs.

2016 will also mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution against Communist rule, which itself may be problematic for the Fidesz government of Viktor Orban. On the one hand, the rising in Hungary is a significant event for the national psyche; during a visit to Budapest nine years ago I noticed that the Soviet war memorial was fenced off to prevent it from being vandalised. However, Orban’s Putinophilia and the Russian connections of the extreme-right Jobbik party suggests that there are opportunities for embarrassment here. As Prime Minister five years ago, Vladimir Putin readily participated in the seventieth anniversary commemoration of another painful episode in Russian and East European history, namely the Katyn massacre. However, the Russian President’s interest in glorifying his country’s Soviet past and whitewashing it is such that I will find it surprising if he demonstrates the same magnanimity over the rising of ’56.

There are two other landmark events to be remembered this year. April 2016 will mark forty years since the Soweto rising in South Africa, which in retrospect can be seen as one of the first acts in the downfall of apartheid. The ANC government of Jacob Zuma may regard this as a mixed blessing. Ironically enough, Soweto demonstrated how marginal the ANC and the armed struggle of its military wing – Mkhonto we Sizwe – was in the anti-apartheid struggle – the real battles were fought by the residents of the townships in repeated demonstrations, strikes, riots and other acts of civil disobedience. Zuma is also dealing with a ‘born free’ generation of South Africans who have no memories of the evils of apartheid, or indeed the liberation struggle against white rule, and therefore less instinctive loyalty and gratitude towards the ANC than their parents.

Then there is the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster (28th April 1986), a symbol of the dangers of the atom for Greenpeace, but also the callousness and stupidity of the Soviet elite, demonstrated by its desperate attempts to cover up this catastrophe. Chernobyl revived the Ukrainian nationalist cause, and in this respect the reactor’s meltdown helped precipitate the dissolution of the USSR five years later. Another anniversary for the Kremlin to forget, perhaps.

Image: Battlefield remains at Sidi Regez, Western Desert, 1941, via wikimedia commons.

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