In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Commemoration

  • Introduction
  • Other 19th-Century Conflicts
  • Holocaust Memorials
  • Military Cemeteries
  • Politics of Commemoration

Military History Commemoration
Mary Kathryn Barbier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0003


Societies commemorate past events in different ways, and, in many cases, decisions about how to honor those who fought and died, as well as those who survived, are contested ones. There are many manifestations of the rituals of commemoration, including monuments of varying sizes, songs such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” poems and other forms of literature, parades such as those on Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day, festivals, fireworks displays on the Fourth of July and other important days, and moments of silence. The Gettysburg battlefield is littered with monuments—small, unimposing ones and large, attention-grabbing ones. Landscapes can be dominated or shaped by monuments, such as the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, or the Battle of the Somme Memorial at Thiepval, France. Memorials can be both temporary and permanent. Some are stark, while others overwhelm the viewer with multiple images. Numerous factors shape commemorations. One factor that determines the ritual is the nature of the event that is being memorialized. Because battles and wars have multiple effects on society, it is perhaps not surprising that decisions about commemorating these events are frequently contentious. In some cases, major conflicts ultimately shape the future identity of a nation. Such is the case with World War I and Great Britain. The books and articles included here reflect interest in these commemorations. Authors argue that what is included in commemorations is just as important as what is omitted. While some of the authors present superficial views of war memorials, others delve deeper and seek the meaning of the images and texts used. Many endeavor to discern what the rituals and memorials say about the people who construct them and how these commemorations shape a nation’s or a people’s identity. These books and articles are about the legacy of war, about remembering and honoring the dead, about celebrating those who survived, about the emergence of battlefield tourism and what that says about a society, and about how societies mourn and recover. They make the distinction between individual and collective memory, between private and public rituals of remembrance. In sum, they are about societies: how they think, how they mourn, how they connect the past to the present, and how they incorporate the past into who and what they are.

General Overviews

The works included in this section provide a general discussion of a number of intersecting issues—public and private memory, collective identity, and rituals of remembrance—and the ways in which memorializations are used to construct a bridge between the past and the present. Gillis 1994, Keren and Herwig 2009, and Winter and Sivan 1999 establish the parameters within which one can evaluate commemoration. Kidd and Murdoch 2004 examines the ways in which memory of war can shape political culture, and McCalman and Pickering 2010 provides a unique perspective of a new commemorative ritual, reenactment. Frost and Laing 2013 surveys the meaning behind commemorations. This section also explores commemoration in Britain, Europe, the United States, and other geographic areas and nation-states, including Palestine and Israel. Other works—Bélanger and Dickason 2017; Gilbert, et al. 2020—expand perspectives, give voice to the marginalized, and examine the intersection of commemoration and reconciliation. The authors in Jacob 2020 focus on semiotic systems and war, while Lipke and Mares 2015 argues that two conflicts changed the ways in which wars were memorialized. Low, et al. 2012 examines the evolution of commemoration in Western culture—from ancient to modern times. West 2017 investigates the political consequences of commemorations.

  • Bélanger, Stéphanie A. H., and Renée Dickason, eds. War Memories: Commemoration, Recollections, and Writings on War. Montreal: Mc-Gill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

    This work provides a diverse range of perspectives by examining multiple conflicts—both small and large—in order to present a wide-range of experiences of war and memory. Collectively they discuss what commemorations reveal about a conflict’s players, about interpretations, and about the ways in which scholars write and rewrite the facts.

  • Frost, Warwick, and Jennifer Laing. Commemoration Events: Memory, Identities, Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203374610

    Detailed critique of commemorative events, their societal relevance, politicization, and importance to various stakeholders. Surveys the meaning behind commemorations—nationhood, independence, war, battles, famous people. Analyzes ways society and government use these events. Excellent starting point for students, scholars, and academics investigating commemoration events.

  • Gilbert, Catherine, Kate McLoughlin, and Niall Munro, eds. On Commemoration: Global Reflections upon Remembering War. New York: Peter Lang, 2020.

    The authors who contributed to this volume contemplate the future of commemoration by investigating the ways in which commemoration can foster postwar reconciliation and reconstruction. Contributors include not only writers and scholars but also religious leaders, military veterans, musicians, and artists.

  • Gillis, John R., ed. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

    The focus of this volume is “public memory and collective identity” and is the culmination of a project at Rutgers University. The essays examine the intersection of these two concepts at different times and places. The third of four sections is titled “Memories of War and Wars over Memory.”

  • Jacob, Frank, ed. War and Semiotics: Signs, Communications Systems, and the Preparation, Legitimization, and Commemoration of Collective Mass Violence. New York: Routledge, 2020.

    In this volume, Jacob draws attention to the construction of semiotic systems—sounds, images, and language—about war at various times in history. The authors use semiotic systems to examine conflicts such as the War of the Spanish Succession, World War I, the interwar period, World War II, and the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.

  • Keren, Michael, and Holger H. Herwig, eds. War, Memory, and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

    Focusing either on the “politics of recognition” or of memory or on the ways in which the government negotiated between the invested groups, the essays in this volume investigate the intersection of memory and popular culture and of remembering and forgetting. They examine the ways in which popular culture and the new media represent war and how they negotiate society’s memory.

  • Kidd, William, and Brian Murdoch, eds. Memory and Memorials: The Commemorative Century. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

    Recognizing the profound impact of World Wars I and II, Kidd and Murdoch have put together a volume that delves deeper into issues of war memory and how it shapes political culture. The contributors analyze collective memory and examine the ways in which societies choose to remember conflicts and manipulate memories for specific political and cultural outcomes.

  • Lipke, Bill, and Bill Mares. Grafting Memory: Essays on War and Commemoration. Bard Owl Books, 2015.

    The authors argue that the American Civil War and World War I resulted in the emergence of new ways of honoring the dead. Those constructing the memorials, by naming the dead, individualized commemoration. Memorials also acknowledged the missing and unknown. This shift in memorialization humanized wartime losses.

  • Low, Polly, Graham Oliver, and P. J. Rhodes, eds. Cultures of Commemoration: War Memorials, Ancient and Modern. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    The editors of this volume have compiled essays about the evolution of commemoration in Western culture from ancient Greece through the Vietnam War.

  • McCalman, Iain, and Paul A. Pickering. Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230277090

    McCalman and Pickering argue that people engage in reenactments as a way to bridge the past and present as well as to escape from their boring everyday lives. The essays in this volume also address the ways in which technology has been embraced as well as enhanced by the “affect” of reenactments, and the authors also suggest that reality television is a form of reenactment.

  • West, Brad. War, Memory, Commemoration. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    West is interested in the political consequences of commemoration. He uses a range of examples from different regions to argue that memorials have a global impact beyond contributing to an understanding of the past.

  • Winter, Jay, and Emmanuel Sivan, eds. War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511599644

    The essays in this volume probe conversations about, and rituals of remembrance to facilitate, an understanding of the impact of public space on identity. Providing case studies from three countries, the contributors evaluate participants and their memories in terms of a “social construct” and note that society’s remembrance is negotiated by invested groups and the state.

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