Following my blog entry from March, about the use of heritage within contemporary identity politics and devolution debates in connection to the upcoming First World War centenary, there have been rumours that David Beckham might star in the proposed re-enactment of the Christmas Day truce football match: http://www.centenarynews.com/article?id=879
For such an icon of English football, taking on the mantle of representing a celebration and coming together of Britishness might not be straightforward, especially in the aftermath of the September 2014 referendum for Scottish independence, whatever the outcome of the vote. And the fact that the match will be against German opposition is hardly going to cool things down. The Daily Mail reports that the game will be televised on Boxing Day – it makes a change from watching re-runs of films such as The Great Escape or Escape to Victory at least (or does it?!). There is also very little mention of any wider context of the event, either militarily (as the soldiers returned to their trenches to resume fighting), or socially (in terms of the broader understanding and experience of the First World War). Furthermore, however, the actual practice of using the re-enactment of the legendary football match of Christmas 1914 opens up further questions about the meaning and use of heritage.
The Christmas Day football match might be a neat way to demonstrate how ‘ordinary people’ could wrest control of and re-interpret the very meaning of armed conflict and competition among nation states in a manner that was contrary to the demands of imperial authority: these soldiers were defying their superiors on either side. In many ways, however, the very unusualness of the Christmas truce hardly makes it representative of everyday wartime experience, while the manner in which it has become so central in the official commemorative agenda would seem to undermine its potential for critical reflection. In some ways, the state-directed celebration of the unofficial truce, particularly translated through celebrity cultures, can be seen as a means through which the power and meaning of an essentially anti-national and critical geopolitical action might be tamed.
With such a centralised and increasingly politicised direction of ‘National Commemoration’ taking place and threatening to suffocate alternative heritage messages, therefore, maybe people should take a leaf out of the Christmas 1914 book, climb out of the officially choreographed trenches and explore some alternative means of understanding the First World War.
We are going to see a lot of First World War heritage being deployed for a variety of ends in the next four years and David Cameron exclaiming that Your Country Needs You, will just be one. This process will inevitably blur the boundaries between past, present and future, and will result in sense of ‘productive nostalgia’. Whether this nostalgia will be critical and progressive, or reactionary and exclusionary, however, is still an open question.