Symbols and Clichés

Battlefields as Places of Memory in the History of Europe

Publication: 17 August 2021

NO. 1 2011



And on the plain, where people calmly meditate

Today, those who had put to flight the universe

Fled. Forty years have passed; this patch of ground,

This lonely and funereal plateau, Waterloo,

This sinister field where God mingled so much

Annihilation, still quakes at that flight of giants.

Victor Hugo, L’Expiation (excerpt)[1]


An important place in current history textbooks on both the French and German sides of the Rhine is occupied by a photograph of a famous scene: the West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and the French president François Mitterrand standing hand in hand in fraternal contemplation before a sarcophagus to honour the memory of those who had fallen in the First and the Second World War. The date: 22 September 1984. The place: Verdun, close to the notorious fort of Douaumont, one of the most terrible of all of the First World War’s battlefields, the place where the commander-in-chief of the German Reich planned to “bleed the enemy’s army to death,” but succeeded only in spilling yet more blood on the soil of the continent of Europe.

Is it any wonder that in Europe so often tortured, the battlefields tend to become temples of the memory with the course of time? Linking memories with places identified by boundaries defined, more or less precisely, by generations posterior to the events that took place there is an age-old tradition in European culture. Tribute to battles won by hoplite armies occupied an important place in the civic religion practised in the towns of ancient Greece, with ceremonies frequently held on former battlefields. One such site was Marathon, where in 490 b.c.e. the Athenians routed the Persian invaders. In the Roman Empire, in barbarian and later feudal ducal states, in city-states, and in nation-states, everywhere or almost everywhere, the memory of a history bespattered with military events – successes or failures – was cultivated. Many populations can, therefore, have their “own” battlefields.

Nevertheless, memory connected with battle sites has always been complex, difficult, and ambiguous: one very restricted space is imbued with at least two separate but interwoven strands of memory. There is, perhaps, no better illustration of this inevitable dichotomy than the differing names given to the same event. In the collective consciousness battlefields function above all as toponyms. This is the case with great defeats – suffice it to mention here the rout of the crusaders in 1119 in northern Syria, referred to by all the chroniclers as the Battle of the Field of Blood, undoubtedly in association with the biblical place name. Other names that also fire the imagination are the Battle of Hattin (or the Horns of Hattin), the Battle of Kosovo, in Poland the Battle of Psie Pole (Hundsfeld), and the Battle of Thermopylae. On this basic level there is often a difference in perspectives between the victors and the vanquished. Poland, for instance, celebrates Grunwald, while German historiography mourns Tannenberg. Similar differences are also found, though to a lesser extent, in other European countries. A few years after Tannenberg/Grunwald came a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War, known to the French as the defeat at Azincourt. Across the English Channel the same battle became known – as early as the 15th century, and in every century thereafter (as even a passing knowledge of Shakespeare will testify) – as Agincourt. In a time closer to our own, at the turn of 31 May and 1 June 1916 one of the greatest sea battles of either world war took place off the coast of Denmark. The annals of the Royal Navy refer to it as the Battle of Jutland. In Germany, however, it quickly acquired the name of the Battle of the Skagerrak (Skagerrakschlacht).

Even the use of the same name does not always preclude variances in perception, and the different interpretations are sometimes expressed in the terms used to describe the type of the event itself. France, summer 1792: the revolution is in danger – foreign troops commanded by the Duke of Braunschweig crossed the border in mid-July and commenced their march on Paris. Mobilised hastily in the patriotic fervour typical of the times, the mixed bag of units making up the French army moved on the coalition forces. Early in the morning of 20 September, the artilleries of the two armies exchanged fire at Moulin de Valmy, a few kilometres outside a little town of Sainte-Menehould. It would indeed be hard to call it a major battle. The gravediggers of the revolution were lacking in determination and soon gave up the fight. Barely a few hundred soldiers fell on either side. Nevertheless, the enemy, decimated more by sickness than by the cannons of the revolution, retreated just a few days later. In Paris, on the crest of the victory, the republic was proclaimed. The skirmish of 20 September 1792 soon went down in French historiography as a battle, and as such it is known to this day. The Germans, however, stubbornly cling to the more modest term of “the cannonade at Valmy,” the adequacy of which we shall not go into here.

The name, however, is only a sign of a deeper rift. The battlefield is the site of a fierce clash between the memory of the victorious and the memory of the vanquished – such antagonism is probably rare elsewhere. In the French imagination Waterloo will only ever be the “mournful plain” of which Hugo wrote, but across the Channel the mere mention of the name evokes an image of triumph. Such opposing memories are usually not only conflicting, but also disproportionate. Victory deserves eulogy, naturally provokes the desire to tell its story, and can even plant the seed of an epic. To the vanquished, defeat is often unspeakable: “Defeat, that giant whose face is filled with terror,” Hugo wrote, also of Waterloo. And indeed, these “places that elude all positive connotation,” the many fields of battle in Europe’s history, are the “trauma-inducing places” of which Aleida Assmann speaks. In the tormented memory of the vanquished and their heirs, the site of their defeat is at best a place of honour, a compulsory destination for students of martyrology.

This bipolar schema would benefit from being rounded out with gradation. The memory of nations holds space for defeats that are on occasion more beautiful than many a victory. In the pitched battle between the Greeks and the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 b.c.e. it were the latter who were victorious. And yet, subsequent generations remembered above all the magnificent stance of the vanquished, especially of the Spartan detachment – the “three hundred” under Leonidas. As Herodotus wrote, the monument erected shortly after the battle in the place where the Greek infantry held its last stand for honour bore a poem by the poet Simonides: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.”[2] The model of unflinching hero demonstrated by Leonidas and his soldiers is inspiring to the contemporary imagination. “Honour to those who in the life they lead / define and guard a Thermopylae,”[3] wrote the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in his 1901 poem Thermopylae. The controversial costume film 300 by Zack Synder, which went on global release in 2007, imbued the Spartans’ act with a new significance in mainstream culture, and also in the context of the “clash of civilisations.”

An even better example is the legend of the founding of Rome, which suggests that power can even be ignited by a defeat. The destruction of Troy is, in a sense, the true origin of the Eternal City because it was Aeneas, who was Trojan, flight from his homeland that led to the founding of the city of Rome. Nevertheless, even if the chronicles of history do contain the odd account of defeat with a positive ring, it is very rarely the site of the defeat whose name creates the significant quality. The reverse is true of victories that are more controversial than they seem at first sight. Grunwald – for here we must return to it – is no exception. In the tradition that extended to Jan Długosz and the end of the 15th century, Grunwald became for all time a symbol of a glorious but vain act of war, a battle that represented a lost opportunity. Thus, the achievements of the armies are celebrated but the procrastination of the king is condemned.

Another similar example is that of the battles in which victory comes at such a price that their memory cannot be separated from negative feelings. Here, too, ancient history offers an archetypal scenario. “One other such [victory] would utterly undo him” is what Plutarch reports, or more likely imagines, Pyrrhus of Epirus to have said after the battle against the Roman armies at Asculum in 279 b.c.e. Pyrrhus was said to have lost more than half of his 13,000 soldiers there. The Roman historian Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus) writes, more calmly but no less pithily, that the unfortunate Pyrrhus “had more glory from his victory than pleasure,” and the expression “a pyrrhic victory” has become widespread in many European languages. The reality was that Pyrrhus and his troops had to return to their ships rather hastily, and hence were unable to secure any lasting conquests; the legend of the bitter Greek victory was fabricated by the historiography of his enemies, the defeated Romans. Was this a crafty move on the part of the losers intended to reduce their shame? Undoubtedly. It is yet another one reminder of the complex nature of the narrative of defeat, which always has two sides.

Unless, that is, the glorious image of victory is tarnished or overshadowed by other differences in memory. How often in our quest for unanimity do we stumble over a question that is terrible in its simplicity: Who really triumphed on the battlefield? The battlefield offers the richest rewards when it produces a hero, or when a hero perishes on it. Great commanders are well aware of this fact, and are keen to link their names to the site of victory, or to have their remains laid to rest there. The French general Kellermann, whose name eclipsed that of the other architect of victory at Valmy, was insistent to have his heart buried at the site of the 1792 cannonade. This link between his name and the place worked to the fullest: the monument, which stands on the site of the battle to this day, is dedicated to Kellermann and those who fell for the fatherland. In other instances, heroes have been buried at the site of a battle against their express wishes as a highly resonant act of state propaganda. Suffice it to remember here the ceremonial reburial of the remains of Paul von Hindenburg in 1935, at the site of the Tannenberg victory monument in Prussia, decreed by Hitler in defiance of the old marshal’s testament.

If the triumpher is not physically connected with the site of their heroics, a kind of rivalry between victors can persist, often for a long time, sometimes irreconcilably. Let us return for a moment to Grunwald. One of the weaknesses of the detailed account left to posterity by the Krakow canon chronicler is the lack of a single, decisive, unchallenged hero. Who is the true hero of Grunwald, Władysław II Jagiełło or the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas The Great? This recurring question is virtually as old as the battlefield itself, and has not ceased to torment historians, writers and artists. As it is widely known, Matejko’s masterpiece, completed in 1878, takes a clear stand in this debate: here it is Witold who proudly raises his sword at the very centre of the mêlée on the plains of Grunwald, while the king of Poland has to content himself with a secondary role. Conversely, the famous monument by Antoni Wiwulski, unveiled in Krakow in 1910 to mark the quincentenary of the battle, shows the Władysław II Jagiełło as the central figure in the event. Or, perhaps the true hero of Polish national history on 15 July 1410 was the armed common mass, as the socialist journalists of the turn of the century claimed? And what of the battlefields, which are doubtless more numerous than one might think, where the confusion of battle failed to produce a clear victor? These are places of uncertainty which more often remain a source of conflict than of reconciled, resolved memory. The history of the Polish kingdom can also offer a fine example of this: the Battle of Płowce in 1331.

There is clear evidence that the memory strategies that emerge around battlefields are varied and changeable. They all, however, have one thing in common: they are focused on taking control of the site of battle. “Possession” of such a site is often less obvious than it might seem. Some ancient or medieval battles tardily included in the “national epic narrative” are surrounded by an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding the actual site of the battle. One such in France is: the Battle of Alesia at which, according to the account of Julius Caesar, the Roman army was annihilated by the Gauls under Vercingetorix. Ever since this battle was discovered to modern scholars, in the early 19th century, the site at which it took place has been an unceasing source of controversy. Was it in Burgundy or the Jura region? Was it at Alise-Sainte-Reine, as the “official” version binding since the days of the Second Empire (1852–1870) would have it, pursuant to studies commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III himself, who monitored the investigations closely? Or was it at Alaise in Jura, the rival pretender to the title of the battle site? In the 1990s Franco-German archaeological research seemed to weigh the scales in favour of Alise in Burgundy. In recent years, however, the debate has been refuelled by a book that has restored the popularity of the Jura theory. “The Battle of Alesia continues” was the apt title of a television programme broadcast in late 2008, reviewing the most recent discussions on the subject. In the memory politics, a battle that cannot be placed is a battle that has never ended.

Some battlefields, even those that have been established accurately, may be beyond the reach of some of those in whose memory they have very profound connotations. In our current, post-colonial times, this category includes the many battlegrounds with which the history of European imperialism and its heirs is strewn. But we do not have to look as far as the Far East or Africa to find similar examples. On 8 September 1514 a Polish-Lithuanian army commanded by the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Konstantyn Ostrogski, dealt a crushing blow to the Muscovite army at Orsha. It is no longer possible to celebrate the victory of the Polish troops at the site of the battle, however, as the Belarusian authorities, loyal to their allegiance with Russia, have prohibited all ceremonies in connection with that event. In 2005, four members of the opposition movement who violated this ban paid for their courage with a very high fine. Similar examples are widespread, even within Europe.

Nevertheless, many battlefields live second lives in the memories of nations that have lost the true proprietary rights to them. One function of a certain strain of European literature and painting is to preserve the memory of military events. Few Poles have had the chance to see the battlefield at Orsha for themselves, but many can doubtlessly recall the painting of the endless sea of brightly uniformed infantry painted by an anonymous artist in the 1520s. Likewise, the names of Napoleonic battlefields conjure up in the minds of many French people today above all reminiscences connected with literature or painting.

Eylau? “C’est un pays en Prusse; un bois, des champs, de l’eau, / De la glace, et partout l’hiver et la bruine.”[4] The French also remember Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert, the story of an old man who, many years after the war, claimed to have been buried alive on the battlefield there.

Austerlitz? A white horse and the impassionate superiority of the emperor, at whose feet Gen. Rapp has just laid the standards seized from the Russian and Austrian adversaries, as immortalised on canvas by painter François Gérard a few years after this triumph of Napoleon’s.

There are similar associations connected with Jena, Wagram and other battles right up to the final defeat at Waterloo. These important sites in the military history of our continent are not physically inaccessible, or at least are no longer inaccessible now, at the beginning of the 21st century, when borders are a thing of the past for most of Europe. Yet even so, they live on, above all in the human imagination, like a rosary of literary reminiscences or a slightly faded kaleidoscope of images.

Is not this virtual heritage also in danger of destruction? Opinion polls show that everywhere, from France to Poland, from Britain to Spain, the body of knowledge about wars, this imagined gallery of national battles, is being erased. Its functioning was the result of a culture of school teaching that has largely been abandoned nowadays. For the most part, these associations do not reverberate with anything in the minds of the young generations. A vast process of change is underway that is transforming battlefields from places of division into meeting places. And above all, into places of tourism. All across the European continent, the “battlefield tourism” segment is growing apace. This lucrative business, founded on memory, does not attach particular importance to visitors’ patriotic sentiments; its only aim is to encourage them to explore a higher category of reality. One of the reasons why the disputes over Alesia flared up again in France, in 2008 was that there were plans for a large hotel and entertainment complex in Alise-Saint-Reine and Mont Auxois. Sites of this type are also used as venues for mass costume events. At present, there is a fashion for historical reenactments of battles on the sites where they were actually played out, employing vast quantities of costumes and period weaponry. Armies of people are crusading across Europe to metamorphose into Teutonic knights, Napoleonic veterans or Roman legionnaires. These enthusiasts celebrate the events together, united by a common respect laced with a touch of nostalgia for the glorious moments of the past – they are certainly no longer fighting out their national feuds.


In summary: Are battlefields today becoming places of pacifism? Of course, some such sites continue to be used to cultivate wounds inflicted by defeat or the glory of victory, called to mind in response to the thorny experiences of recent history after having lain dormant for years, or even centuries. The sexcentenary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989 was an opportunity for Slobodan Milošević to give one of his fiercest nationalist tirades; indeed, this event is widely considered to have been one of the sparks that ignited the fire leading to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and subsequently to the series of wars that plunged the whole region into mourning in the 1990s. The Verdun of Kohl and Mitterrand, however – the “Verdun of reconciliation” – has become, if not the norm than at least a frequent occurrence in the memory politics of European states. On 1 September 2009, at Westerplatte, Donald Tusk and the German chancellor Angela Merkel together opened an exhibition heralding the creation of a World War II Museum. The Polish prime minister announced that he wanted the museum to be “the joint work of many nations, to help them to together come to an understanding of the past and the present”. At a time when new powers are emerging and threats are looming for the Old Continent, Europe has no other choice – it must transform the places that have torn it apart into symbols of solidarity, uniting all its parts. But this is not about creating a new, idealised, indulgent version of the past. If we have to continue talking about these sites of sorrow and terror, it is in order to grasp our tragic history better, and not to revive old animosities.


[1] English translation from Selected Poems of Victor Hugo: A Bilingual Edition, translated by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, Chicago University Press, Chicago 2004, p. 137.

[2] From: Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, Doubleday, New York 1998, p. 384.

[3] Retrieved from: on 25 August 2010.

[4] Victor Hugo, Le cimetière d’Eylau, in: Selected Poems, BiblioBazaar LLC, 2008.

About authors

Mathieu Olivier

    Holds a PhD in medieval history from Université Paris-Est Créteil(UPEC/France) on the chronicles of the Teutonic Order; his research mainly focuses on medieval and early modern writing, the political history of the late Middle Ages, crusading ideology, but also on battles and battlegrounds as lieux de mémoire throughout the centuries. He also contributes to the research project “German-Polish lieux de mémoires”under the supervision of Prof. Traba (Center for Historical studies, PANin Berlin), writing the paper on Tannenberg/Grunwald as "lieu de mémoire" in both countries. He is now teaching history and geography in a bilingual, French-German, section in Southern France.


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