In the United States, we have a lot of similar sounding holidays celebrating the men and women who serve and have served in our military. Heck, it was in doing research for this piece that I realized Armed Forces Day is even a thing. Today, however, is Veteran’s Day, a day we Americans celebrate all those who have given their time to keep us safe and promote our interests abroad.
Throughout the Commonwealth of Nations and many others, today is instead Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. It has a function similar to the American Memorial Day: a day to commemorate those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. This day was chosen to celebrate the ending of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, 99 years ago today. It is from this connection that I want to discuss one of the biggest hit films of this year, Wonder Woman, and its ties to the broader narrative we have surrounding the Great War.
World War I is covered much more sparsely in American history classes than World War II. This is partly due to America’s lack of involvement in the war, fighting for about a year and a half compared to the nearly four fought in the Second World War. But it is also probably due to the lack of coverage postwar in media. There are far more films about World War II than World War I, for example. Even ignoring the vast amounts of propaganda films on all sides created during the wars, Wikipedia’s list of World War II films eventually just contains links to other lists for later decades. Meanwhile, World War I films seem to come in spurts every few years or so, but never in the same numbers.
The root cause of all of these is likely the lack of clear narratives to be found in the events of the First World War. The events of World War I were the culmination of a messy system of alliances and increased military buildup, and the aftermath of so much bloodshed was basically nothing. Whatever victories could have been gleaned from it seemed even more shallow after the dust had settled from World War II and it became clear that World War I’s biggest contribution to history was allowing the second to happen. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is the war that gave birth to Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other writers of the “Lost Generation” who struggled to find meaning in the pointless waste of human life, both during and immediately after the war.
And yet, almost a hundred years later, this war becomes the backdrop for one of the most positive and optimistic superhero movies to come out in recent years. World War I feels like an odd choice for Wonder Woman. Historically, she’s never fought the Central Powers, although that’s mostly because of her creation during the Second World War. For a movie focused on overcoming the evils of mankind and seeing our better nature, was it really the best choice to set it in one of the pettiest and destructive conflicts of recent history?
When discussing the villains of this film, it almost feels as though they were originally written as Nazis, then changed when the time period did. General Ludendorff plays like many similar superpowered Nazis, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Captain America. More chillingly, there are shades of the many Nazi mad scientists, both fictional and real, in Dr. Maru, though the use of gas as her obsession is a nice, period-specific choice. Is this simply our familiarity with evil German stereotypes that makes us see these characters as Nazis? Was Warner Bros. worried that their version of Captain America would be too similar to Marvel’s if they set it in the same time period?
This speaks to a certain historical revisionism that has gone on regarding Germany’s role in the First World War. As early as the Treaty of Versailles, we see Germany being decried as the instigator by those wishing to see the newly ascendant German Empire weakened, particularly France and Great Britain. After the rise and defeat of Hitler, who very clearly did start the Second World War, it became easier to retroactively set a precedent to explain a militaristic Germany as the cause of both.
The thing is, Germany wasn’t responsible for World War I. That honor goes Austria-Hungary, whose quarrels with Serbia led to the intervention of Russia, which then led to Germany’s involvement. However, prejudices and later events have made it easy to read fault into where there was none originally. And, through nearly a century of culture and historical revision, it becomes easy to put cartoonishly evil Germans as the bad guys of a film set at the tail end of World War I.
How we define our history has been a very, very hot topic in the past few months. I think it is important to realize how the way we talk about history can vary from the actual facts, and how even small things like an admittedly excellent movie can help to skew our perceptions of the past.