What are we “remembering” on Remembrance Day?
I found it symbolically pleasing to be planting bulbs as yesterday’s two-minute silence hummed over the radio waves across the UK. Sitting in the quiet sunshine, I started to “remember”, only to immediately bump into the questions: what and who am I remembering? And to what end? After all I have no personal “memories” of the First and Second World Wars, nor even of Iraq or Afghanistan. Relatives yes, but in the World Wars they were on opposite sides.
Bomber Harris Memorial, (1992) London
I thought back to the fascinating debate on Radio 4’s Moral Maze on Wednesday discussing this very topic in relation to the role of the poppy and what we are doing when we wear one… or don’t wear one? And immediately after, Four Thought on “How to remember”. They were asking whether we are remembering British victory? The horrors and gore of war? The “fallen heroes” and the sacrifices they made…? Is it even right to sanitise the often-horrendous way they died with the word “fallen” or would it be a more effective deterrent to future wars to think in terms of faces and limbs being blown off? And if deterrent to future wars is the aim of remembrance, can it be considered to be working if the government showed itself so ready to rush into another one earlier this year? So I’m wondering if memorials honoured with poppy wreaths provide today’s generations with a meaningful relationship to war, or are they, as certainly in my case, raising more unsettling questions than the silent remembrance they are possibly designed for?
The seconds are ticking and in my increasing panic to use the remainder of the two minutes well, my German half pipes up – possibly unhelpfully in this instance. I thought how not a single memorial was built to the German soldiers after the Second World War. Understandably perhaps, and yet looking back, weren’t most of them like professional soldiers the world over – duty-bound to fight and sacrifice their lives for their country? Instead of remembering their own, Germany was faced with huge questions of how to remember, and apologise to, the millions of victims of their Nazi regime. The resulting difference between British and German forms of commemoration is naturally huge. And fascinating.
Germany’s extensive memorial and counter memorial culture became less about remembering a nation’s brave armed forces by presenting them in bronze on raised plinths to be looked up to, and more about looking unflinchingly at the dark horrors of war and remembering all the victims, soldiers and widespread fallout that reaches far across the boundaries of national identities and “sides”. Their memorials are specifically designed to touch each individual deeply in their core as human beings, going beyond the difference-enhancing concept of nationality or the polarising perception of winners and losers. They are integrated into the cities and everyday lives of Germans as bleak, humbling and thought provoking triggers, reminding people, with or without personal memories, of the horrors of war while quietly affirming the very real commitment to it never happening again.
The two minutes are up, I continue planting bulbs accidentally digging up some of the ones I have just planted while I still try to work out who and how to remember on this important day.