angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: WW1 WW2

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

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The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal seemed to think it is time, and this year asked the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by today’s generation too. I would go even further and shine a spotlight onto the ordinary women, children and elderly who are less obviously “heroic”, but no less brave, casualties of war. For they too pay the ultimate price. Then there are all those whose lives will be impacted for years to come by the losses of their soldier spouses, children or parents, plus the innocent victims of our wartime aggressions – the civilians of the enemy caught in the cross fire of our military strategies and sometimes dubious political decisions. And there are those who have been left physically or mentally scarred for life… who have lost homes, jobs, loved ones… the list is so long.

With our beautiful solemn rituals and sanitizing language, are we in danger of justifying war in a way that makes it an attractive option today? By calling all soldiers who died “fallen heroes” are we mis-using the words ‘heroes’ and ‘fall’, because thousands of them were just young men who were simply following orders to run into a storm of bullets and die a certain death as part of an ill-conceived campaign? Is that heroic, or could we now own the painful facts that it was a tragic misjudgment on the part of those in power with catastrophic results?

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Shrouds of the Somme, a moving new memorial by the artist Rob Heard, first displayed in Exeter and now on in Bristol, seems to me to get closer to the imagery and reality of war that can redress the gulf between the glory of victory and what in reality is generally a bloody, muddy mess. If our rhetoric could include a broader victim awareness along side our wholly justified practice of remembering and honouring those who died defending their countries, I wonder if we would be reminded of the futility, waste, destruction and total sadness of war and seek to avoid it with even more resolve ?

 

 

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I don’t wear a red poppy, not deliberately to make a point, nor out of disrespect – it just isn’t the symbol that captures enough of what, how and to what end I want remember.

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It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.

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First we have the red poppy, the symbol of commemoration of military personnel who have died in war. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or are currently serving and their dependants – there is no question, it is a truly worthy movement of support. But it inspires the question: why is it even necessary? Why are these people, sent by their governments to fight wars not of their making, not wholly supported and cared for on their return by those same governments? Should that not be a self-evident part of the contract they enter into?

Then there’s the ‘To wear or not to wear a poppy?’ question, that rages on each year. Except at times it doesn’t feel like a question but an order; “Poppy Fascism” as some have named it, with people being publically chastised and shamed for not wearing a red poppy. This year it was Jeremy Corbyn, a long-sworn pacifist first. Then more recently Sienna Miller, the actress branded as ‘disrespectful’ in a Twitter storm for not wearing a poppy in televised interviews about her forthcoming film. (The fact that the pin was tearing at her silk dress and removed seconds before she went on air was deemed irrelevant.) Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative defence minister, declared “There should be no excuse for not wearing one so we can honour the war dead.” Is he saying that a poppy is an essential prerequisite to honouring the war dead when for some it is a more personal, complex and inner process? Do we really need a badge that declares we are doing it in the ‘right’ way?

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And now today’s papers are filled with criticism of a distinctly compliant poppy-wearing Corbyn for not having bowed deep enough when he laid his red wreath. And equally for his hand-written message in which he said: “In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace.” Sir Gerald clearly had more to say and declared that Mr Corbyn needed to “observe the formalities which all of us subscribe to. It is nothing to do with whether you agree with a particular campaign or not… The Leader of the Opposition needs to understand that you cannot compromise on respect for our fallen, because it is those of our country who have put their lives on the line in two World Wars, who safeguarded for us the freedom to speak our minds today.”

Ok, let’s just look at those words more closely. According to Sir Gerald, a representative of the official voice on the subject of Remembrance, “all of us subscribe” to the formalities. Do we? Should we? Do some simply not think about it while others feel coerced to toe the official line? And is being resolved to create a world of peace really “compromising on respect for our fallen”? And hang on, that world “fallen” grates too in its glaring understatement of the reality. Soldiers don’t usually just trip over and “fall”, they are shot or blown to pieces; many will have died in agony, alone, frightened, slowly. You can’t say that of course, but is overtly not wanting that to happen to more people in the future so wrong? And did “they” put their lives on the line or did it have something to do with the politics of the governments that sent them? And then the real whoppa – they were apparently dying in order to safeguard the “freedom to speak our minds today”. I’m sure they were but can Sir Gerald really not spot the flaw in what he is saying, the sheer hypocrisy of it? Here is a man, Corbyn – and I am not a full-blown supporter of him before I’m written off by his critics simply for being that – who is trying to speak his mind and yet is being shamed and publically shouted down and told he absolutely shouldn’t speak his mind at the one event of the year when huge amounts of people are thinking and talking about some of the most vital questions that face us as human beings: War and Peace; Life and Death. Love.

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As wars continue, with horrific frequency and Britain continues to display an unusual appetite to pursue them, could it be that the words “Lest we forget” urgently need to take on a broader meaning? In his book Empires of the Dead, David Crane describes how post-1917 “a picture of ordered sanity” was created out of “the psychic and physical mangling of a whole generation”. Some of this lingers on today. Could it be that Corbyn represents a more contemporary voice that wants to include more conspicuously in our rituals of Remembrance, the insane but usually un-spoken fall-out of war, namely the victims. War is not just about soldiers bravely fighting and dying for their country. There are always innocent victims. Thousands and millions of them: women, children, elderly, vulnerable and displaced people. There are animals, cultural artifacts, homes, cities and the countryside all destroyed by war. And peoples’ souls, hearts and lives are broken and made frail from fear and trauma. The list goes on, as do the effects…

Harry Patch, the 111-year-old veteran who came to be a symbol of Remembrance Day himself, conveyed the message: “It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands…” I would wear a red poppy, ten red poppies, if I felt that was the underlying message in the forefront of our attitudes AND policies towards war. Or should I say, PEACE.

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