We need a remembrance fit for the twenty-first century

With cascades of ceramic poppies, torches in the Tower of London moat, Danny Boyle sandpainting Tommies onto beaches, a new Carol Ann Duffy poem, Peter Jackson’s retouched footage of soldiers in the trenches and no end of documentaries, no one could accuse the nation of underplaying Sunday’s Armistice. Indeed, a retired man whose grandfather fought in the trenches mused to me that the elegance of Britain’s remembrance ceremonies almost obscures the horror of what is being remembered.

Young soldiers going off to war faced terrors we cannot imagine and made sacrifices unimaginable in our comfort today. It is healthy to express grief and loss, and in our reserved British way, we do that in spades. Because we congratulate ourselves with having been on the right side in both World Wars, we can celebrate the fallen as martyrs to a noble cause. Whatever losses we suffered – and unless you’re a forces family, those losses are becoming ever more distant – are validated and dignified by solemnity and royals and monuments and archbishops and parades and lone bugles. We don’t need to worry that Grandpa might have committed war crimes or that Grandma might have collaborated with occupying forces.

I recently interviewed Elke Schwarz, a London-based political scientist for an article I have written about the aftermath of genocides. Germany has done commendably, from reparations to Israel just after the war to Holocaust memorials in many major cities and visits to concentration camps for school pupils. But in addition to this quite burdensome weight of self-criticism, I asked Dr Schwarz if Germans longed for some kind of public expression of their sense of loss. After all, according to US statistics, some 1.77 million German soldiers died in World War One and in all, just over half the German soldiers who enlisted were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. And some 4-5m German soldiers died in World War Two and up to 2m civilians – although these include German Jews and people with disabilities exterminated by the Nazis. In addition, after the war 12m ethnic Germans were uprooted from their homes in east-central Europe.

No, she said. “It’s possible that some people would have liked a public forum to express the pain they’ve gone through,” but she questioned how to express public grief. “The blending of guilt and shame and pain is so raw that anything like a parade or a public forum couldn’t really do justice to it … There’s always a danger that when’s there’s a parade there’s an element of celebration rather than solemnity.”

poppies sign.jpg
Ceramic poppies displayed at London’s Imperial War Museum were planted in memory of British and Colonial lives

Dr Schwarz had been able to ask her grandfather about the war, and she remembers her grandmother struggling with wartime photos of herself looking carefree. By contrast, my own grandfather, who fought Rommel’s troops in Libya, did not speak about the war for decades after he returned; whatever he had seen and survived was expressed in his emotional isolation. I’m going to use a twenty-first century lens here: perhaps a little trauma counselling would have helped my grandfather – and his young family – more than our stiff ceremonies.

What frustrates me about British remembrance is that it still focuses on those who fought “on our side”. Take one of the documentaries broadcast – BBC 2’s 100 Days to Victory. It was a fascinating look at the collaboration between Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What were the German military leaders doing at that time? The programme shed no light on that question, as if the script had been written in 1918. Where were the German historians explaining the strategies the Allied commanders could not have known? Instead, by not explaining the actions of the Germans, they remain faceless, mysterious, threatening. My nephews are half-German. Much as they enjoy films featuring big battles, I would be embarrassed for them to watch something that portrayed the Germans in such a dehumanised way.

It is deeply unfair to contemporary, self-critical Germany to remember their country as only a threat, especially as Brexit tears at the fabric that has held Europe together. Surely Germany has deserved our bridge-building rather than our defences – maybe some of our own healing lies in building those bridges. A century has passed since the guns fell silent – can we not remember war as a universal tragedy and allow space for the loss of all who died? Not to mention giving thanks for 73 years of peace in Europe, its rebuilt, enriched nations transforming from military threat to political allies and friendly, affordable leisure destinations.

12 November update … a fairly happy postscript. The presence of the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier alongside the Queen at both the Cenotaph and a service in Westminster Abbey was a long overdue first. Meanwhile in France another act of remembrance looked forwards and was the most valuable of all. President Macron told the leaders of Russia, the US, Germany, Turkey and other nations gathered in Paris that nations had to find new ways to build peace together in the face of rising populism and “selfish” nationalism. That surely is the most meaningful way to honour the pledge to “never again” let the world slide into such terrible war. Just one question – where was a British dignitary? Could we not have spared one royal or senior politician?

Top photo: 100 Days to Victory (BBC).