LEST WE FORGET
Lest we forget what, exactly? The centenary of the Armistice will be marked in Britain by solemnity and muted pomp. None of those who fought in the Great War are still alive, and only a tiny number of centenarians can claim to have lived through it. For the rest of us, whether we wear a red poppy, a white poppy, or no poppy at all, we will all be urged to remember it this weekend.
My grandfather spoke little about his experiences, but I do know that because he had a driving licence he avoided the trenches and was involved in supplying the front line, and survived without injury. My other early memory of WWI was of meeting the town’s VC, a man who inspired awe, but who wore his bravery lightly.
For my generation, primary-school pupils in the late 1950s, it was memories of the Second World War, rather than the First, that accompanied our childhood. One-sided histories granted: we saw The Dam Bustersat the Odeon, and followed Churchill’s The Valiant Yearson black-and-white TV. We were conscious of the terrible impact of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — justifying it for shortening the war, but –especially after the Cuban missile crisis — terrified that the technology it had unleashed might destroy us all. We heard less about the destruction of Dresden.
We learned too about other conflicts: in the playground when we were not cowboys and Indians we were occasionally Cavaliers and Roundheads. In most of these scenarios it was clear who were the good guys and who the bad, and we questioned little of the conduct of our side. Would we have fought for real if required? I don’t know, and am thankful never to have been asked to make that choice.
At church I recall a visiting preacher who had survived a Japanese prison camp, but, non-Jews, we learned only slowly about the atrocities of Auschwitz, Belsen and the myriad others. That came slowly, and later, as it did perhaps for our parents: Sophie’s Choiceand Shoahwere films of the 1980s. This weekend also marks the 80thanniversary of Kristallnacht, and we are all too well aware that anti-Semitism has far from disappeared.
By the end of that decade our understanding of history was more layered, and less clear. The Cold War appeared to be over, Imperial gloss had faded, and the abiding images of WWI were from Wilfred Owen and Blackadder Goes Forth.
We — perhaps I should just speak for myself — I have grown to understand that things are not black-and-white, they come in many colours, and when rights and wrongs are concerned, are often grey.
I pride myself on a decent general knowledge (bring on the pub quiz) but never studied history. Working life left little time for more than keeping up with events, but even so adulthood did bring exposure to other stories: brilliant films like Das Bootor The Life of Others, overlooked novels such as Alone in Berlinor All For Nothingshow us that the other side were people too.
Retirement has brought more time to read about other conflicts: Diane Purkiss’ The English Civil Warbrought home how little the fundamental role of the media has changed. Anger against Catholics was stirred up by stories of rape, pillage and babies being ripped from the womb. Such rumours of atrocities are designed to make us forget that the adversary is a human being, and they continue to this day, albeit more subtly. They justify hostility, to the point of enabling members of the same family to feel justified in bearing arms against their kin.
Humans are a species with many common characteristics, but we are also individuals. Affinity with one’s place of birth, nostalgia for one’s roots, and love of one’s country, are all natural parts of developing our individual identity. That is why emotional appeals to patriotism are so alluring.
But pride in one’s own identity need not imply contempt for others. Renascent nationalism is a powerful beast. Some of the invective with which Twitter is awash may be the mischief of bots. But most of it is not.
While we are marking the moment when the guns fell silent, it seems likely others will be desperately trying to thrash out a form of words that will ensure an orderly end to Britain’s almost 50-year membership of the European Union, yet others will be drafting and delivering their analyses of what it will mean.
It may well be a fudge, as are many such statements which are intended to defuse difficult situations. But whether it is clear or confusing, some of those who don’t like it will resort to nationalistic and belligerent analogy to press home their points. Today’s Sun editorial asks us to ‘stand and fight’, as after all, ‘we are not French’.
I bought a red poppy, perhaps out of habit, to make a charitable donation, but certainly not to glorify war, vaunt the superiority of Great Britain, or disrespect civilians who have died.
So on this 11 November, let us not forget that, whether we are Protestant or Catholic, Jew or non-Jew, black or white, Republican or Democrat, we are all of the same family, and that — while some things are worth fighting for — it is much harder to stop a war than to start one.