The past residing in the present and shaping the future

“It’s the memories,” 98-year old D-Day veteran, John Sleep, told the BBC interviewer, Sophie Raworth on Remembrance Sunday. Dressed in a blue suit decorated with medals and donning a burgundy beret and tie, his wheelchair was parked on Horse Guards Parade in front of the traditional ‘march past’ the Cenotaph. Asked how vividly he could remember it all, he said, “It was yesterday.” Silence followed as his face crumpled in its fight against tears. As for so many veterans, the title of “hero” bestowed on servicemen today feels misplaced. What he and his fellow soldiers did was not heroic, glorious or even brave necessarily. Those are qualities that belong to their friends who didn’t return. They are the real ‘heroes’ and their memories still roam and haunt the minds of the living. 

Memories; PTSD; horror, honour and pride get shaken into potent cocktails of commemoration at this time of year. Last weekend was almost overwhelming in the scale of significant events to be remembered. Don’t get me wrong; I love remembering the past because each time I ‘re-member’ an event, I learn a little more about its relevance to the present and the future. Time became a linear construct through the human need for rationality and order. Yet in reality, or in my experience at least, time refuses to simply line up chronologically. The past and future co-habit each moment of what we call the present.

November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall

This year’s calendar of remembrance started on 9th November, when Europe and beyond celebrated the 30thAnniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and remembered all those who died on the physical and symbolic front line of the Cold War. A bit like with the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers, it seems that everybody can place exactly where they were when it happened. I can recall my Sussex landlady’s unbridled joy as she danced in front of her television clapping her hands as the ‘Ossis’ flooded through the wall into the welcoming, cork-popping arms of West Germans. I remember clapping and grinning with her, careful to disguise my shameful ignorance of just how momentous a moment this was. The Cold War may have been the political backdrop to life back then, but I was still in the dark over the potency of German history… half my family’s history.

Next up was the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, an event that every year both moves me to tears and irritates me in equal measure. I have written about it before but in spite of some deeply kitsch musical contributions – James Blunt, the former army officer with a remarkably high voice and Leona Lewis, former X-Factor winner, who massacred ‘Like a Bridge over Troubled Water’ – I found this year’s festivities generally more sensitive, less triumphal (thank goodness) and more inclusive. They focused on the 75th anniversaries of lesser known, yet no less brutal, battles of 1944, such as Monte Cassino and Rome, and the collaboration and friendship of the British, Commonwealth and Allied armies who fought them. They also marked the 100th anniversary of GCHQ and the vital, albeit largely uncelebrated role of the secret services such as the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park completed by a workforce 76.35% of which were women… 

Ok, women’s forgotten / ignored / unrecognised place in war and history is a blog for another day. It’s the role of pride in all these activities of remembrance that I want to touch on here. Specifically the pride felt for and by family members. Pride can comfort in the face of death. Pride can give meaning to apparent pointlessness. Pride can assure the memory of a person is maintained for generations to come. Pride can overcome some of the horror of war. It can swell the heart and make thoughts soar. It can be a balm on the trauma of loss, which, if unprocessed, can be passed from generation to generation. 

So how is it for the relatives of German soldiers, I wonder? Millions died and yet pride is a tool that cannot be employed to soften the sharp corners of grief or maintain the memory. It’s difficult, I know. But for the sake of generations to come, in order to avoid the transgenerational transmission of unresolved emotions and to understand and most importantly quash the re-emergence of Germany’s Far Right, we need to address the problematic nature of remembering the men and women who were limbs in Hitler’s military body of destruction, but also brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, friends… and grandfathers of ordinary German families. 

John Sleep, our 98-year old veteran, is already putting my challenge into practice. Resting on the chequered blanket draped over his lap and gently held in place by misshapen hands in muddy, black woolen gloves, lies a simply-crafted wooden cross decorated with painted poppies and the word ‘Peace’. “It’s for the Monument of Tolerance,” he explained, “an organisation set up on the German border with all nationalities in it. The idea is to prevent wars,” he continues without the hesitation of his earlier answers. John also ‘does’ the German services. “I’ve got no problem with the Germans,” he declares. (Well that’s nice to hear.) “I think they did me a favour.” (Really??) “They got me a very good pension.” (Ah… ok – slightly disappointed face) But fair enough. He’d had “an argument” with a German tank and it had won.  

I like the ideas behind this Dutch Monument of Tolerance. Unveiled on 8 March 2001, it serves as a reminder of the more than 700 soldiers of 11 nationalities who lost their lives in the Leudal area between 1940 and 1945. I am pleased that at least here German families have an opportunity to bestow a tiny fraction of the recognition other nations can pour over their military family members. So, next Sunday 17th November, on the occasion of Germany’s humble Volkstrauertag – ‘people’s day of mourning’ – I would like to invite you to join me for a tiny minute in thought. A tiny moment in which we try and extend the lines of our famous and treasured poem of Remembrance to include some of Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers and their families. 

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Käthe Kolwitz: Mother with her dead son, Neue Wache, Berlin

100 years on – remembering to learn the lessons of history

It’s the eleventh of the eleventh, one hundred years on from the day when three signatures scribbled urgently on a piece of paper in a train carriage in France, finally brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.

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It’s time to remember… and this year even German footballers wore poppies

It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.

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“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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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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