The time to remember that ‘to the world he was a soldier, to us he was the world’

‘Tis the season to remember… and yet, this year, for the first time, I forgot. Remembrance Sunday was almost over before I suddenly remembered to remember. 

Locked down at home, I was definitely silent. But maybe the official 2-minute silence at 11am passed me by because in my talks and blogs I am frequently remembering. In fact, ‘looking back’ has become part of my identity, my expertise even. So much so that I have been selected, as one of nine speakers, to do a Tedx Talk on the subject: Facing the past in order to create a fairer future.’ It’s an exciting opportunity though unfortunately lockdown has forced the proposed date of 29th November to be postponed until the spring. It will happen though… like so many other things in this disorientating Covid world in which we are currently immersed. 

In the meantime, if you haven’t attended my talk on How Germany Remembers and would like to, there’s a chance to hear it online on Friday 13th November at 11.30am. It is being hosted by the National Army Museum in London where I spoke last year. You can read more about it here and you can register for free here.

But back to remembering… or forgetting in my case. Maybe there are some of us who feel a little tired of remembering. Or maybe it’s the national narrative we tell ourselves each year, that is tiring. This is one of the points made in Radio 4’s ‘Our Sacred Story’ in which Alex Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, suggests that the Second World War is both our modern sacred narrative as well as the shaper of our collective sense of what constitutes good and evil. 

This summer we celebrated the 75thanniversaries of VE and VJ Day. In fact, we’ve done loads of national remembering over the past years. So aside from Remembrance fatigue, I’m wondering if Covid’s restrictive squeeze on lungs, lives and events alike, is also impacting what and how we remember. Lockdown has been turning mindsets inwards, shifting focus and values onto all that is immediately around us – family, gardens, quiet streets or empty skies. Maybe this new way of being is merging effortlessly with the existing sub-stream of thought that strives for essence rather than glitzy, sparkling veneer. 

Looking at the BBC coverage of Remembrance Sunday, it is clear that even our mainstream institutions of commemoration are being forcibly stripped of excess. I salute the efforts of all involved in trying to evoke the all-too familiar rituals, yet nothing could distract from the extraordinary visuals of sparsity. Watching the morning ceremonies at the Cenotaph, one could be forgiven for not knowing where one was. The eerily still Whitehall dotted with a few socially-distanced, poppy- and wreath-bearing dignitaries resembled a set construction of a movie whose budget couldn’t stretch to more actors. And in Westminster Abbey, the Queen, bless her, hatted and masked up in black, couldn’t help but look a little like Darth Vader as she gently touched the white myrtle wreath that was then laid by a masked serviceman upon the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. 

I couldn’t sit through the empty-seated Royal Albert Hall festivities that in the past have both grated and made me cry against my will. Instead, I sought the essence of remembrance in other areas. I soon found it in the podcast, We have ways of making you think. In their Episode 203 on Remembrance, historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray were in conversation with Glyn Prysor, former historian of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Between them they brought to life the history of the ubiquitous white headstones that fill acres and acres of land both here and on the continent. 

Set up in 1917 while World War One was still raging, the process of burying in the region of a million war dead, half of whose remains were missing, demanded a very new way of thinking. In a departure from the Victorian hierarchy of worthiness that extended into death and resulted in the common man just being ‘bunged’ into a mass grave, the Commission made a move towards inclusion. It wanted to evoke the sense that everyone had contributed to the war and everyone was equal in death. The outcome was a uniform design for all headstones that would make no distinction between wealthy and poor. This was of course deeply controversial. Individuality would only be marked through the listing of name, rank, unit, regimental badge and date of death. An appropriate religious symbol could also be added, or not. And a space at the bottom was dedicated to personal messages from family members, some of whom would never be able to travel to the continent to visit the graves of their loved ones. 

Covid has been highlighting the need for a similar leveling process across our hierarchies of wealth, fairness and opportunity. As in war, it is the personal losses and tragedies that will far surpass and long outlive the victories or shenanigans of the politics. In that vein, I found the essence of remembrance in an inscription spotted on a war grave in Bayeux:

Into the mosaic of victory, our most precious piece was laid.

Dresden… a spectacular phoenix rising from the ashes

My recent trip to Dresden and Leipzig reminded me what wonderful places German cities can be. Particularly in summer when the music of high quality buskers wafts through squares lined with outdoor cafés offering chilled Grauburgunder and Pfefferling (chantarelle) dishes with white asparagus; when young people ride on rickety city bikes across the cobbles, hands dangling by their sides. It’s only the ever-present cranes punctuating the skyline of sloping roofs, or the gaping, pulled teeth-like gaps between buildings that remind you that all you are looking at was, in the not so distant past, rubble; grey, gaunt, improbably upright façades standing sentry among collapsed homes and destroyed families. 

I have to admit, before I went to Dresden I had questions about travelling to a reconstructed, rather than original, Baroque city. I questioned whether destroyed buildings should be re-built and replicated or whether their ‘death’ should be seen as an opportunity for something new. Or whether a 21stcentury appearance of 18th century architecture still constitutes an historic monument. My first sighting of the city’s famous profile of domes and spires lining the river and my subsequent face-to-face meeting with the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ quickly rendered those questions superfluous. Dresden is simply beautiful.

Of particular interest to me as a newly elected trustee to the London-based Dresden Trust, was the city’s most historic and well-loved landmark, the Frauenkirche. Its bombed remains had been left untouched by the communist regime of East Germany for decades, both as a symbol against war and a memorial for those 25,000 killed in the notorious 2-day aerial bombing attack by Britain’s RAF and the USA. 

After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1990 reunification of Germany, the future of the Frauenkirche became a focus of the widespread national debates and philosophical soul-searching still continuing to this day. 1993 then launched seventeen months of clearing, documenting and organising the 23,000 cubic meter mound of rubble with characteristic German thoroughness. 8,390 interior and exterior façade stones and ceilings were saved as well as over 90,000 back up blocks and other features. By 2005 – to cut a much longer story short – the church re-opened. Crowned by a shining golden orb – donated by the Dresden Trust as a heartfelt gesture of reconciliation from the people of Britain and created by a team of silversmiths headed by the son of a Bomber Command pilot – the church now proudly dominates the bustling Neumarkt once again, almost a literal phoenix raised from the ashes. 

The golden orb donated by The Dresden Trust

In a former industrial area a few miles away is the antithesis of the Frauenkirche’s resurrection. Housed in an empty gas container, the huge 360˚ digitally processed panorama of the bombed city by the Berlin-based artist, Yadegar Asisi, is almost as mind-blowing. Visitors enter the cylindrical space at ground level but can climb a centrally erected scaffold tower to view the city from various levels. Against a backdrop of music, lights dim or flicker to emulate night or bombs as people stand in silence staring at the abyss of destruction.

Dresden, 1945. A section of the 360˚ Panometer by Yadegar Asisi

Looking at this seems to viscerally insult ones humanity, possibly all the more so because, though we have all clocked the pointlessness of war many times over, “This time, we were the pigs”. In that devastating space, the guest book entry of an American visitor resounds with rare indisputability. This was ‘us’. Whatever our justifications for bombing Dresden – and there are always apparent justifications for aggression, just talk to violent offenders, listen to politicians – we designed bombs to have the maximum impact, not just on buildings or military targets but on civilians. It was an act that rightly continues to needle our ‘heroic victors’ narratives and shake the moral high ground we want to, and often do, occupy. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Dresden. 

Left: one of two original walls left standing

Nearly seventy-five years on, only the dark sections of the original Frauenkirche and the blackened stones that polka-dot the soft sandstone exterior like plasters bear witness to the horrors of those two fateful nights in February 1945. As normal life buzzes at its feet, the church, often filled with music, stands defiantly, a profoundly moving symbol of peace and reconciliation and a testament to the sheer bravery, optimism and determination of Dresdeners.

Bearing witness to war… thanks to Marie Colvin and Don McCullin

Marie Colvin: “Despite all the videos you see [from governments] and all the sanitised language… the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children.”*

Don McCullin“War is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”

UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass…” and be willing to take military action and able to deploy “hard power”.**

While the ‘War’ Secretary flexes our national muscles, anti-war rhetoric is headlining in cinemas and art galleries. And I for one welcome it with open arms because it is coming from people who have experienced war first hand.

Seven years ago, on 22nd February 2012, Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, was killed while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. The recently released film A Private War is a powerful homage to her and the relentless bravery she displayed at the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts in order “to bear witness” to the human suffering. Easily recognisable by her trademark black eyepatch, American-born Colvin worked for The Sunday Times for more than 25 years. By the time she died aged 56, she had probably seen more war than most soldiers.

Paul Conroy and Marie Colvin on her final assignment
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War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

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Am I the only person who found ‘Darkest Hour’ slightly tedious?

Darkest Hour’s depiction of Churchill in May 1940 is getting standing ovations in cinemas across Britain and America. It will no doubt sweep a mantleshelf of awards into its lap too. Am I the only audience member who was a little bored and slightly sickened by it?

Yes of course, Gary Oldman is truly great as the blatantly alcoholic, often fowl-mouthed, war-mongering Churchill, and the film is beautifully shot and directed etc. etc. And of course winning the war and defeating Hitler was a good and essential thing, something to be celebrated. BUT this black and white, reductionist, at times sentimental, ‘Hero beats Villain’ narrative has now been re-hashed ad nauseam.

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Can the British not come up with a more original, nuanced take on the World War Two story?

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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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