On the commodification of Remembrance…

Before we leave the Remembrance theme, Niall Ferguson cast doubt on its real value, not least because of the means to which it is bent by various elites:

An act of commemoration is usually initiated by elites (King George V took a keen interest in Remembrance). It nearly always has a purpose other than not forgetting something or someone. And yet its success or failure – measured by its endurance over time – depends on how far it satisfies human appetite for myth. Precisely for that reason, commemoration can involve the systematic misrepresentation, or even outright invention, of past events.

In the case of Remembrance, the mythical invention was that the industrialised slaughter of four and a quarter years had been a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of “civilisation”. The possibility was firmly suppressed – though raised at the time by a rebellious minority – that the war could have been avoided and had done nothing to resolve the fundamental imbalance of power on the European continent. It was precisely this insistence that the war had been a necessary tragedy, not a futile blunder, that gave Remembrance its potency. Without the tragic undertone, the rituals and symbols might have lacked force.

More straightforward victories are somehow harder to keep commemorating. VE Day now passes all but unmarked; VJ Day is largely forgotten. I would be willing to bet that few readers of this piece could accurately name either date. (For the record: May 8 and August 15.) For Britain the human cost of the second world war was lower, and the cause more self-evidently a good one. Quite quickly, the war of 1939-1945 became the stuff of comedy (Dad’s Army) rather than tragedy.

The contrast with the Russian experience is striking. Soviet losses in the second world war dwarfed even French losses in the first. This truly was a tragic conflict, made doubly so by Stalin’s pre-war depredations of Russian society and incompetence in ignoring Hitler’s preparations for invasion.

Victories fade, it seems, unless they are somehow tainted by tragedy. Once upon a time, there were celebrations to mark the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the “Battle of the Nations’’, which spelled the end of Napoleon’s empire. Precisely 100 years after the event, there was a grand commemorative festivity, complete with an imposing Teutonic monument. The idea was not only to celebrate the victory of some (though not all) German states in alliance with Austria, Britain and Russia, but also (as the King of Saxony put it) to contrast the devastation caused by the battle of 1813 with “the scene today of undisturbed and advancing civilisation and commercial energy … the nations competing in friendly rivalry”. Remembrance in this case proved ephemeral. Within 10 months, Germany and Austria were again at war with France, but this time with Britain and Russia on the other side.

He notes the commodification of commemoration, which in some cases has the effect of ‘hollowing out’ or self parodying of the main feature itself:

In one sense, the technology of mass production has made commemoration easier. Every former colony in the world celebrates its independence in much the same way, declaring an Independence Day holiday and selling cheap flags and CDs of patriotic songs to the populace. Yet precisely this facility makes the act of commemoration less powerful. Is there anything more emotionally vacuous than a trudge down the main thoroughfare of the capital, accompanied by tinny martial music on the tannoy? Seldom have I seen a more hollow commemoration than May Day 1989 in East Berlin. What was supposed to be a celebration of the proletariat’s triumph in the class struggle looked more like a Trauermarsch for a regime whose death was only waiting to be pronounced.

By contrast, the most striking proof that we retain our ability to invent traditions and build sites of memory is the modern cult of victimhood. Where the 19th century revered heroes on horseback, our age venerates martyrs in mass graves. There is, of course a long tradition of commemorating martyrdom in certain nationalisms. The Irish have a particular aptitude in this regard, conferring patriotic sainthood on everyone from the famine-starved of the 1840s to the hunger strikers of the 1980s. The Serbs have a similar ability to keep the bitterness of the past alive.

He concludes that all of this may simply be leading to some form of ‘self abolition’:

If you are beginning to think that a kind of remembrance arms race is underway, I don’t blame you. Each month in the year now has more special “days’’ than it has regular days in the calendar. There are 52 in November alone, ranging from Armed Forces Day in Bangladesh (November 21) to World Vegan Day (November 1) – not forgetting Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20).

I remember; you commemorate; he just can’t get over it. Yet we – all of us – are surely now in danger of devaluing the coinage of commemoration to the point of worthlessness. For if everything ends up being the object of formal remembrance, perhaps nothing will actually be remembered. And one November morning, as I struggle to find my poppy in a drawer full of Aids awareness red ribbons and global warming wristbands, I may finally be driven to exclaim: “Oh, forget about it!”

, , , ,

  • DK

    Frank Zappa said “It is not necessary to imagine the world ending in either fire or ice. There are two other possibilities. One is paperwork, the other is nostalgia”.

    Seems to match the sentiments of Ferguson.

  • Wilde Rover

    “And yet its success or failure – measured by its endurance over time – depends on how far it satisfies human appetite for myth.”

    People are hungry for deception?

    “It was precisely this insistence that the war had been a necessary tragedy, not a futile blunder, that gave Remembrance its potency.”

    Oh, so it was a gross, stupid, careless mistake over four years? Stupid people ruled the world at that time?

    “For Britain the human cost of the second world war was lower, and the cause more self-evidently a good one.”

    Oh goodie, I’m glad there are parts of history where things are self-evident, because too much thinking makes my head hurt.

    “Is there anything more emotionally vacuous than a trudge down the main thoroughfare of the capital, accompanied by tinny martial music on the tannoy?”

    Hmm, trudging around shopping malls buying crap you don’t need and can’t afford, accompanied by mind-numbing piped music, the speed of the music dependent on the speed the mall owners want you to trudge?

    “I remember; you commemorate”

    Being aware of the “legal reasons” that stalk Slugger like Dementors, I shall conclude by suggesting that the author’s spin on history indicates he has either chosen to forget or never knew in the first place.

  • Nevin

    “Folklore is what our relatives and older friends tell us about the past. History is – or should be – the accumulation of verifiable knowledge about the past as it is researched by professional scholars and disseminated through books, other media and institutions of learning.”

    Well, I’m not a professional scholar and the older friend can tell the difference between history and folklore; I spent some time with her yesterday discussing some family history that she recalled from WWII. The material of the conversation might well have been more accurate than some of the ‘history’ served up by historians.

    Her father and her uncle were in the field beside Port Coon when the Wellington bomber crashed in 1942. She, her sister and an RAF visitor went immediately to the crash site. One pilot was already dead and the other crew member was still breathing but died a short time later. Unfortunately, I only heard this account yesterday otherwise I’m sure the nieces of the the two pilots would have loved to have met her when they were here in September past.

    I’d visited my friend following a request yesterday morning from someone near Lisburn who was trying to find out where her grandparents used to live. My friend not only had known the grandparents but has a postcard type photo of the paternal greatgrandfather. My friend was able to tell me that the grandfather wore a metal cage support all his life, a legacy from military action in WWI. Needless to say, the lady from Lisburn was thrilled with this breakthrough in her family history research.

    One of my friend’s brothers was a prisoner-of-war in Germany following the defeat at Dunkirk and her recently deceased husband survived the Normandy landing.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Wilde Rover

    “People are hungry for deception?”

    Yes. See 11/11 for illustration.

    “Oh, so it was a gross, stupid, careless mistake over four years? Stupid people ruled the world at that time?”

    Yes. They usually do.

    “Oh goodie, I’m glad there are parts of history where things are self-evident, because too much thinking makes my head hurt.”

    I think there, you speak for millions. That’s why history is usually taught in such a simplistic way. (Eg WWII – good war. Nazis = bad. Therefore Allies = good.)

    “…the author’s spin on history indicates he has either chosen to forget or never knew in the first place.”

    Actually I think Ferguson’s point is that people DO put a spin on history. The problem is that many people believe “history” happened and represents “the facts” when in truth, “history” is what is recorded – and therefore is profoundly influenced by the interests, views and prejudices of the recorder. Events like Remembrance Sunday however, obscure that reality – and are designed to do so.

  • Aislingeach

    There is also a difference between ‘myth’ and ‘deception’–myth is an over-arching storyline that gives meaning to the events; even when they don’t deal in facts, they deal in ‘Truth’ and the core principles of the people that tell them (creation myths, for example, explain our place in the universe and how we are to live our lives in response)

    Also–‘Stupid people ruled the world at that time?’
    Well, yes. When didn’t they? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one!)

  • Wilde Rover

    “Actually I think Ferguson’s point is that people DO put a spin on history”

    I couldn’t agree more Billy Pilgrim. My point was that he undermined the point he was trying to make by falling victim to the same malaise he was maligning.

    ‘“Oh goodie, I’m glad there are parts of history where things are self-evident, because too much thinking makes my head hurt.”’

    “I think there, you speak for millions. That’s why history is usually taught in such a simplistic way. (Eg WWII – good war. Nazis = bad. Therefore Allies = good.)”

    Actually, I was employing that dark sarcasm I reserve for the readership of this Internet forum, although it pains me to have to spell that out.

    “Actually I think Ferguson’s point is that people DO put a spin on history. The problem is that many people believe “history” happened and represents “the facts” when in truth, “history” is what is recorded – and therefore is profoundly influenced by the interests, views and prejudices of the recorder.”

    Great. Except, who is this Recorder? Is he any relation to the Riddler, or the Penguin? Is Batman aware of his movements?

    Or is it just more smoke and mirrors?

  • Billy Pilgrim

    WR

    “Actually, I was employing that dark sarcasm I reserve for the readership of this Internet forum, although it pains me to have to spell that out.”

    Oh, I got the sarcasm all right. It just struck me that what you said in jest was actually very close to the truth. What, you think three million people bought The Sun this morning because they wanted to stay informed about the important events of the day?

    “Except, who is this Recorder? Is he any relation to the Riddler, or the Penguin? Is Batman aware of his movements?”

    The person who records.

    (In the case of WWII there are probably millions of them. In the case of the Peloponnesian War, only Thucydides. Ergo, EVERYTHING we know about the Peloponnesian War comes from a single source – but I’m betting that if we could resurrect half a dozen ancient Spartans and Athenians, they’d have half a dozen different takes on that war, and they’d probably all say Thucydides was talking out of his jaxie! But since Thucydides was the only “recorder” whose work survives, it is HIS take on it that we call the “history” of the Peloponnesian War. Ie Not necessarily what happened as it happened, but all we have.)

    “Or is it just more smoke and mirrors?”

    Is what “smoke and mirrors”? I don’t follow.

  • Wilde Rover

    “The person who records.”

    The Recorder is the person who records. Well that explains everything.

    Voltaire said that history is a pack of lies that we play on the dead.

    We pay no service to those who were “sacrificed” in those four bloody years or the bloody mayhem that followed by urging others to follow in the footsteps of folly.

    “Is what “smoke and mirrors”? I don’t follow.”

    It’s very simple. Pick any moment in international history that makes you think of a three card trick stand and google it with a selection of words of your choice that best describes your suspicion.

    You are sure to find a variety of materials that differ in slight but significant detail.

    Verily, the devil is in the detail.

    The Internet is like the Oracle. You have to ask the right question and train your mind to be able to seek the truth.

    Truth cannot be told, it must be realized.

    Hence all the damn questions.

  • harry

    rememberance of an event is a difficult thing to keep alive beyond the memory of the people involved.

    with only an handful of guys of WW1 left it will be soon beyond living memory. is realistic to keep days that mean less and less to people .

    we dont honor the men who died in battle in the
    1800s
    1700s
    1600s
    1500s
    etc

    we have collectively let go of these wars,deaths and sacrfices. they are usually the confines of scholars who think about formations during the battle of marathon etc.

    so what is a fitting tribute to these guys that we are letting go?

    well one, i would imagine is to keep the soldiers injured, retired whatever, in conditions fit for heroes

    as a irish republican i usually dont have time for “the Brits” but i do think its disgrace that old soldiers are let rot for the sake of a good, not decent, good pension.

    further i think if the government relly wanted to honor the dead of the wars that they would not put them in way of harm in unjustified wars like iraq and afhganistan.

  • topdeckomnibus

    (1) The man who can be in two places at one time

    In 1940 a Messerchmidt crash landed at Kingsgate Kent. The pilot was Werner Bartells a fighter pilot and aeronautics engineer. He was said to have severe head injuries and to have been taken to a specialist hospital in London for injured Luftwaffe pilots.

    About five minutes after he crashed another german fighter came down in nearby Margate. The local press photo seems to show a man with a shaven rear of head (for dressings) bizarrely wearing a Margate College blazer … the school was closed but a certain Werner Bartells was an old boy.

    In the research for the Hardy Kruger film about von Werra a Luftwaffe pilot Werner Bartells detailed how Von Werra and he were in conversation just before von Werra left the POW train in Canada to make his successful bid for the then neutral US border.

    Certified unfit for future combat Von Werra was repatriated in 43 I think .. whereupon he joined the German jet engine development programme.

    I understand that asking questions about Bartells will get you asked to leave the PRO.

    (2) The betrayal of RAF Bomber Streams by illicit transmission of IFF radar signals

    Did Bomber Harris issue a memo about this on 5.1.44 describing the pilots who switched IFF on over occupied Europe as idiots responsible for betraying every bomber stream they flew with ?

    Earlier in the war Dr R V Jones had correlated bomber command losses as I think average 3.5% per mission. Doubling to 7% if any pilot in the stream switched on IFF against standing orders.

    The Bomber Command delegation which told Jones to mind his own business was led by Leonard Cheshire the man of “faith” on this occasion into his mystical use of IFF ???

    Were the German ground stations homing the nighfighters on to the following streams and sparing the IFF users so they would be alive to betray the next mission ?

    Who was it who got a VC for surviving 100 missions ?

    (3) Industry grant aided to wales under the 1936 Special Areas Reconstruction Act

    Was there mass observation survey reports that there was falsification of test records, shortcomings of manufacture and defective aereo equipment supplied to RAF reckoned to have contributed downing more RAF aircraft than the Luftwaffe ?

    Perhaps the best way to commemorate is for the truth to come out. Unlike Thermopyllae, someone knows.

  • paul

    Commemoration is not always a bourgeois construction. Old photographs on display in homes, family discourse around the intimacy of loss and the utilisation of local history each undermine such constructionism.

    The problem in NI are these localised Gardens of Rememrance which are constructed via monocultural lenses.

  • lib2016

    They have similar problems in Central Europe where Russian settlers are left stranded by the end of the Russian empire.

    Those settlers who refuse to assimilate still wish to commemorate the millions of Russians who fell fighting the Nazis.

    The native population tends to see both Russian and German empires as equally unsavoury.

    In Dublin such events are increasingly inclusive and commemorate all those who fell in battle, from whichever side e.g. those who shelled the Post Office and those who died within it. Seems to me like the right way to go.

  • veritas

    there is a saying that the history of war is written by the victor-which makes it in reality the truth to some and lies to others.The real truth is probably lost somewhere in the middle.
    why are those in the services more worthy of remembrance than those civillians who died in death camps or in the bombing of Dresden or in the London blitz.
    It is possibly an old comrade thing-I just think that part of our problems over the years has been selective commemmorations by different sections of the community contributing to further polarisation.

  • kaiserqueenczar

    World War One, what for? A fight between cousins? A war for more, officers encouraging men with guns pointed at their backs to charge machine guns with sometimes 80% casualties (Newfoundland’s first battle). Volunteers (from Canada anyway), shot for cowardice, as the generals sipped tea from their cosy quarters. A war of attrition. Fighting Hitler–yes, and Franco too, but World war One what for?
    Proving that the rich and powerful could make you sacrifice yourself for what for? World war one was it a cull of humanity, what for–please explain–cause i want to remember what for was that big trench war?

  • DK

    “what for was that big trench war?”

    Germany invaded Belgium and France (again) and this time Britain helped France. Sides were too evenly matched and firepower much more devestating than anyone suspected – so digging holes in the ground was the best option – then the whole thing became a big siege operation until the two breakthroughs in 1918, the final one being decisive.

    However, you should note that officer casualties were higher than enlisted men (as they are in most other wars as officers have to lead by example)

  • pete from scotland

    Why does Ferguson single out the Irish and the Serbs? Surely all of the larger nations have many more times blood on their hands. These larger nations have proven over centuries their ability for bitterness on an unimaginable scale. So, why does he single out the Irish and the Serbs?

  • Wilde Rover

    DK

    “Germany invaded Belgium and France (again) and this time Britain helped France. Sides were too evenly matched and firepower much more devestating than anyone suspected – so digging holes in the ground was the best option – then the whole thing became a big siege operation until the two breakthroughs in 1918, the final one being decisive.”

    “All wars are economic in origin.”

    Bernard Baruch, advisor to US presidents in WWI and WWII

    “Naturally, the common people don’t want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

    Hermann Goering

    “History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.”

    Winston Churchill