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!”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty