2018_11_17_AWe Remembered Well But Who Was Excluded?

The Commemoration of the centenary of World War 1 (WW1) caught the imagination of many in the UK. From the sea of poppies around the Tower of London at the beginning of the Commemorations in 2014 to the President of Germany laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day  2018, there have been some moving and imaginative moments as the nation remembered.  Churches and cathedrals, villages, towns and cities have created amazing displays to remember and give thanks for those who sacrificed themselves for their families, friends and countries.  Young people have learnt a large amount about WW1 both on an historical level and also on a personal level as they have discovered ancestors who fought, died in and survived the conflict. 

Remembering WW1 has also thrown a spotlight on more recent conflicts and those who have survived them, some with life-changing injuries. After the march-past of war veterans at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, there were interviews with wounded veterans that were nothing short of inspirational.  In one interview, a former soldier who had lost both legs as a result of an IED (‘improvised explosive device’ – a hidden bomb), spoke enthusiastically about his participation in the Invictus Games, the new life he had planned for himself and his gratitude to the many who were supporting him in his new endeavours.  This is a marked contrast to the treatment of wounded veterans of WW1, many of whom were reduced to begging on the streets.

Another radical part of the WW1 commemorations was the way that previous enemies commemorated their departed heroes together.  As well as the President of Germany laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, bells rang out across the UK, Flanders and Germany giving thanks for the end of the war and for those who died within it.  Former enemies mourning their dead heroes together is an indication that the cycle of revenge has been broken and the door is being opened for reconciliation.

All these events and ceremonies are an indication that the past is being taken seriously.  But remembering the past does not happen in a vacuum.  We remember in a particular way and for a particular purpose. We remember the past in ways that make sense of the present.  The way we remember is influenced and shaped by the hopes and fears of today, by our personal experiences and by the political and social climate in which we live. It is shaped by the need to affirm a national identity.  In these ways, our remembering of the past and our understanding of the present are linked.  In his book The Sacred Wood (published in 1921), T.S.Eliot reminds us, ‘..the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.’  So, what can we learn from the commemoration of the centenary of WW1?

There are many good things that we learn about communities coming together to honour their fallen heroes and to recognise the huge contribution of wounded veterans who are living war memorials in flesh and blood to the conflicts in which they have fought.  It is also a sign of hope and reconciliation to see former enemies coming together in sorrow and celebration. In these ways we remember well.  But are we remembering fully? Reflecting on the commemorations, historian Neil Gregor points out in a blog that some ethnic groupings are excluded from British memory culture and their exclusion points to an underlying stream of nationalism which influences the way we remember.  He writes, ‘…the circle of the remembered are defined by lines of inclusion and exclusion that map onto, and sustain, silent assumptions about belonging and its limits in contemporary society.’ So, Neil Gregor asks, who have been excluded from our remembering? 

Since WW1, Britain has been enriched, refreshed and challenged in becoming far more diverse, multi-cultural and multi-faith. There are many Germans, Hungarians and Polish people who have British citizenship.  In addition, Turks, Syrians and Lebanese have settled in the UK.   Some of these had ancestors who fought on the opposite side to Britain in WW1.   As well as the German empire, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were at war with Britain and some of their descendants are British citizens today.  There seems to have been little or no opportunity for them to honour their departed heroes alongside those at the Cenotaph and other war memorials across Britain. Would these British citizens have felt included in the commemorations of WW1 or would they have been alienated because there was no opportunity to give thanks and honour? This alienation will have played into the anti-immigrant rhetoric which has grown more strident over recent years. At a major occasion of national remembrance which draws together the country, many citizens would not have been able to stand next to their compatriots because there was no space given for them to remember their dead. 

2018 saw an important step towards reconciliation when people of Germany and Britain started to honour their fallen heroes together.  The next step is to give space and permission to all Britons, regardless of which side their ancestors fought on, to honour their dead together side by side. This would make the ‘Kingdom’ more United and be a great stride towards reconciliation.