The language of remembrance

In a year of important anniversaries, today marks another. One hundred years ago, Britain declared war on Germany, marking the beginning of what became known as the ‘Great War’.

European leaders have gathered in Belgium, flags have been lowered, monuments unveiled, prayers spoken and candles lit and extinguished. It’s a far cry from the unsuitably celebratory atmosphere of the D-Day commemorations that I wrote about in my last post. And rightly so – there is some validity in celebrating the beginning of the end of a war, while any form of celebration today would be absurd and wholly inappropriate.

Yet the knowledge that we, the British, were the victors in the war that began on 4 August 1914 is tangibly present in the British speeches and media coverage of today’s events. And the knowledge both that they were the primary aggressor and the defeated nation is no less evident in the words spoken and written by Germans.

Over and over again, we hear and read the verbs “commemorate”, “remember”, “think”, “reflect”, “mark”, “salute”. Time for reflection is rare in our often hectic lives and days like today force us to find that time, to remember what has passed and to mark a moment in history.

But what will happen tomorrow? We’ll return to our everyday lives, for most of us increasingly distant in every way from the realities of the ‘Great War’, and the words we’ve heard and thoughts we’ve had will fade into nothing. That cenotaph, grave or memorial in our village, town or city will return to its customary function as a barely noticed pile of stone, useful certainly for a posed snapshot or a meeting place, but little more.

The problem is one of passivity and complacency. Despite David Cameron’s insistence in a speech today in Belgium that the principles that determined Britain’s entry into the First World War should still be our guiding principles today, there was little in his or other British speeches to inspire real action. As the military and moral victor, we need do no more than mourn, remember and salute, it seems. These may be verbs but they have little to do with action and do nothing to engage or inspire.

German President Joachim Gauck also made a speech in Belgium today. Representing the nation that both initiated and lost the war, his speech was appropriately different to Cameron’s but need not have deviated too far from the language of remembrance and mourning. Yet he spoke boldly of the “bitter, terrible lessons” of the war, of Germany’s responsibility for it and of ever-present shame.

He demanded the active advocacy among Europeans of freedom, justice and tolerance and made explicit reference to current conflicts that necessitate such action. He appealed to European political leaders to show not only with words, but with actions too, that they have learned the lessons of the First World War.

Gauck’s plea for action and his call for all countries, not just those that carry the most blame, to actively learn from century-old events are a long way from Cameron’s passivity and the British media’s insistence on presenting the First World War as an interesting and saddening historical event to be remembered and marked but no more.

Yet this complacency is misplaced. Just because we play the (somewhat dubious) role of moral victor in this one chapter of history, why can’t we still learn from the mistakes that others made in that same chapter? If nations victorious in wars were to descend from their moral high ground in order to study the moral and military errors of their opponents (and themselves), thereby acknowledging that every nation has the potential to err, rather than seeking lessons only in defeat, humanity might progress a little faster.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

The Germans have a special word for a monument that serves as a warning to future generations – Mahnmal. It’s different to their standard word for monument or memorial – Denkmal. The first word contains part of the word for ‘warning’ – Mahnung – while the second comes from the verb ‘to think’ – denken.

In Britain, we only have Denkmale, memorials that invite us to think, and only that on special anniversaries. Germany has many of these, but also many Mahnmale, monuments that can’t be ignored, that demand our attention, our reflection, our action, monuments that ask of us, ‘how are you going to make sure that this atrocity doesn’t happen again?’

We need a more active rhetoric on our commemorative days. We need a greater willingness to confront today’s realities and to actively use the lessons of the past to better ourselves as nations and as individuals. And we need more than Denkmale that invite us to think – we need Mahnmale to provoke us into action.

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