Lest We Forget…

11 11 2009

And this from the BBC…

To Remember…?

27 01 2009

My daily perusal of the BBC has seen me stumble across an interesting debate. Of course today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and it provides a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the devastation caused by a policy of racial cleansing in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The BBC has posed the question “Should Auschwitz be left to decay?” and has provided the two sides of the argument in the form of Robert Van Jan Pelt (historian) and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (former Polish foreign minister and inmate of Auschwitz). The points raised by both writers are interesting ones, the arguments for the motion, in my eyes, more so than against.

My natural instinct is to say no to the idea. Losing Auschwitz to nature would, in my eyes, be as simple as forgetting the events that went on there. I feel that this should not happen, and that Auschwitz should remain as a reminder for all those who have fascist ideologies. The current return of fascist thinking across Europe (including in Britain, with the BNP) is something which should not be ignored. If there is no warning from history of the logical consequences of extremist thinking, then the orchestrators have nothing to fear. If, however, there remains a visible scar, a legacy more potent than what is found in books, then this is a powerful deterrant to the logical outcome of extreme fascist thinking.

In addition to this, I maintain it is a travesty to be willing lose something that is so embedded into history as Auschwitz is. ‘Hands on’ history is something which is powerful to younger generations. I know from my own experiences just how much a tour of the battlefields affected me when I was younger. It somehow made the whole First World War more real. In a similar way, I would imagine a trip to Auschwitz would put the whole thing into perspective, to make everything clearer to those who know little of genocide. Numbers on a page are ultimately meaningless, the famous phrase “one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic” serves to indicate this with succinct clarity. It is only be seeing, touching and experiencing can the horror (I was going to say the true horror, but this is impossible to really comprehend) be appreciated. My own thoughts are reasonably clear on the topic.

The counter-argument, provided by Robert Van Jan Pelt (who has a great name by the way), is interesting however. His assertion that we cannot ever really know the horrow of Auschwitz is true, but he uses this idea to indicate that the shell, as he calls it, should not become a drain on economic resources. He is in agreement that it should remain open as long as there remains survivors to focus their suffering onto something physical, but explains that this should be as far as Auschwitz should go, and that once the last survivor has died, then the appropriate time to let go of a historical burden has arrived. The physical collapse of Auschwitz would signal the time to erase such a travesty from memory.

Obviously I do not agree with Van Jan Pelt’s view, nor do I fully understand why such a thing needs to be erased from memory. In my mind it is something which should remain as a stark and bleak reminder of the destructive potential of mankind. In a similar manner to Rwanda which has preserved the remains of those killed in that genocide, so too Auschwitz should remain as the blot on the landscape for people to sit up and notice. Erasing Auschwitz from our memories is comparatively easy, it is the remembering it which is the hard part.

Compulsory Remembrance…

4 11 2008

Tonight I have had a moan at my dad. This doesn’t happen very often, as generally my dad is great. But tonight, when he revealed he hadn’t yet bought a poppy, I got a little worked up.

It irks me that people can live in ignorant bliss, and not pay a pound once a year to buy a poppy to show support and remembrance to fallen soldiers of conflict. Why is it so hard? Is it through a lack of education? Is it just a case of being tight-fisted? Or (and this is the option I’m inclined to pick) is it just sheer laziness?

Too many people view the buying of a poppy as a chore, as something that ought to be done ‘because’. The only solution to my mind is to drum it into them from a young age. Make the wearing of poppys compulsory at school for two weeks before Remembrance Sunday. Simple. As the kids get older, educate them in the meaning and significance of the poppy, so that by the time they are adults, they will understand and be willing to get their own and donate to the British Legion.

There is no cost issue either, at my school we used to pay a pound a term (roughly) to be allowed to wear our own clothes for a day. It wasn’t much to pay for the privilage of wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt instead of blazer and tie for a day. So why would paying a pound to wear a poppy for two weeks be any worse? The simple answer is, it wouldn’t.

I don’t think there can be any moral objection either, after all, what is there to object to? Remembrance? I’m reasonably sure most people would not object to paying a small tribute to our fallen soldiers. And lets be honest here, they don’t ask for much. They gave their lives in conflict fighting for Britain in war. All you have to do is spend a pound a year and shut up for two minutes. Hardly hard work now is it?

Ignorance, sloth and being tight are not good reasons not to remember. If we force the issue from a young age through our schools, then, as we move away from the generations who remember the world wars, we can hopefully keep the tribute running strong.

It’s Remembrance Day dammit…

28 10 2008

This will be short and to the point. I was in the petrol station this morning. Whilst I was there in walked a mother with her daughter who must have been about 5 or 6. It was reasonably busy in the shop. As they wandered around I heard the daughter ask her mother, “why are people wearing those flowers?

The mother’s response was “I don’t really know, but it’s what people do at this time of year.

I was disgusted. I felt like giving the mother a slapping and were it not for the fear of being arrested I think I might have.


30 03 2008

Following the last entry questioning why we study history, I would like to use this one to explore the reasons we have for remembering.

This in itself is quite a broad thing, what are we remembering, or who? To me such a question opens up two avenues, it seems we are either remembering an event (VE Day, The Norman Conquest, Martin Luther King giving that speech) or we are remembering a person (King, Winston Churchill, a soldier in the First World War).

So is remembrance equatable to ‘celebration’? Are we celebrating the events when we remember them? I do not mean ‘celebrating’ as in party hats and cake, but instead ‘celebrating’ as in we are remembering the good things about each event rather than the bad. Do we only remember the things which resulted in something positive happening? Is there a tendancy to ignore failure or defeat? (At this point, I am going to unapologetically explain that the course of this will concern WW1, but the wider issues should be considered in relation to other historical events)

On the contrary I would argue. I would suggest that as the twentieth century progressed, remembrance necessarily took the form of ‘negative remembrance’ which could be termed as mourning. 11 November is the prime example of this. Remembrance day is a time to remember the futility of war, originating after WW1 to respect the troops who had laid down their lives. It now encompasses thinking of those who were killed in WW2, or the Falklands, or the Gulf Wars. Remembrance in this case is about mourning the dead. It was meant to be indicative of the point that WW1 was the ‘war to end all wars’. These men had laid down their lives to stop another conflict happening again.

We remember things such as July 1 1916. Such as Passchendaele. Such as the sinking of the Titanic. Such as Pearl Harbour. Such as the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Such as the Holocaust. We remember the disasters of mankind much more easily than we remember the successes for example I would suggest. This, it seems, is equatable to a more general humanistic instinct, that for ‘bad news’. There is more to say about bad news than there is about good news. A rather simplisitic analogy would be football. People are quick to criticise after a defeat, but are rather more stuck for words following a win. It is easier to comment upon what went wrong than what is going right. This, I believe, is part of human nature.

So should it be any surprise that we ‘remember’ the negative things? Should we be keen to put a positive slant on things? Or will we get chastised for saying such a thing? Should we remember the loss of 20,000 men on 1 July 1916? Or should we look at the bigger picture, of tactical improvements, of learnt lessons, of victory?

The answer is obviously both. We should never forget these men, but we shouldn’t let that cloud our memory of the eventual outcome either. In a recent article on Douglas Haig, Britain’s Commander-in-Chief for much of the war, the author, Geoffrey Norman, compared Haig to Napoleon, Hannibal and Robert Lee (a general in the American Civil war who suffered at Gettysburg). The title of the article was “The Worst General” in reference to Haig, who is widely percieved as the ‘butcher of the Somme’ by modern audiences, and the article played up to the modern stereotypes of Haig (bumbling, uncaring, single-minded, unable to plan without the cavalry). The trouble with the comparisons Norman makes (away from the other tripe written in the article), is that the men he compares Haig to, all eventually lost their respective battles. Haig didn’t.

Is this remembrance then? Remembering the wrong thing? Is it better to remember something wrong than not remember something at all? In my opinion certainly not. If you are going to remember, make sure you remember for the right reasons. By all means commemorate the fallen soldiers in the cemetaries around Belgium but do not forget that all these men were killers. Reluctantly, maybe, but killers nonetheless. This shouldn’t be forgotten. Remember then their bravery, their suffering and the things that they may have had to endure. But remember the whole picture. Remember not just the Mona Lisa’s smile, but the whole portrait.

To return to the question then. Why do we remember? Is it more complex than saying we remember to avoid making the same mistakes again? Is it remembering because society says so? Do people remember because that is the standard thing to do. They are expected to do it? I will quickly relate to you the story of one of my housemates a couple of years ago. Whilst a couple of us were sat in silence at 11am on November 11, he came blundering in and asked why we were in silence. As we ignored him and continued our silence, he took offence. When he asked us later as to why we were in silence, we explained. To which his response was that if we had said, he would have shut up. Almost as though if he had had it explained to him he would have conformed. Almost as if people need to be told to remember at this time on this day.

Remembrance, I would argue then, is as much to do with conforming to what society expects as it is actually thinking about those men and women who have died in conflict. I wonder how many people actually think about the war dead at times other than on this date? Not as many I would be willing to guess.

This is wrong. Remembrance shouldn’t be a chore, it shouldn’t be something we need to be reminded to do. It should be something we actively do, something we want to do, and something we have no qualms over doing. We should remember things because they mean something to us, not because we are told to do so by social norms.

I would suggest that we remember to preserve. To preserve memories of these men, or to qualify actions, wars, or battles; and to some extent to stop the same things happening again. This is a hugely unsatisfactory answer to give though. The truth is we remember for a multitude of different reasons, each individual, and unique. However, I would suggest that for nearly everyone, social dictation is one of the contributing reasons for actively remembering.

There is so much more to say on this subject, but, I will refrain for fear of getting boring.