Last month we commented, with due acidity, on David Cameron’s £50m plan for a great national festival to mark the centenary of the Great War. Marking the anniversaries of momentous events is not in itself a bad idea. But in this case there are three things wrong with its implementation.
The first is the political agenda of national re-unification, planned ahead to co-incide with the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 election. It’s so blatant that you’d have to be blind not to see through it. The Scots are certainly not fooled. Then couple that with what’s expected to be a heroes’ homecoming as the Fourth Afghan War inevitably ends just like the others did. With the departing foreigners wondering what enduring achievement lies behind the self-congratulation. It isn’t history’s fault that 2014 lands in the middle of all this but it’s very much the fault of ruling politicians if they exploit the fact.
The second, the consequence of the first, is that we’re not expected to look back from a position of greater wisdom but from precisely the position that led to war in the first place. If Europeans would commemorate their common tragedy then Europe should do so together, along with the colonials who also gave so much. The Council of Europe might be the institution to look to to organise this, since it includes Russia and Turkey. That’s not the politics of a super-state, it’s subsidiarity in action. There is simply no way that national silos can sensibly commemorate a conflict they caused. Cameron’s plans pit the resurrected British Empire against Fritz the Hun and Johnny Turk, with everyone else floating freely in the vicinity. Perhaps a token link-up with the Germans somewhere. If you insist. But let’s not forget who WON, eh? What’s a few million war dead to set beside the transient buzz of glory?
The third, the consequence of the second, is that the unmentionable victims of the war will remain unmentionable. It will be remembered as a Great Power conflict, in which only the losers can be the bad guys. John Redmond, leader of the Irish Party at Westminster, urged Irishmen to enlist to defend Belgium and Serbia in the belief that his cause might benefit from some general sympathy for the small. It proved not to be the case. It took another 35 years for at least the majority of Ireland to rid itself of egregious foreign rule. While new states flourished from the Baltic to the Adriatic, small nations and historic regions trapped within the boundaries of the western allies suffered renewed persecution. The independent Republic of Alsace-Lorraine, proclaimed as hostilities ceased, was crushed by French arms after 11 tumultuous days. No plebiscite for you, mes amis. The German-speakers of southern Tyrol were ordered to become Italians, their heritage systematically closed down and removed. Breton patriots, backed by no less a figure than Marshal Foch, asked for their own seat at the Versailles peace conference. Breton losses in the war were proportionately double those of Paris. The Bretons believed they had earned a seat. It was denied them, on the grounds that their sacrifice only proved them to be twice as French as anyone else. France continues even now to oppress Brittany and deny its existence as a nation.
Today the usual Whitehall farce will be played out. Those who continue to wage war will cry their crocodile tears. Murderers will lay red poppies at London’s cenotaph, remembering, but learning not a thing. Those who remember and want others to learn might consider sporting the white poppy of peace. Either instead of or as well as the much more restrictively focused red one, which still deems irrelevant the sufferings of civilians and those innocents designated ‘the enemy’. The Royal British Legion, as a charity, can neither glorify war nor denounce it. Would it disapprove if it could? There are those enough who welcome a regular renewal of warfare, just so the youngsters know what the Legion is on about. As an organisation it has no interest in a lasting peace that would ultimately abolish its reason for existing. So who speaks for the truth that prevention is better than cure?
In Edwardian Britain, poppies, given their narcotic properties, were a symbol of sleep, oblivion and death. Nothing better marks the inversion of values brought about by the Great War than that a symbol of forgetfulness became the symbol of remembrance. And through the fog of current war ‘they’ struggle still to grasp the point, remembering how and forgetting why.