No more re­mem­brance days – let’s con­sign the 20th cen­tury to his­tory. Ev­ery­one should stop wal­low­ing in past trau­mas and move on

The Guardian Weekly - - Sport - Si­mon Jenk­ins

Enough of Re­mem­brance Day. Last week­end’s me­mo­rial to “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” has be­come a syn­thetic fes­ti­val whose time has passed. The wars of the 20th cen­tury are be­yond the ex­pe­ri­ence of the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of us. The com­pos­ite of the Last Post, “lest we for­get” and Oh! What a Lovely War is im­preg­nated with en­mity, atone­ment, for­give­ness and self-con­grat­u­la­tion. It has been re­duced to the com­pul­sory “cor­po­rate poppy”.

We re­ally ought to get over it. Next year we should draw down the cur­tain and have a For­get­ting Day, a Move On Day, a Fresh Start Day.

Stand­ing at the vil­lage war me­mo­rial, we are bid­den to re­call those who died for king and coun­try. This was ap­pro­pri­ate when those present, or the lo­cal com­mu­nity as a whole, had suf­fered a per­sonal loss. Na­tion­alised, it loses mean­ing. There is no col­lec­tive grief that can rea­son­ably be shared. Re­mem­brance Day has be­come an­other char­ity event, a mil­i­tary pa­rade, a val­i­da­tion of war by em­brac­ing its hor­rors in re­li­gios­ity.

I have a pas­sion for his­tory and am shocked at how badly it is taught, in par­tic­u­lar the ne­glect of chrono­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive. When my son was learn­ing that now-ob­ses­sive school topic, Hitler, he said: “I know about the sec­ond world war, but what was the first?”

We are told we must re­mem­ber, “lest we for­get” and thus avoid the same mis­takes again. I won­der how many re­mem­brance days it takes for that to come true. “Learn­ing the les­son” has long been his­tory’s chief sales pitch. It must be its great­est fail­ure.

All na­tions hon­our their mo­ments of rev­o­lu­tion, tri­umph and na­tion-build­ing. Most are ex­cuses for fake his­tory. I was brought up to re­gard VE Day as when “we” de­feated Hitler. Rus­sia de­feated Hitler; Bri­tain helped.

The BBC re­cently re­mem­bered Rus­sia’s Oc­to­ber rev­o­lu­tion as the over­throw of a tsarist tyranny. That cen­te­nary was in Fe­bru­ary. Oc­to­ber was a coup against an in­cip­i­ent democ­racy by a com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor. But then no one now com­mem­o­rates the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion as a vic­tory for slav­ery. His­tory is al­ways de­fined by the vic­tors.

Re­mem­brance Day is not fake his­tory. The ag­o­nies it re­calls were real enough, and there is no dan­ger of them be­ing ig­nored. But I sense we would not cel­e­brate them were they de­feats. We re­main fix­ated on the Ger­man wars, with war his­to­ries, war bi­ogra­phies, war movies and war mem­o­ra­bilia. I am told there are 8,000 war ti­tles cur­rently in print, out­gun­ning sim­i­lar books in all other Euro­pean coun­tries to­gether. Every night is Nazi night some­where on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion.

In 2011 the then Bri­tish prime min­is­ter David Cameron even ap­pointed a min­is­ter for “re­mem­ber­ing the first world war”, An­drew Mur­ri­son, and gave him a stag­ger­ing £50m ($66m). What about re­mem­ber­ing Trafal­gar Day, Water­loo Day and, for that mat­ter, Guy Fawkes? They all por­tray for­eign­ers as ob­jects of ha­tred, ridicule and con­dem­na­tion. Why do we strive to keep alive these old an­tag­o­nisms and feuds?

We should not be re­mem­ber­ing, but for­get­ting. Al­most all the con­flicts in the world are caused by too much re­mem­ber­ing: re­fresh­ing re­li­gious di­vi­sions, tribal feuds, bor­der con­flicts, hu­mil­i­a­tions and ex­pul­sions. Why else but for me­mory does Sunni fight Shia or Hindu fight Mus­lim? In­dia and Pak­istan seem un­able to get over mem­o­ries of Par­ti­tion. What an­cient griev­ances mo­ti­vated Myan­mar’s vi­cious­ness against the Ro­hingya?

Iden­tity pol­i­tics is ex­plo­sive enough with­out drench­ing it in the fuel of his­tory. An up­surge in Europe’s re­mem­bered com­plaints is threat­en­ing its sta­bil­ity. The Cata­lans have no sub­stan­tive dis­pute with Madrid, be­yond seek­ing a re­mem­bered sep­a­ratism. The Scots’ case for in­de­pen­dence is not the out­come of some present op­pres­sion, but of a con­geries of past slights and in­dig­ni­ties.

Me­mory sus­tains on­go­ing dis­putes in the Balkans, the Le­vant and Me­sopotamia. In the UK, it is the curse of North­ern Ire­land, pre­serv­ing a prim­i­tive re­li­gious an­tag­o­nism and leav­ing the streets decked in King Billy against the Pope.

In his re­cent book, In Praise of For­get­ting, David Ri­eff warns against “ob­ses­sive ret­ro­spec­tion as a for­mula for un­end­ing vendetta”. Don­ald Trump’s feud with Is­lam is a prod­uct of the fa­nat­i­cal memo­ri­al­ism that still sur­rounds 9/11. Such emo­tion en­cour­ages dis­tor­tion, ag­gres­sion and con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Ri­eff won­ders at the virtue of a com­mem­o­ra­tion that “at best is a con­so­la­tion and an ego boost, at worst a wal­low­ing … in past tri­umphs, in­juries and trau­mas”.

Nel­son Man­dela was aware of this. His great am­bi­tion in 1990s South Africa was to pass through the gates of “truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion” and draw a line un­der his coun­try’s re­cent his­tory. He sought that favoured con­cept in crim­i­nal psy­chol­ogy, clo­sure. Can we not find clo­sure on the 20th cen­tury?

Re­mem­ber­ing is easy. For­get­ting is hard – in per­sonal re­la­tion­ships as in a na­tion’s col­lec­tive re­sponse to the world around it. The task is not to ig­nore some past event but to view it in pro­por­tion, to find some com­pro­mise be­tween present and past. Through­out his­tory, so­ci­eties that do this, that man­age to “let the dead bury their dead”, have tended to suc­ceed and move for­ward. Those that can­not for­get, that wan­der the stony paths of their past and drink at the ran­cid well of griev­ance, are those that de­cay from within.

We should write the wars of the 20th cen­tury into our his­tory books, and then move on. It is time to re­mem­ber the fu­ture. No more re­mem­brance days.

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