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14th of November 2018


What Britain forgets about remembrance

As visitors enter the historic centre of Munich from the north, they are greeted by a triumphal arch. For any European it is a familiar sight. Based on an ancient Roman model, and richly carved, it is the sort of arch found in cities across the continent, and it is surmounted by the no less familiar figure of Victory driving her triumphal chariot. This is the Siegestor, the Victory Gate. Completed in 1852 and celebrating Bavaria’s part in the Napoleonic wars, it carries the simple inscription, “Dem Bayerischen Heere” — “to the Bavarian army”.

Bavaria had in fact played a highly ambivalent role in these wars, being for much of the time an enthusiastic ally of the French, but it had contrived to wind up on the winning side, and when work began on the arch 30-odd years after Waterloo it was possible to construct a simple and strengthening narrative of heroic victorious achievement. Which is what triumphal arches do well.

A hundred years later, towards the end of the second world war, the Siegestor was severely damaged by bombs. When visitors today reach the other side, they see it is largely postwar reconstruction, with a blank expanse of stone left ostentatiously undecorated, except for the words: “Dem Sieg geweiht. Vom Krieg zerstört. Zum Frieden mahnend” — “Dedicated to Victory. Destroyed by War. Urging Peace”. This is more than just an expanded narrative, adding another chapter to Bavaria’s history. It is a complete change in the purpose of remembering. The arch remains, but its meaning has been altered, the reflections it evokes widened. The old inscription stands. The valiant dead will still be honoured. But the focus has moved from commemoration to admonition; from the ruler looking selectively and triumphantly back, to the citizen, chastened, looking thoughtfully forward. To use the German, a Denkmal, a monument, has become a Mahnmal, an exhortation to reflect and to do things differently in future. Few other languages have a comparable word.

Throughout 2018, many European countries have been remembering the past with a renewed intensity, struggling to articulate what that past should now mean for the future they wish to shape. That remembering is rarely straightforward.

For Germany these November days are freighted as few others with complex and conflicting memories. One day alone gives the measure of the challenge. November 9 this year was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, synagogues were desecrated and burnt, Jewish shops and businesses attacked, large numbers of Jews arrested and many killed. It was also the 100th anniversary of the announcement of the Kaiser’s abdication, followed later in the day by the proclamation of two competing German republics, one social democratic, the other communist. Thus began the 15 years of political chaos and violence that was followed by Nazi rule, the second world war, the Holocaust, total defeat and the division of the country into two states. Finally, by an elegant and unintended coincidence of history, it was on November 9 1989 that the opening of the Berlin Wall cleared the way for reunification. How can such a day be adequately commemorated?

The Siegestor in Munich, a triumphal arch completed in 1852 to celebrate Bavaria’s part in the Napoleonic wars © Shutterstock

When war broke out in 1914, Maréchal Lyautey, the French military governor in Morocco, memorably exclaimed: “But they are mad. A war between Europeans, this is a civil war!” Sunday will mark not just the Armistice, but the climax of 100 years of the three major western combatants trying to make sense of the long civil war, which lasted until 1945, if not indeed till 1989, and which from the Atlantic to the Urals destroyed and reshaped the continent. It is a fitting moment to look at how Britain, France and Germany have, in their monuments and their ceremonies, addressed the question of remembering.

For Germany that task today informs the setting for the political and much of the civic life of Berlin. On the walls of the restored Reichstag, where the Bundestag now sits, politicians and visitors can still see, carefully preserved, the Russian slogans scrawled by Red Army soldiers after they captured the building in May 1945. They are a reminder to everyone of defeat, an invitation to reflect on the dangers of aggressive pursuit of national self-interest, on the inherent fragility of free democratic institutions, and on the political responsibilities of a whole society. The calamities of Nazism were possible, they warn, because everybody — politicians and citizens alike — failed to adequately articulate and defend the principles of a democratic state. It is hard to imagine any other legislature choosing to live with such an uncomfortable reminder of failure. The whole parliamentary building has become a Mahnmal, a call to contrition and amendment of life.

Inscriptions by Soviet soldiers inside the Reichstag building in Berlin © Alamy

Nearby, other monuments commemorate not those who fought in the wars, but those who were murdered by the state. A short distance from the Reichstag are memorials to the Sinti/Roma, to homosexuals and, most strikingly, to the Murdered Jews of Europe: this is a vast expanse of grey sarcophagi into which the visitor walks with a growing sense of oppression, sinking between the stones, engulfed by fear and despair. It is like no other memorial. And it is a very powerful warning.

Stolpersteine, 'stumbling blocks', in memory of the victims of Nazi Germany, by artist Gunter Demnig © Alamy

These are great, sobering set pieces, honouring the victims, reminding a nation of its past shame, and the political irresponsibility that lay behind it. But across the city, the scale of the suffering is brought back to the individual lives that were extinguished. Everywhere visitors find themselves standing on small square brass plaques set into the pavement — called Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, or stumbling blocks — with the name of a person who lived in the nearby building, along with the date when they were deported to be murdered. It is impossible not to be moved by these expressions of shame and lament. Impossible not to think what it implies for the citizen of today, and for a German government thinking about its role in the world. The most important thing to remember, each Stolperstein says, is that tyranny and war do not only kill soldiers, but countless others. Perhaps most strikingly, this commemoration is not focused on a particular moment of the year. It has become part of daily life, a constituent part of the political discourse of the nation, a constant reminder of the human suffering in wars now as well as then. That may explain why, when Europe was confronted with the refugees from wars and military oppression in the Middle East, Germany alone opened its borders to receive them.

“We will remember them.” The chapel of New College, Oxford has, like almost every other college and school in the United Kingdom, a stone memorial plaque, carved with the names of those members who died in the Great War. In the early 1920s, New College placed beside this a second, much smaller memorial: on it were three German names, and the following words: “Men of this college, who, coming from a foreign land, entered into the inheritance of this place, and, returning, fought and died for their country in the war 1914-1919”. It was a controversial decision at the time, widely criticised, and it remains one of the very few war memorials to German soldiers in Britain. Yet it was a remarkable attempt to widen those who should be remembered and honoured — Homeric in recognising the enemy as an honourable foe, a rare monument to give expression to the comradeship evoked in Wilfred Owen’s words, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. It is not an example that has been followed.

“We will remember them.” Few countries can manage spectacles of such pathos as the elegiac torrent of poppies falling from the roof of the Albert Hall during the annual Festival of Remembrance, or the installation at the Tower of London in 2014, Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red, when 888,246 ceramic poppies — one for every soldier of the British empire who died in the first world war — spilled into the moat, as the historic building itself appeared to shed its lifeblood in an unstaunchable flow. This week, in the same moat, 10,000 flames have been lit each evening in the run-up to Armistice Day.

Ceramic poppies outside the Tower of London marking the centenary of the first world war © Getty

And few countries have such potent language of remembrance as Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”. The closing words of that poem’s fourth stanza, “We will remember them”, are repeated by crowds and congregations across the country every November 11. But the “they” who are being remembered has changed little across the 100 years. It has expanded to include those who died in later wars, but for the most part it remains limited to soldiers of the British empire and Commonwealth. Beyond The Cenotaph, the non-British soldiers are very unequally represented in the great London monuments: Australia and New Zealand have in the past 15 years built memorials to their soldiers at Hyde Park Corner, but there is nothing on a comparable scale for soldiers from India, Africa or the Caribbean. The recent debate about whether the prime minister would wear an “Indian” cotton poppy says much. As the empire has shrunk, so, it seems, has our remembering. And there is scarcely ever mention of other allies, French, Russian or American, let alone of soldiers on the other side.

We have rarely found an appropriate way to acknowledge the huge numbers of those not in arms who perished in both wars — the victims who are at the heart of all commemoration in Berlin. This became a central question when, after long debate, a memorial to the airmen of Bomber Command was erected near Hyde Park Corner in 2012. Nobody questioned the rightness of honouring the sacrifice of the many — the very many — who lost their lives accomplishing their missions. There was, however, concern that the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Dresden, Hamburg, Pforzheim and elsewhere should receive appropriate mention, and that the monument should be accompanied by a powerful gesture of reconciliation. In the final monument, on the frieze above the central statue are the words: “This memorial also commemorates those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of 1939-1945”.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin © Alamy

In Dresden especially, where the Frauenkirche had some years before been rebuilt as a monument to peace, there was distress. It was felt that 70 years after the war, an opportunity to widen the scope of the remembering, to make the monument the basis of a new friendship, had been missed. But the purpose of our memorials remains true to what it was: the honouring of those who gave their lives, and a determination that such sacrifice be neither forgotten nor repeated. We do not use our monuments to reflect on our share of responsibility for the first world war, nor see them as steps towards the building of a future different from the past.

Throughout the commemorations of the past four years there have of course been significant acts of shared remembering and reconciliation. The invitation to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to lay a wreath at The Cenotaph is merely the latest of these, which began with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge joining King Philippe of the Belgians and Presidents Joachim Gauck and François Hollande in Liège on August 4 2014 to mark the outbreak of war. It was a significant step for the British.

But such joint acts have now become commonplace between Germany and Poland, and especially between Germany and France. In September 1984, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl stood hand in hand as the fallen of Verdun, the longest battle of the western front, were commemorated. Since then, the pace of collaboration in remembering — and rethinking — has quickened. Most striking is the reimagining, and the rebuilding, of the French national monument at Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges mountains, one of the four French national monuments of the Great War. In 1915-16 it was the site of a long and bloody confrontation, the two sides so close together that each could hear what was being said in the other’s trenches. Inaugurated in 1932 as an entirely French memorial, in an Alsace recently recovered from German occupation, it was an intensely national monument, incorporating an Autel de la Patrie, an altar of the Nation — the secular Republic borrowing the religious language of holy sacrifice, for lives given for France.

François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl commemorating the battle of Verdun in 1984 © Alamy

On August 3 2014, 100 years to the day after France and Germany went to war, Presidents Hollande and Gauck jointly laid the foundation stone of a new building, designed to transform completely the meaning of the monument. It was to become, in the words of the French president, “a bi-national museum — symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany, and especially of our wish to forge a common memory together”. In this new museum the two countries together endeavoured to write a new history of the battle and of the war, honouring the proper patriotism of both sides, while deploring the excesses of nationalism that had led to the conflict. And to demonstrate what seeking to build such a shared, common memory means in the world today, Hollande went on to say how normal it now seemed that France and Germany should be co-operating in the search for peace in Ukraine, in Africa and the Middle East. Three years later, on November 10 2017, Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Steinmeier opened the completed building. Like the Siegestor in Munich, the monument at Hartmannswillerkopf has been repurposed. It is an attempt to write a history that embraces both sides, to remember the past differently, in order to advance the friendships of the present and the collaboration of the future.

On Sunday, German leaders will be in London and in Paris, not to take part in the victory celebrations of former enemies, but to demonstrate that those victories, like the conflicts they ended, are now firmly in the past. The Queen and President Steinmeier will continue to Westminster Abbey. After the ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, Chancellor Angela Merkel will join Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, along with the leaders and representatives of most of the countries that fought in the first world war, at a reception in Versailles to celebrate the opening of the Paris Peace Forum. Versailles, a palace designed to proclaim the supremacy of French military might, is heavy with the history of three centuries of Franco-German warfare and mutually inflicted humiliations. On Sunday it will see leaders of the two countries join others in an endeavour to build a secure basis for peace. The monument of Versailles reimagined as a Mahnmal? Not quite: this is of course a political act, with ambitions and resonances far beyond the commemoration. But it is a powerful demonstration that in every country, how you handle your past reveals much about how you imagine your future.

Neil MacGregor chairs the International Advisory Board of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and was director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015

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