Last weekend, in case you’d forgotten, was Remembrance Sunday. This year seemed to have more than the usual amount of fuss beforehand about the wearing of poppies, and it inspired me to think a little about the political meaning of remembrance.
The first issue, of course, is that mentioning any sort of politics in connection with Remembrance Day is subject to criticism; it is, it seems, insulting to the memory of the dead to politicise the issue. This, I believe, misses a fundamental point: the deaths of millions of people, military and civilian, due to political circumstances, is already a political issue. But, it is claimed, it’s not appropriate to point the finger of blame, or even possible, at this occasion.
Isn’t that convenient for those who were to blame?
The First World War was a struggle for territory and influence between European imperial powers; it was the working class fighting and dying for the interests of the rich, safe at home. And yet, I’m told, it’s insulting to their memory to bring up the reasons they died. Instead, we’re expected to pretend that it was a struggle for freedom and democracy, when most men and all women were excluded from voting; to pretend that it was some unforseeable force of nature, an act of god, and not organised murder.
We’re expected to mourn the dead in the Second World War, to remember what a monster Hitler and the Nazis were, but to forget how popular they were among the English upper class in the 1930s; not only Oswald Mosely and Viscount Rothermere (owner of the Daily Mail) but Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor (and former King), who had to be assigned to Bermuda during the war to keep him out of trouble. We’re expected to forget that the Allied governments were happy to ignore the rise of the Nazis in Germany even as they expanded into Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Fascists in Italy as they invaded Ethiopia. We’re expected to ignore the “neutrality” of the UK and USA in the Spanish Civil War, with an arms embargo that prevented support reaching the Republican side but didn’t stop German and Italian support reaching the nationalists, and a non-intervention policy that allowed American oil companies to continue selling to the nationalists while refusing to sell to the Republicans.
This year, it seems, even neglecting to wear a poppy is an insult to the memory of the dead, as is choosing to wear a white poppy, or for a website to display a poppy that is insufficiently “spectacular”. Conversely, it seems that racist and sexist abuse is an appropriate response to a public figure choosing not to wear a poppy.
We say “lest we forget”, a caution against forgetting those who died in war. But what good is it to remember their deaths and not the reasons? How can we expect it to happen “never again” if we don’t remember why it happened in the first place?