Credit: By Benoit Aubry CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Somewhere behind national pride, shared memory and a common sense of belonging, forgetfulness stands as one of the less-appreciated pillars of nation-building. As the French historian Ernest Renan famously observed in 1882, forgetfulness “is essential to the creation of a nation.” “Unity is always achieved by means of brutality,” he argued, and brutality is best forgotten.
There are many ways for a nation to forget. One way, popular in Britain at the end of its Empire, is simply to destroy the evidence of wrongdoing and pretend it never happened. This was the case with ‘Operation Legacy,’ for example, an official government strategy for the former-colonies which ordered all documents that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government” to be removed or destroyed. This included “all papers that are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias on the part of Her Majesty's government.”
Vast piles of documents were subsequently thrown into incinerators, burned in bonfires or dumped into the ocean. Officially, in the spirit of national forgetting, none these documents existed. It was only very recently that the scale of the project came to light.
A subtler and arguably more effective option is to commemorate an event and remove any troubling aspects in the process. The 11th of November is one such example: Remembrance Day has become an annual ritual of national forgetting. This event marks the anniversary of the end of the First World War. It promises to remember all those people who lost their lives while fighting for the British state, and to remind us of the value of peace. But underpinned by self-glorification and selective memory, the realities of war, far from being remembered, are excluded from our memory.
To make the deaths of our soldiers more palatable, we ignore the petty nationalism and narrow self-interest that often ignites conflict, preferring instead to paint it as a battle between good (the British) and evil (someone else). We speak solemnly of “sacrifice” and of all those who “gave” their lives, and forget the national conscription that often forced them into “service.” We remember the victims of our opponent’s brutality and forget the suffering caused by our own, and we re-imagine wars to suit ourselves.
As Professor Irwin remarks in Alan Bennett’s History Boys, “there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” It’s not so much “lest we forget,” Irwin says, as “lest we remember.”
Rather than any real reflection on war and peace, public discourse around Remembrance Day is dominated by the poppy. The poppy is no longer a sideshow or an emblem; it’s become the main event. This trend represents the trivialisation of remembrance as a kind of exhibitionist grief, exploring nothing of war and its devastation. And this trivialisation has now reached the point of parody. In 2015, for example, ex-Prime Minister David Cameron’s aides felt obliged to photoshop a poppy onto Cameron’s blazer. This year the Cookie Monster—a puppet from Sesame Street—appeared on the BBC’s The One Show with a poppy pinned to its blue fur.
What is lost in the ceremony and nationalism of Remembrance Day is the reality of war as a time of universal tragedy. Until this universality is recognised, war will retain its dignified and noble glow. All aspirations to promote peace will be lost. For this to change, the tragedies inflicted by Britain on others— whether during Empire, the World Wars (like the bombing of Hamburg in 1943), or beyond—must be given sustained attention.
This is not to begin a blame game or judge whether each decision was right or wrong. It is the opposite: to understand that war often transcends the categories of right and wrong, of victory and defeat. Above all, war should be understood as a time of universal human loss. In its current form, with its focus on British victims and victories, Remembrance Day is incapable of doing this.
In this nationalist context, the language of war can be deployed happily, as something positive. Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), is a case in point. For the past three years, Farage has complained that UKIP should have a place at the annual Cenotaph memorial. He insists that Remembrance Day is “a subject I care very deeply about”: he really, really wants to lay a wreath. But from Farage’s “patriotic” perspective, the two World Wars are seen not as tragedies but unequivocal triumphs of pride and nationalistic victory.
Instead of appreciating that these binary battles between good and evil no longer exist, he prefers to imagine new ones. “Win or lose this battle,” Farage declared before the referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, “we will win this war.” “We have won it without a single gunshot being fired,” he announced later—shamelessly forgetting the tragic death of Jo Cox MP a few days before.
More recently in the European Parliament, Farage referred to politicians who continue to oppose Brexit as “quislings,” a term originating from the Second World War to denote collaborators with the Nazis. Are these comments really respectful to those who lost their lives in these wars, or are they actually, in their wistful longing, a tragic mockery?
This problem doesn’t end with Farage. In the wake of the British High Court’s recent decision on Brexit, which insisted that a parliamentary debate must be held before Article 50 of the EU Constitution can be triggered, the popular press revealed themselves to be equally enchanted with the idea of war. With the scent of poppies in the air, the Daily Mail ran a front page headline denouncing the High Court judges as the “Enemies of The People,” while The Daily Express sought to rally the troops with the following cry: “today this country faces a crisis as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches.” “More than ever,” the article continued, “your country needs YOU to fight for its freedom.”
These comments are symptomatic, not only of the ways in which we are encouraged to remember wars as galvanising and glorious, but also of Britain’s attitude towards its broader history. For the sake of a perfect past and a pool of eternal pride, we anaesthetise ourselves to the horrors of war and ignore the tragedies, traumas and injustices of history in which we are implicated. The poppy, with its narcotic, sleep-inducing qualities, stands as a fitting symbol for how we remember. Britain’s dream-sleep as the polite, dignified superpower—always benevolent in its intentions and respectful in its concessions—is never broken.
This dream-sleep is more dangerous than it may seem. Paraphrasing the poet William Yeats, in feeding our hearts on fantasies, our hearts grow brutal from the fare. By sweeping our brutality under the bed for the sake of a perfect past, we condone that brutality and risk it resurfacing later down the line. The belief in an unblemished record of moral victory also suggests that Britain doesn’t owe anything to anyone. With millions of refugees from Syria and elsewhere currently looking for a home amidst one of the greatest forced migrations of people the world has ever seen, this belief can be deadly.
While national pride does have an important role to play in society—as does commemorating those who lost their lives in fighting for it—generating a sense of national modesty is just as important. At the moment, this modesty escapes us entirely. In Germany, there are public monuments called Mahnmale, meaning monuments to national shame.
This idea could not be more alien to the British, but it’s one we should embrace. Britain has its own chapters of shame to draw on. Days of remembrance are no substitute. As it stands, we flatter the “glorious dead” only to flatter ourselves.