Sunday 6 November 2016

Remembrance Recast

The recent furore over the potential for the England football team to wear a shirt with a red poppy symbol on it for an international match illustrates all that, in my view, is wrong with Remembrance. If I am completely honest, there has always been something about the way Remembrance Day is 'celebrated' that I have always found difficult. If I had paid more attention to the news when I was growing up, I would have understood the stance that Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, took at the service to commemorate the end of the Falklands war in 1982. His determination to pray for the dead on both sides of that conflict caused an irreparable rift between him and Lady Thatcher, who had wanted the service to be triumphant. Given that he had won the Military Cross for bravery forty years earlier, it was hard for the government then to criticise him.

Runcie’s underlying point – that there is loss, bravery, integrity, and heroism (and the lack of three of these) on both sides in a war – was not well understood at the time. It is possible that the way in which remembrance has been cast to school children during that time has contributed to a one-eyed view of conflict in this country.

How many young people in the UK know anything, for example, of The White Rose? This was a group of students, who – in 1942-3 – sought to do what they could to oppose the evil of the Third Reich. The core of the group was composed of just five students, two of whom were siblings - Sophie and Hans Scholl. All were in their very early twenties. Members of The White Rose believed that their Christian beliefs meant they had to protest against what they saw happening in their country. As a result between June 1942 and February 1943 they prepared and distributed six different leaflets, in which they called for the active opposition of the German people to the Nazi movement and its policies.

In the first leaflet they wrote: ‘It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes ... reach the light of day?’. Understandably, the Third Reich was extremely concerned about the potential effects of these and the Gestapo were instructed to find the publishers. On February 18 1943, the Scholls took a very large quantity of leaflets to their university. They dropped piles of these leaflets in the empty corridors for students to find when they poured out of lecture rooms. Before leaving, since they had some leaflets still in their suitcase, they returned to the university atrium and went up to the top floor, and there at the top Sophie threw the last remaining leaflets into the air. This was seen by a janitor, who called the police. Soon afterwards, they were taken into Gestapo custody. Then other active members were soon arrested, of whom six were convicted and executed.

One copy of their last leaflet was smuggled out of Germany, and it was edited by the allies and millions of copies were dropped from aeroplanes onto Germany.

Nearly six decades later, a German national TV competition chose "the ten greatest Germans of all time". The Scholl siblings – founders and leaders of The White Rose - came fourth, ahead of Bach, Goethe, and Albert Einstein. And readers of a widely circulated German magazine voted Sophie Scholl to be "the greatest woman of the twentieth century".

Why is this heroism not widely known outside Germany? Why, in our Remembrance Day activities, do we not think about the waste of life, the courage, the acts of selflessness on both sides of the conflicts that we remember?

Perhaps if young people were taught not just history-according-to-the-victors, perhaps if they were able to understand the effects of war on both sides of a conflict, perhaps if they could hear the accounts of those whose country was hostile to theirs, they could come to a balanced and thoughtful view of conflict. But instead we have seen remembrance through the monochrome lenses of British-centred view of lives lost. 

Of course, we should remember those who give their health, their physical wholeness, or their lives for peace. We should honour their sacrifice most by working for peace. But we should recognise that war has costs on both sides, that for every British family that grieves a fallen, or injured, serviceman, there is probably one - or more than one - that grieves elsewhere too. The Red Poppy appeal recognises only those who have fought under our own flag. To do so in my view is to teach remembrance in a manner which remains jingoistic. We should lobby to broaden our view: we should learn about the cost of war in other countries, and other conflicts. We should teach our children this too. 

Perhaps, if remembrance in schools were to be less patriotic, and more bilateral, young people would grow up into adults who would go to war less often. As decision makers, at the polls or in the government, we might be more careful about entering armed conflict.

On Friday 11th November this year, I will remember those brave men and women who died defending the UK against aggression in both world wars of the twentieth century, and those who have died since. But I will also remember the Scholls and all those, like them, who have sought to fight evil at great personal risk, of whatever nationality or cause. Getting beyond what divides humankind in our remembrance is surely how we provide for a future which is less defined by war, and the need for remembrance, than the past has been.

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