Why do we remember?

Every November 11, mysterious public rituals take place in a remarkably large number of countries to mark the anniversary of events that happened nearly 90 years ago. All told, fewer than two dozen veterans of the first world war are still living. The number of people with first-hand memories of the war's end cannot be vastly larger. Yet this week, millions of people born long after the guns fell silent will pin paper poppies in their lapels, observe two-minute silences, lay wreaths and attend church services in honour of the war dead. Such observances will occur not only in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but also in Australia, Bermuda, Canada, the Cayman Islands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, South Africa and St Lucia. For a day - or at least for two minutes - the British Empire will reconstitute itself in "remembrance" of "the fallen".

True, Anzac Day (April 25, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings) has to some extent eclipsed Remembrance Day in the Antipodes. And, of course, it is not just the British and the inhabitants of their former colonies who commemorate the end of the first world war. The French, too, have their Armistice Day holiday, as do the Belgians. The Americans have Veterans' Day, although few of them now recall that it originated with the war of 1917-1918. In Poland, November 11 is Independence Day, despite the fact that the independence the Poles won in 1918 was lost again just 21 years later. Yet it is the durability of Remembrance - a distinctly British set of rites and symbols - that is most impressive. Although the victims of other conflicts are now honoured, too, including civilians, the focus remains on the 750,000 servicemen who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918.

Is this a good thing? That's not a question I like to ask. My grandfather fought in the trenches. The school I attended, the Glasgow Academy, became part of a War Memorial Trust in 1919. Every day, as a pupil, I read the solemn injunction inscribed on the school's Roll of Honour: "Say Not that the Brave Die." Yet there is a need to ponder what exactly is achieved by commemoration of particular historical events, even - perhaps especially - when you feel emotionally attached to them. "I remember; you commemorate; he just can't get over it.' While I unquestioningly venerate the memory of my grandfather's less lucky contemporaries, who did not make it home, I am far more ready to criticise other people's rituals of commemoration. I have written with irony about the way Americans misremember the second British civil war, which they prefer to call their war of independence. And I have repeatedly castigated the Serbs for harping on about their past sufferings. Enough double or treble standards. What exactly is going on here with the poppies and bugles?

All acts of remembrance are religious in origin. The great monotheistic faiths practise ritualised commemoration of their founders, their heroes or martyrs, their trials and tribulations. In any global list of holidays, it is still the holy days that predominate. A characteristic feature of modernity has been the effort of political entities - first empires, then nation states and more recently political parties and pressure groups - to create secular versions of commemoration. The British remembrance of the first world war is just one of the more successful bids to sacralise the political.

Commemoration and remembrance are, you might be forgiven for assuming, better than amnesia. But they should not be confused with memory or folklore, much less with history. Nor should we overlook the fact that, in certain contexts, official remembrance may have the effect (often intentional) of keeping old grievances and ancient hatreds from fading.

Our memories are more or less spontaneously constructed as we store experience in our brains, though we are in some measure taught how to do this (how to think historically about our own lives) as we grow up. Folklore is what our relatives and older friends tell us about the past. History is - or should be - the accumulation of verifiable knowledge about the past as it is researched by professional scholars and disseminated through books, other media and institutions of learning.

An act of commemoration is something else. It is usually initiated by elites (King George V took a keen interest in Remembrance). It nearly always has a purpose other than not forgetting something or someone. And yet its success or failure - measured by its endurance over time - depends on how far it satisfies human appetite for myth. Precisely for that reason, commemoration can involve the systematic misrepresentation, or even outright invention, of past events.

In the case of Remembrance, the mythical invention was that the industrialised slaughter of four and a quarter years had been a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of "civilisation". The possibility was firmly suppressed - though raised at the time by a rebellious minority - that the war could have been avoided and had done nothing to resolve the fundamental imbalance of power on the European continent. It was precisely this insistence that the war had been a necessary tragedy, not a futile blunder, that gave Remembrance its potency. Without the tragic undertone, the rituals and symbols might have lacked force.

More straightforward victories are somehow harder to keep commemorating. VE Day now passes all but unmarked; VJ Day is largely forgotten. I would be willing to bet that few readers of this piece could accurately name either date. (For the record: May 8 and August 15.) For Britain the human cost of the second world war was lower, and the cause more self-evidently a good one. Quite quickly, the war of 1939-1945 became the stuff of comedy (Dad's Army) rather than tragedy. The contrast with the Russian experience is striking. Soviet losses in the second world war dwarfed even French losses in the first. This truly was a tragic conflict, made doubly so by Stalin's pre-war depredations of Russian society and incompetence in ignoring Hitler's preparations for invasion.

Victories fade, it seems, unless they are somehow tainted by tragedy. Once upon a time, there were celebrations to mark the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the "Battle of the Nations', which spelled the end of Napoleon's empire. Precisely 100 years after the event, there was a grand commemorative festivity, complete with an imposing Teutonic monument. The idea was not only to celebrate the victory of some (though not all) German states in alliance with Austria, Britain and Russia, but also (as the King of Saxony put it) to contrast the devastation caused by the battle of 1813 with "the scene today of undisturbed and advancing civilisation and commercial energy . the nations competing in friendly rivalry". Remembrance in this case proved ephemeral. Within 10 months, Germany and Austria were again at war with France, but this time with Britain and Russia on the other side.

To the French scholar Pierre Nora, all such "sites of memory" - monuments, museums and even archives - represent a vain effort by modern man to revivify the past, to compensate for the death of tradition. In his view, nothing can prevent the disenchantment of our time from eroding such imagined communities as "the French nation'.

Yet this may be too pessimistic - indeed, too French. While it is true that the 19th century saw profound shifts in the way people in the west thought about time and the past, the ability of states and social groups to construct and propagate myths has proved remarkably resilient - even if today's "sites of memory" are more likely to be websites, and today's monuments more likely to fit in pockets. Just take out your wallet or purse and see what great men and women are stuffed in there, adorning the means of payment with their likenesses. In the US, politicians make it on to banknotes; in the UK, scientists, writers and artists get to rub shoulders with our eternally youthful sovereign.

We change the medium of commemoration, but not the message. It used to be quite common to honour great poets with festive dinners. But now there is only one national poet - Robert Burns - who continues to be feted in this fashion. Instead, an entire industry ensures the immortality of Shakespeare on stage, on screen, on tape, on disk, on crockery and on T-shirts.

In one sense, the technology of mass production has made commemoration easier. Every former colony in the world celebrates its independence in much the same way, declaring an Independence Day holiday and selling cheap flags and CDs of patriotic songs to the populace. Yet precisely this facility makes the act of commemoration less powerful. Is there anything more emotionally vacuous than a trudge down the main thoroughfare of the capital, accompanied by tinny martial music on the tannoy? Seldom have I seen a more hollow commemoration than May Day 1989 in East Berlin. What was supposed to be a celebration of the proletariat's triumph in the class struggle looked more like a Trauermarsch for a regime whose death was only waiting to be pronounced.

By contrast, the most striking proof that we retain our ability to invent traditions and build sites of memory is the modern cult of victimhood. Where the 19th century revered heroes on horseback, our age venerates martyrs in mass graves. There is, of course a long tradition of commemorating martyrdom in certain nationalisms. The Irish have a particular aptitude in this regard, conferring patriotic sainthood on everyone from the famine-starved of the 1840s to the hunger strikers of the 1980s. The Serbs have a similar ability to keep the bitterness of the past alive.

The most striking feature of the period since the second world war, however, is partial dissociation of victimhood cults from nation states. The pioneering movement was the effort of Jews (and many Gentiles) around the world to establish the Nazis' wartime policy of extermination as the most important event of modern history. To be sure, the state of Israel has energetically supported this commemorative movement, but its most striking feature has been its international character. There are now more than 60 Holocaust or Shoah museums around the world, of which only four are in Israel. More than a third are in the US. A growing number of countries, including Britain, now have an official "Holocaust Day' (January 27), in imitation of the Israeli Yom HaShoah.

Success has many fathers; it also has many children. The success of Holocaust commemoration has encouraged other ethnic or religious groups to imitate the Jewish example. Armenian organisations clamour for US legislators to affirm that the Ottoman massacres of their people during the first world war constituted a genocide avant la lettre. In Ukraine only last month, victims of Stalinism were ceremonially exhumed and reinterred. This has become quite a fashionable if somewhat grisly form of ritual. In Spain a new law has just been proposed which provides for the exhumation of the Republican victims of the Franco regime, ending the so-called "pact of forgetting" that once buried Spain's pre-1975 history of civil war and fascist rule.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this new vogue for commemorating victims is that the British Empire, which pioneered commemoration as an activity, has become one of its principal targets. In Africa, particularly, there is now a concerted effort not merely to commemorate the victims of British colonialism but also to seek financial redress for their descendants. In Kenya, for example, a statue was recently erected to the Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi to mark the 50th anniversary of his execution by the British authorities. A bitter debate continues between historians about whether Mau Mau was a national liberation movement or a terrorist organisation. Stung by repeated denunciations of Britain's past by African leaders, notably the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, the British government responded this year by officially commemorating the bicentenary of the act of parliament that abolished the transatlantic slave trade.

If you are beginning to think that a kind of remembrance arms race is underway, I don't blame you. Each month in the year now has more special "days' than it has regular days in the calendar. There are 52 in November alone, ranging from Armed Forces Day in Bangladesh (November 21) to World Vegan Day (November 1) - not forgetting Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20).

I remember; you commemorate; he just can't get over it. Yet we - all of us - are surely now in danger of devaluing the coinage of commemoration to the point of worthlessness. For if everything ends up being the object of formal remembrance, perhaps nothing will actually be remembered. And one November morning, as I struggle to find my poppy in a drawer full of Aids awareness red ribbons and global warming wristbands, I may finally be driven to exclaim: "Oh, forget about it!"
 

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