Sunday, 9 November 2014

Commemoration of a futile war – and a peaceful victory

We went to take a look at the moatful of poppies at the Tower of London yesterday. 

Sea of poppies at the Tower of London
For the (British and Commonwealth) dead of WW1
It’s been criticised powerfully for being so fixated on Britain: the monument is made up of a ceramic poppy for every British and Commonwealth soldier to have been killed in the First World War. It’s true that ignoring the many millions from other nations to have died seems to be another case of putting nation above humanity. And I’ve often wondered whether in any case we focus too much on the dead: there were many survivors who suffered life sentences of mental or physical suffering as a result of the war, and far too little is said of them.

On the other hand, it was impressive. And beautiful. That flood of red beneath the walls was powerfully moving.

Oddly, today combines two commemorations. The British don’t like letting people’s noses off the grindstone, so while France has a public holiday on Armistice Day, 11 November, to mark the end of the First World War, but in Britain we have Remembrance Sunday, today, so that we can commemorate the event without having a day off.

The other commemoration? The 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. Interestingly it too has been marked with flowers. Not poppies, but roses, one each for leading figures who placed them in cracks in a remaining stretch of the Wall.

Angela Merkel placing a rose in a stretch of the Wall
A still more interesting contrast is in the substance of the events commemorated. 

After all, these days few of us feel the First World War achieved much that we now value. We in Europe live in a continent dominated by Germany. I’m not convinced it would have been much worse, by now at least, had we in Britain stood back and let Germany win a Continental war. The war would probably have been short and cost far fewer lives. In all likelihood, we wouldn’t have been at each others’ throats 25 years later.

In 1961, the East German government, puppet of the Soviet Union which owed its existence to a revolution precipitated by the First World War, set up a wall through Berlin, ostensibly to protect the East from Western Fascists in the West. By happy coincidence, it also prevented people from the East falling into the trap of the West and defecting to it. 

It took 28 years for it to be breached – pretty much a generation. But it cost several hundred lives not several million. On the night the wall fell, that night of 9 November 1989, not a single shot was fired and not a single man or woman was killed. As a commentator told the BBC, a member of the then politburo of the GDR has admitted that the leadership was ready for anything at that time – except for candles and prayers, which is what they got.

Despite the many failings of the present German Federation, few of us look back on the Fall of the Wall with anything but joy. Mixed with relief.

Today we in Britain stand on the brink of the first year since the outbreak of the First World War that this country has been at peace. 101 years of continuous warfare. A big moment. Of course, there are still many opportunities to screw it up and get back into some fighting somewhere. But at least we can reflect today, day of two commemorations, of how much more we seem to have achieved by not going to war with the Soviet Union, than we did by going to war with Germany.

We wouldn’t have got that moatful of poppies. But that might have been a price worth paying. 

Part of the line of balloons set up in Berlin on the line of the Wall
before they were released to mark its fall

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