‘We should have a Forgetting Day too …’
Is it important to remember our history? This weekend, Britain marks Remembrance Day by taking a moment to commemorate its war dead. But some say that we would do better just to forget.
At 11am tomorrow, the 11th day of the 11th month, Britain will come to a standstill. People will stay silent for two minutes to mark the moment when the gunfire ended in 1918.
The following day, the nation’s leaders will gather at The Cenotaph in central London for a memorial service. Bugles will sound; another silence will be observed; Prince Charles will lay a wreath. Across the country, people will perform smaller ceremonies at war monuments.
This is a familiar ritual for the British. Conceived after the first world war, Remembrance Day and Sunday have turned into an annual commemoration of all the nation’s war dead. Many wear poppies; some public figures choose not to, drawing criticism. Special charity events are organised. This year, Big Ben will even bong again.
In recent years, the centenary of the first world war has lent this day extra weight. Next year, the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, will be the most significant. Yet some are not convinced that we need the tradition at all.
“We should have a Forgetting Day,” writes Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. Now that almost everyone involved in Britain’s wars is dead, he argues, the event has lost its original meaning. Instead, by emphasising the glory and bravery of the dead, it has become “a validation of war”.
According to Jenkins, our perspective on the past is easily distorted. He points out that we tend to focus on our nation’s successes and ignore its failures (or the contributions of other nations). Worse, remembering can lead to grudges: Jenkins writes that conflicts in Ireland and the Middle East are based on memories of historical battles and persecutions.
Jenkins’s views are shared by the writer David Rieff. In his book In Praise of Forgetting, Rieff argues that enemies cannot forgive one another until they learn to forget. That is what happened in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela insisted on forgiving white racism when he took power. Peace in the present, Rieff believes, is generally more important than justice for the past.
Nonsense, say some. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remembrance Day is not just a show of respect to those who died for our freedom: it is a sign that we have not forgotten the lessons of war. Ending the tradition would be hugely irresponsible.
That is wishful thinking, reply others. If we really learned from the past, we would not have had a second world war. Jenkins is right: this kind of remembering mostly serves to inflate national pride. We should not censor history, but nor should we view it in such a selective way. It is stupid at best and dangerous at worst.
- Will you observe the silence tomorrow?
- Should different wars be commemorated in different ways?
- Wars have inspired some of the nation’s most famous poetry. Write your own poem based on what you know about the subject.
- Research the way another country commemorates its wars. Write a short essay in which you compare and contrast its traditions with Britain’s.
Some People Say...
“The only vengeance and the only forgiveness is in forgetting.”Jorge Luis Borges
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Remembrance Day was first held on November 11th 1919, exactly one year after the armistice (agreement to stop fighting) effectively ended the first world war. (It is also known as Armistice Day.) Though successful, the event had its critics from the start: the novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote that it was “a disgusting idea of artificial nonsense and sentimentality”.
- What do we not know?
- Whether the war should be seen as a success. Historians and the public are divided. Casualties were huge — almost twice as many British Empire troops died as in the second world war. Many see the war as a colossal waste and now believe that British generals made grave mistakes. But others point out that Britain was on the winning side, and claim the defeat of Imperial Germany justified any cost.
- The gunfire ended
- The war did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th 1919.
- The Cenotaph
- This imposing stone structure has stood in Whitehall since 1920. A cenotaph is a monument that commemorates a dead person or people buried elsewhere; the word is Greek for “empty tomb”.
- A bugle is a simple brass instrument associated with the army. It is traditionally used to play a melody called the Last Post at Remembrance Day services.
- Traditions have changed through the decades, but now commemorations are split over two days: Remembrance Day (November 11th) and Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday of November). The bulk of the ceremonies take place on the latter.
- Big Ben
- The bells are currently out of action due to renovation works. They will fall silent again after Sunday.
- In the view of the historian Simon Schama, Brexit was revenge for the Norman invasion of Britain in the 11th century.
- David Rieff
- Rieff used to be a war correspondent. His views on remembering are partly shaped by his experience of ethnic tensions in the Balkans.