‘Remembrance Day no longer has a purpose’
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, 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. 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.
Jenkins believes that obsessing over our history actually does harm. 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.
Nonsense, say some. Those who forget 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 learned 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 wouldn’t have had a second world war. Jenkins is right: this kind of remembering just serves to inflate national pride. We should not censor history, but nor should we view it in such a selective way. It is stupid and sometimes dangerous.
- Will you observe the silence tomorrow?
- Wars have inspired some of the nation’s most famous poetry. Write your own poem based on what you know about the subject.
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 (“Armistice Day”), exactly one year after the armistice (agreement to stop fighting) effectively ended the war.
- What do we not know?
- Whether the first world war was a success. Some view it as a wasteful disaster, given the huge casualties and tactical errors. Others argue that 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 stone structure has stood since 1920. A cenotaph is a monument that commemorates a dead person or people buried elsewhere; the word is Greek for “empty tomb”.
- Commemorations are split over two days: Remembrance Day (November 11th) and Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday of November).
- In the view of the historian Simon Schama, Brexit was revenge for the Norman invasion of Britain in the 11th century.