In 2018, I attended a staff ride of the Western Front as part of the British Army’s Operation Reflect, the Army’s contribution to the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. In true NATO and ‘post-World War spirit’, the participants stemmed from the former Entente and Central powers, and the syndicates consisted of a mix of officer from Britain, France, the US, Germany and other nations. The staff ride provided many valuable insights, not only into the history of the First World War, but also into cultural approaches of the different nations represented. Within the context of this article, one event stood out: At the end of the staff ride, a service was held in a cemetery that contains the bodies of British, German and French soldiers, who had fallen in the First World War. This service was a joint one and saw contributions from the military padres of the three nations. While I was listening to the service, I noticed that, at times, certain national contingents were getting a little nervous. After the service was over, it became apparent why this had been the case: I was first approached by some German officers who expressed their astonishment about the military stance of a religious service and the sometimes martial words used by the non-German padres. The British officers, who also approached me, showed some confusion about the missing military link in the German sermon, and the fact that the German padre had talked about general suffering and hardships in war and conflict rather than relating his words to what had happened on the Western Front 100 years ago.
This event showed that remembrance is a complex and complicated matter. First and foremost, it is a deeply personal one, and the experience of suffering and the loss of loved ones is not bound by nationality. However, as the event described above showed, there are also different ‘national ways of remembrance’. Naturally, this is a very broad brush, and, in reality, the experiences of individuals and families are too diverse to merit such a national approach. And yet, a degree of ‘nationalisation’ in the memory and remembrance of war is visible in all countries. Too diverse are the kaleidoscopic individual experiences of loss to remember them all at an official level. And so, the individual experience is moulded into an accepted national memory and form of remembrance. In the European context, these acts are centred around the experiences of the World Wars, and dates from these conflicts were chosen as the days for national remembrance and mourning. The dates reflect the history of the nations in the 20th century: In France, Belgium and the UK, 11 November was chosen, reflecting the losses of the First World War. The date was also adopted in Poland, not least to combine the concepts of mourning with the celebration of the re-establishment of Poland as an independent nation as a consequence of the outcome of the First World War. Other European nations have chosen different dates and have placed the emphasis on the Second World War. To give just a few examples: in the Netherlands, the date is 4 May; in Denmark it is 5 May (both linked to the liberation from German occupation at the end of the Second World War). Many countries of the former Soviet Union remember their dead on 22 June, the day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The exceptions to this general rule of linking remembrance to historical events can be found in the German-speaking countries. Austria commemorates its war dead on 26 October, the national day, while in Germany Volkstrauertag takes place on a Sunday in November, two weeks before the first Advent.
Since 1945, the character of these events has changed considerably in Europe. Initially, they served as a focal point for the nations to remember the loss of loved ones and family members, and to give meaning to this loss. Over time, the focus changed. Today, the emphasis is very strongly on reconciliation. This term has even found its way into the official motto of the German War Graves Commission, which states that its aim is ‘reconciliation over the graves’. In addition, the experience of personal loss was quickly and officially linked to the project of European integration, and the ‘this must never happen again’ mantra has become one of the founding pillars of the European Union. Naturally, politics also played a role here. In the early years after the Second World War, the project of integration, in a particular the development of the German-Franco alliance, served the agendas of the political masters: for France, it meant that the Federal Republic of Germany could be controlled, and for the (Western) Germans it opened the door for a return to the international stage. And yet, the idea of reconciliation stood at the heart of the process. The key characters of this process had been directly influenced by the war.
To give just a few examples: The French president Charles de Gaulle was wounded and captured by the Germans during the battle of Verdun in 1916. President Francois Mitterand was wounded and captured by the Germans in 1940. Helmut Kohls brother was killed in the Second World War, and so was the father of Gerhard Schröder, who followed Kohl as German chancellor. In many respects, it was this direct experience of war with all the related losses and hardships that drove the project of European integration. In 2009, the European parliament issued a resolution which established the 23rd of August as a ‘Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian regimes, to be commemorated with dignity and impartiality’. The ultimate goal of the remembrance process was reconciliation, which, as the parliament stated, ‘can be achieved by admitting responsibility, asking for forgiveness and fostering moral renewal’. Naturally, the date had not been chosen arbitrarily. On that date in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Central and Eastern Europe into zones of influences between the National Socialist and Bolshevik countries. Perhaps the most poignant statement was made by Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the EU Commission, who famously said: ‘those who do not believe in Europe should visit military cemeteries.’
Western and Central Europe have seen the longest period of peace in history. Naturally, political developments were responsible for this, but these were, partially at least, a consequence of the realisation that ‘this must never happen again’. And yet, recent events in Europe and within the European Union seem to suggest that this glue is no longer holding the continent together in the same way it used to. In many ways, the lessons learnt as a consequence of the two World Wars have been too successful. War no longer seems possible in Western Europe, although events in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe have shown that conflict is still a reality on this continent. Like most families in Europe, my family was directly touched by the World Wars, and seeing my family name engraved on the German military cemetery wall in Stalingrad was a stark reminder of the realities of war. And yet, for many of the young people in Europe, the history of the World Wars is now ancient history. In the run-up to 11 November, I was sent a short clip which stresses the importance of remembrance. ‘Too caught up with followers and retweets to be thankful for the war we never had to meet, from the midst of mayhem and life-taking war to millennials replaying it on Call of Duty 4’, the video stated. Let’s hope that this clip was too pessimistic, and that those untouched by war do more than pay lip-service during Remembrance Day. The history of conflict in Europe demands that we remember the essence of Remembrance Day and the consequences of conflict at the personal and national levels. As individuals and nations, we have to understand that peace and freedom are not given, but have to be won and defended. And this means that we should bow our heads to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. In the famous song The Green Fields of France the protagonist visits a military cemetery, reads a name on a headstone and asks the question ‘are you a stranger without even a name, enshrined forever behind a glass pane? In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained, and fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?’ Let’s ensure that those who fell, believing that they were fighting for the right course regardless of their nationalities, are no strangers and do have names.