Spoiled by war

November 17, 2019

Why remembrance of conflicts matters

Dear All,

Two recent historical commemorations have set me musing on war, peace and history.

Which two commemorations were these? Well, one was the the fall of the Berlin Wall (thirty years since November 9, 1989) and the other was the end of the first World war (101 years since November 11, 1918), both of which were seminal events of the twentieth century.

War is terrible anyway, but World War I was perhaps the most appalling and cruel of modern wars. It lasted four years and the death toll is staggering: it is estimated at nine million soldiers and seven million civilian deaths. Add to this the 50-100 million deaths worldwide caused by …. ‘resulting genocide and the resulting 1918 influenza pandemics’ and you have a conflict that was mindbogglingly destructive.

Every November when Britain marks Remembrance Sunday you hear the stories of those who survived as well as those who died. One thing that still shocks is just how very young most of the soldiers killed at the front were. Britain lost about 700,000 men in this war and although the average age of the British soldiers who died in this war is 19, many who fought were much younger as they had lied about their age in their zeal to enlist. The youngest authenticated British soldier to die in the first World War was only 14 years old: one John Condon who died in Ypres, Belgium. And many recruits were as young as 12 – like Sidney Lewis who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was sent home only after his mother sent his birth certificate to the War Office. And then there was 13 year old George Maher whose real age was discovered only after he began crying during heavy shelling. He, like many others , had lied about his age and claimed to be 18.

There were other more bloody wars in the world before this, but ‘the Great War’ —as it was originally known — still shocks because of how men were sent to their deaths, exposed to brutal weather conditions and terrain often with inadequate supplies or clothing. It shocks because of the sort of warfare (trenches, ground assaults, mustard gas) and the way that victims of shellshock were treated – often court martialed for cowardice and desertion and then executed by firing squad. It also shocks because nobody really knew what this war was being fought for.

One positive outcome of this war was, perhaps, the rise of the pacifist movement. A generation that had lost brothers, sons, husbands, fiances and close friends expressed the sorrow and pain of this in a personal and unique way. The war poets,Wilfred Owen (who died in action aged just 25) and Sigfried Sassoon (who survived), have immortalised the horror of the trenches and pacifists such as Vera Brittain have through their writing been able to plead the case for peace through works such as Brittain’s deeply moving personal account, Testament of Youth.

Despite this, two decades later Britain was in another world war and now as the EU is in danger of fragmenting, many in Britain as well as parts of Europe choose to forget the basic purpose of the alliance was to avoid war – it was essentially a peace project.

And then later, even though millions of people all over the world marched to protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq, western powers went ahead anyway starting a bloody conflict that has torn the Middle East apart. This is the thing about wars, despite our pledges of ‘always remember’ , ‘never forget’ etc, people don’t remember the bloodshed and horror and they choose to forget the pain and the inhumanity and so they are persuaded by bellicose governments and swayed by the sabre rattling rhetoric of ultra nationalists.

The other November commemoration that set me off reflecting upon history and the lessons we can take from it was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Three decades after the event, we perhaps have more perspective and can move beyond seeing it as simply a day of liberation. Reading the experiences of East Germans is fascinating, the ambivalence of some about reunification or their accounts of how west Berliners reacted to them (such as being puzzled why they didn’t seem more grateful or happier) provides insight into a difficult transition period. The way Germany integrated the East back into its economy is instructive, but could this all have been handled any differently?

An excellent Guardian editorial assessed the situation aptly commenting on how what seemed like the beginning of a new progressive chapter of openness and internationalism was perhaps the forerunner to a regressive trend towards insular and ultra nationalistic politics “Three decades on from the destruction of what … Willy Brandt called The Wall of Shame, the liberal consensus that swept all before it in the’90s and 2000s is suddenly fragile.”

If history is to be instructive, the questions to be asked involve querying what went wrong, and what different – and better—decisions might have been made. As this particular editorial sums up “The fall of the Berlin Wall brought freedom and hope. But the veneration of free market principles that followed was overdone. With hindsight the lessons of 1989 look different, telling us that a recalibration of the relationship between governments and the market is overdue, and might head off the nationalist surge in both east and west.”

‘A recalibration of the relationships between governments and the market is overdue’…. Yes, but is anybody listening?

War and peace: November under the lens of history