Ever since I moved to Scotland in 2011, Remembrance Day has been a tradition that puzzles me. Being German means that I come from a tradition that has lost both world wars and which subsequently has not developed a rich remembrance culture as one can find in the UK. During the decade after the second world war Germany was demilitarised and the re-establishment of the German army (Bundeswehr) in 1955 was highly disputed. Up until 1990, the role of the Bundeswehr was restricted to national defence and international humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions. Today, the Bundeswehr is still a defence army, but it takes part in UN mandated military action.
The fact that we lost the wars combined with the atrocities caused by the Nazi-regime meant that memorials tend to be in the name of all victims of the wars. The walls of our churches are not covered with individual names of soldiers lost to the war. There is “Volkstrauertag”, a national day of mourning which commemorates members of the armed forces of all nations and civilians who died in armed conflicts but there is no broad awareness for it. There is the laying of wreaths at memorials, but it is a quieter affair than in the UK, and only in the ceremonies that involve high ranked politicians, military in their full-dress uniform are involved.
There are no poppies at all.
I came from a close to zero military culture to a culture where Remembrance seemed to engulf most of the society. There are debates on how we should remember, for example signified by the red, white, and purple poppies but there is no question at all that those who fought and died for this country have a right to be remembered. I recall being mightily impressed by the first military parade I ever witnessed on University Avenue on Remembrance Day 2012 and of course I am amazed by the great creativity and effort put in poppy displays across the country.
Honouring fallen soldiers seems right to me and I have been wondering ever since if it is fair that Germans have no way of remembering their lost family members and friends other than in silence. This question has become more pressing in recent years as German soldiers serve and die in places like Afghanistan while feeling undervalued back home. However, there are also parts of Remembrance that leave me with a sense of unease.
There is the commercialisation of Remembrance, or “performative patriotism” as some authors call it. Poppies are projected on power plants, painted on diggers, printed on all kinds of clothing, and even added on pizzas (salami makes for nice petals apparently). I doubt that all of this has much to do with artistic expressions of Remembrance or awkward but effective ways of fundraising for the Poppy appeal. Rather it is the thinly concealed attempt by big corporations to tap into a national sentiment and to make profit from it.
Sadly, big business are not the only one’s who employ this strategy it is also very popular with politicians and other public leaders. Personally, I noticed this especially since the 2016 Brexit campaign, possibly because Brexit itself means that I am alienated so I also notice things that are alien to me more. Rhetoric that compares braving a possible No-Deal scenario with standing strong during the second world war (we have beaten the Germans before and we will do so again!) scares me and makes me wonder if anyone remembers that the UK had food rationing until 1954 while in Germany it finished in 1950.
The Corona crisis has also prompted its fair share of war time references early on. In March, the UK government appealed to “wartime Blitz spirit” for fight against coronavirus. More recently, the Bishop of Paisley called for an amnesty on Corona restrictions for Christmas comparing it with the ceasefire on the Western Front during the First World War. The UK is not alone in evoking this imagery, France’s president Macron used similar language to lead his country in the fight against Covid, however, countries where leaders focused on the science and refrained from grand rhetoric in favour of pragmatism seem to be in much better control of the virus.
Last Sunday, I led our joint evening service and I tried to reflect on these different aspects of Remembrance. In the week leading to the service, I saved pictures related to Remembrance that I came across on social media and which in one way or another intrigued me. The result was a mix of pictures showing the respectful, solemn, and creative side of Remembrance as well as the more awkward aspects. I next looked for a tune that would typically be used for Remembrance and the shortest one I found was Elgar’s Nimrod. My simple idea was to have the tune as a gathering music at the beginning while displaying the pictures. The result, however, was a brief illustration how the greatness of Remembrance as expressed in art and music does not quite live up to some of the practices today. You can watch and listen here: