Societies’ and individuals’ memories are shaped by a combination of emotions and experiences. Character and perception are influential too. Love, especially deep love between individuals, may be the most powerful, the most enduring of those factors.
Terror, horror, relief, lifelong loss or incapacity, shame, bitterness, impoverishment or national subjugation, religion sometimes, all shape how great or even secondary events are remembered.
Time, the passage of time changes the relationship between the elements, the events, that colour remembrance. This is inevitable as direct experience of seminal events slips from living memory. What was once a prominent factor in shaping the memories of generations that endured catastrophe, say the emotional and psychological trauma suffered by First World War shell shock victims, is replaced with admiration, respect, and maybe even incomprehension.
Empathy replaces direct experience, understanding becomes virtual. Real presences fade to become shadows. We have, in the context of this weekend’s WWI centenary ceremonies, reached that point. Our understanding of that disaster is learned rather than acquired through experience.
The victors and the vanquished remember differently too. One can be susceptible to a deceiving national hubris and jingoism. The other — but hopefully both — can turn memory into a positive learning process. One can be seduced by imagined exceptionalism. The other may challenge its national characteristics and the consequences of indulging them. How these extremes are resolved — if they are — shows how we either learn from history or condemn ourselves to repeat it. A comparison of the principles that define the career of German chancellor Angela Merkle and those of her peers in London show how a single experience can have very different consequences when viewed from very different, very valid but defining perspectives.
All of those issues and many more are in play this weekend as we mark the centenary of the official end of WWI, one of the greatest tragedies of our modern history. They are in play in Ireland too where those memories are complicated by the violent events that then demanded Irish independence — events spurred on by the slogan “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.
About 210,000 Irishmen — multiples of those involved in 1916 — responded differently and served in the British forces during WWI. As there was no conscription in Ireland, about 140,000 went as volunteers. Some 35,000 of them died, a relatively small figure in the context of WWI’s estimated 17m dead — around 7m civilians and 10m military personnel. Nevertheless, this was a very significant sacrifice in Irish terms.
Time has changed how those men were remembered. Sadly, it took generations to reconcile the reality of their sacrifice with the absolutist, one-dimensional history we, like so many newly-independent colonies, embroidered for ourselves. It is a tragedy that very few, if any, of Ireland’s WWI soldiers — WWII veterans too probably — lived to see national perceptions and appreciations shift. It is a tragedy that so many of them had to endure an officially-sanctioned, even if tacit, communal scorn.
The cyclical nature of history may, however, offer those men and women some small, belated and posthumous comfort. The terms imposed on Germany after 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, made the Second World War inevitable, which in turn made the “European Project”, today’s European Union, inevitable. Our membership of the then EEC challenged Irish insularity, especially in education, and was a catalyst in building a better relationship with Britain. This, in turn, made it possible for the respect that once dared not speak its name to step into the sunlight. Ireland’s world war dead could be remembered without attracting the suspicions, sometimes the opprobrium, of green-or-nothing republicanism.
The cyclical nature of history also shifts how great events, great catastrophes are perceived. Once, the view that WWI soldiers were lions led by donkeys prevailed. Then a view that masterful generalship kept casualty numbers far lower than they could have been took hold. Even a century later the causes or the necessity of the war are in dispute. They remain unsettled issues that, at this stage, can only be resolved in the most subjective way. Considering the scale of the disaster, the numbers and conflicting beliefs involved this is hardly surprising. Irish neutrality, especially its future, must be seen through the perspective these issues offer.
What is not in any way subjective is the scale of WWI carnage and the enduring sense of waste, of squandered lives. Tragically, that carnage was superseded just two decades later suggesting that our capacity to learn failed.
This weekend’s ceremonies, heartfelt and justified, might have been a public celebration of the greatest lesson from the Great War — that the savagery and waste of European wars have been replaced by an enduring European peace made possible only by trans-Europe cooperation. It is impossible to argue against European peace or European cooperation but, this weekend as the bands play, as the soldiers solemnly march and as the great and good lay wreaths the atmosphere is poisoned by the cacophony of Brexit’s danse macabre.
Britain is turning its back on its friends, neighbours and allies who helped broker the armistice. Anyone who imagines that this breaking away does not weaken Europe and the mechanisms that have maintained peace for nearly eight decades is delusional. That this breaking away may bring economic challenges that will have a disturbing impact on the most vulnerable must add to a darkening sense of foreboding. That this retreat from stability is happening just as a dangerously polarised, imploding America circles the nativist wagons is more than discomfiting. Any comparison between the White House incumbent and Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt can only deepen that apprehension. Any comparison between the Downing St incumbent and her wartime predecessors — Lloyd George or Churchill — must embarrass even the most one-eyed Brexiteer.
This weekend offers an opportunity to reflect, to consider and to honour those who died in WWI but it should also be a moment to reject the politicisation of memory in a way that advances the very forces that led to WWI and, ultimately, WWII. If we do that we can be confident that in less than three decades — 27 years — when we will mark the end of a second great war the peace we enjoy today will have endured. That is a priceless prize worth every effort no matter how difficult.