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Cross-curricular resources: Remembrance Day

resources | Published in TES magazine on 4 November, 2011 | By: A W Purdue

The defeated must commemorate their war dead. But A W Purdue wonders how

  • Remembrance Day, 11 November
  • World Diabetes Day, 14 November

Remembrance Day is the centrepiece of Britain’s memorialisation of the great wars of the 20th century. It has seen the erection of war memorials, acres of war graves in France and Belgium, and the opening of museums to commemorate the conflicts. And it is a process that shows no sign of abating as new memorials are erected and museums continue to open.

As Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, and Remembrance Sunday (the Sunday nearest to 11 November) approach, we are told that we should not be “triumphalist”. But it is sometimes difficult to separate memorialisation from the satisfactory feeling that “we won”. Victory can be seen to justify the loss of life. But how do nations and societies who have been beaten come to terms with their defeat?

A society’s reaction can vary from amnesia to a desire for revenge, from a rejection of the regime that has led the nation to defeat to a questioning of its history and very identity. And then there are degrees of defeat. There is a distinction between partial defeat, as signified by the term “armistice”, and “total surrender”, which can be so overwhelming as to create a fault-line in national memory. A most controversial problem in post-war Germany and Japan has been what account of the lost war should be related in school textbooks.

Germany’s response to defeat in 1918 can be depicted as a desire for revenge, but this ignores the degree to which Germans shared the common European horror at the death toll of the Great War. They felt robbed of victory and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, but there was also a desire to avoid another war. And like the victors they felt the need to memorialise their dead. Attitudes in Hungary and Bulgaria - stripped of territory and surrounded by enemies - were similar. Only the Turks managed to achieve a break with the past by replacing the Ottoman Empire with a national and secular state forged in a new war.

Monuments to victories have a long history, but the urge to memorialise defeat is less compelling. But the commemoration of the dead - where possible on an individual basis - became a psychological necessity for all combatant nations after the colossal death toll. In previous centuries, soldiers who fell in battle were usually buried in mass graves. However, both the victorious allies and the defeated powers sought, wherever possible, to mark the grave of each serviceman.

Horror at the thought of the nameless dead was common to both victors and the defeated and resulted in the concept of the “Unknown Soldier”. In Germany in 1933, ironically the year Hitler came to power, a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was built. Like the victors, the Germans set up memorials to the dead in towns and villages, and a specifically German phenomenon was the medieval tradition of Nagelfiguren, or figure of nails, revived during the war as a means of patriotic fundraising, and afterwards as a way of honouring the dead.

German memorialisation oscillated between mourning and a rejection of defeat. The Volkstrauertag was instituted, at the suggestion of the War Graves Commission, as a national day of mourning. It was a largely religious occasion, held on the Sunday closest to 16 November at the end of the ecclesiastical year, though not nationalist enough for the Nazi regime which renamed it Heldengedenktag (Heroes’ Day), in 1934. In 1950 it was reinstituted in its original form.

The reactions of the defeated powers after the Second World War were very different. There was little desire for a war of revenge and, instead, fierce debates over national identity and ethos, together with arguments that sought to distinguish between national responsibility for the war and that of governments. In Germany and Japan, the war led to the growth of anti-militarism and neo-pacifism and, in the 1960s, Germany witnessed an inter-generational clash with the post-war generation disputing the amnesia and lack of war guilt of their elders.

The combination of the Cold War and the fact that the nation was divided only complicated attitudes. In contemporary Germany, the idea of placing the Nazi period and Second World War in the continuum of German history, rather than regarding them as aberrations from it, has found its way into textbooks.

Although the American-imposed constitution of 1947 contained a renunciation of warfare, Japan has never exhibited the same soul-searching and the 1990s saw a determined nationalist reaction to war guilt with a revision of history textbooks. These talked of “an advance into”, rather than an “invasion” of, China and questioned the concept of the “rape of Nanking”.

If it would be unnatural for the British on Remembrance Day or the Americans on Veterans’ Day not to mix mourning with pride in victory, it would be naive to expect defeated nations to appreciate the rituals and anniversaries of the victors.

Germany’s Volkstrauertag is a national day of mourning without the military trappings of Remembrance Day. When the victors celebrate the great anniversaries of the war and its end, the defeated shuffle uneasily; it was not until more than 80 years after the First World War that a German chancellor attended an Armistice Day in Paris. Moscow puts on great parades in honour of the Red Army on the anniversary of Germany’s surrender, but Germans remember the rape and pillage at the hands of that army. For the Japanese, the end of the Pacific War cannot be separated from the fate of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The memories of the defeated are different from ours.

A W Purdue is a visiting professor in modern history at the University of Northumbria. The second edition of his book ‘The Second World War’ has recently been published by Palgrave

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