A cascade of poppies falls from ‘weeping windows’ across Britain. A 50-metre drawing of Wilfred Owen appears in the sand, and is washed away by the sea in which he swam. A silhouetted soldier stands on the white cliffs of Dover. A thousand pumpkins ‘recall’ an antisubmarine airship. You can pretend you are in no-man’s-land in Dorset, or ‘clearing up the immense horrors of trench warfare’ in Dulwich.
We have Great War proms, Great War bake-ins, Great War fashion shows, even Great War Countryfile. Blackadder has been summoned back to the colours. The Royal Mail issues a ‘classic, prestige and presentation’ pack of stamps.
In 2012 David Cameron committed an enormous £50 million to commemorate the first world war, with millions more promised from the Lottery, all of which has been funnelled into the never-ending 14–18 NOW programme. The purpose, he said, was ‘to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learned live with us for ever’. A reported 150 artists, performers and film-makers rushed to the call of this latter-day Kitchener. Their country needed them. Cameron did not suggest which lessons we might learn. At the time he was struggling to go to war in Syria.
I remain puzzled at the state so extravagantly recalling an event long past. No Britons can recall the ‘11th hour of the 11th day’, and a dwindling number even recall the second world war, to which Remembrance Day tries half-heartedly to shift attention. Yet each year, village memorials see ever more exotic poppies, bugled ‘Last Posts’, minute silences and frozen Boy Scouts. It is an exercise in military nostalgia, a Christianised version of a Sealed Knot re-enactment.
Hence the repetition in sermons, speeches and editorials of George Santayana’s maxim that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. The fact is that we do not remember the past. We rely on historians to recall it. For the first world war, we gaze at the paintings of Christopher Nevinson, Wyndham Lewis and the Nash brothers, and recite the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. We ‘experience’ the trenches through Peter Jackson’s recolouring of archive footage in They Shall Not Grow Old. But to convert this into a nationalisation of personal grief can only drench history in emotion.
This kind of commemoration is bad for us, and bad for art. Nothing is more guaranteed to sink a commission than being burdened by the need to respond to war. A blank canvas is scary enough without the added demand to sum up the suffering of millions of people brutally murdered in a senseless conflict. Reaching for a grand sweeping gesture, something ‘profound’, is too tempting in this situation. Tempting but disqualifying. The search for wishy-washy universals soaks up all the energy and bromides usually result. Out the window goes the slow, steady, subtle accumulation of specifics that makes great art great. I am not sure what lessons are really learned from poppies gushing from towers up and down the land. And the point of Mark Wallinger’s contribution to the centenary, ‘One World’, a football made to look like the globe? ‘It’s time to stop fighting and start playing,’ explained Wallinger helpfully.
In this national group hug, honest criticism is impossible. We’re ‘embarrassed by the historical facts’, as Craig Raine once put it. We turn away from sober analysis and focus instead on the righteousness of the subject matter and message, letting our hearts do the talking rather than our ears or eyes or brains. Works about war are harder to criticise but much easier to sell, market, fund, get brownie points for. It’s virtue-signalling in sound, paint and performance.
It’s why when large sums of money are going begging, it is hard to know when the art stops and being taken for a ride begins. Art best captures inner emotions rather than collective ones. Most of the sponsored works are ‘performances’ and, if good, I am sure they can horrify. But merely capturing the horror of a distant event is banal. The frequent use of ‘raising awareness’ and ‘learning lessons’ suggests an empty apology for an absence of aesthetic quality. It is an invitation to bad art.
Much of this is aimed at children. We must explain to them, as they are commanded to role-play the trenches, why ‘our heroes did not die in vain’. But such acting requires a villain. The idea of just war requires an unjust enemy, to be reminded of his evil year after year ad infinitum. The official edict that we must not blame the Germans is pure pretence. As a recent letter to the Times put it, we need not celebrate beating the Germans, just celebrate beating ‘an aggressive, undemocratic, anti-Semitic warrior nation led by the dictatorial and unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II’. A German friend of mine pleads that his country surely learned that lesson in 1945 — and chiefly from the Russians and Americans. Why can Britain alone never get over it?
The idea of our needing to be reminded of either of the two German wars is ridiculous. British culture wallows in these wars. I am told that there are some 8,000 books available in English on the second world war. Of 800 books in print on Hitler, 80 per cent are by British writers, with dozens more appearing each year. No bestseller list is without at least one war book. Films and documentaries are never off the airwaves. The fixation with the Bosch, the Hun and the Nazi, from the games industry to the Sun newspaper, is pathological. Nor need we worry about children forgetting. The GCSE history website apparently gets three times more hits for Hitler than for the Tudors.
As for learning lessons, how on earth can we tell that £50 million was well spent? The 2014 centenary of the war’s outbreak saw eloquent and disturbing books from Margaret MacMillan, Christopher Clark, Norman Stone, Max Hastings and many others. They were awash in lessons, alongside which Cameron’s subsidised art has been banal. Yet when the historian Niall Ferguson suggested the first world war was ‘the biggest error in history’, he was shouted down as unpatriotic. How dare a historian imply that ‘they died in vain’?
What I recall from those books is not what is remembered but how unbalanced the memory is. Its rituals blot out mistakes and consequences. One lesson of history, as Bismarck said, is that no one learns from history. H.G. Wells claimed that the first world war was so horrific it had to be ‘the war to end war’. This bred an assumption that its repetition was impossible. Which in turn fuelled France’s obsessive vengeance, and a handling of reparations that virtually ensured the rise of Hitler. The West learned nothing from this, witness the handling of Russia by Nato and the EU after 1989, ensuring the rise of a Putin. Remembering is not learning.
All history is selective and therefore vulnerable to bias, none more so than a nation’s recollection of war. When I ask schoolchildren who won the Hundred Years War with France, almost all of them say England. There is nothing uniquely Soviet about fake history. It is all around us. The more staged and synthetic the remembrance, the more it loses veracity and context.
The American ethicist David Rieff has rightly concluded that ‘public memory is never innocent’. Nationalised history serves a national interest. ‘The conceit of collective memory,’ says Rieff, ‘far from ensuring justice, is a formula for unending grievance and vendetta.’ As Nelson Mandela languished in prison, he understood this danger, and he later bravely struggled to avoid it, much to South Africa’s benefit. Few imitate him.
War histories are not exercises in exhumed memory. They are an immensely delicate task of selecting what should be remembered from what is best forgotten, of choosing between grievance and forgiveness, enmity and reconciliation. Most of Europe’s wars have resulted from too much memory, not too little. I shall certainly ponder the war, but with the help of historians, not Cameron’s £50 million bonanza. I will then try the impossible: to remember what to forget.
Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: from Pericles to Putin is published by Penguin.
14–18 NOW reaches a crescendo on Sunday.