Sometimes a slight is delivered purposefully and deliberately. But sometimes, more often perhaps, hurt feelings are the by-product of good intentions. Such a set of misunderstandings risks leading us into dangerous and disrespectful territory on the question of commemorating the first world war. The war is remembered largely as a tragedy rather than a victory. While the second world war has the benefit of central casting baddies—with skull and crossbones insignia and genocidal impulses—the first world war is the story of a family needlessly torn apart.
It is this narrative, in part, that has created the possibility that, as we remember the centenary of the war’s first shots, we will officially commemorate the dead of both sides. This move, reported in the Sunday Times, is endorsed by Andrew Murrison, the government’s special representative for centenary events, and is supported by the Canadian government, amongst others. It would mean the names of Germans being projected alongside the dead of England and the Commonwealth as part of a special remembrance installation.
The logic behind this measure is that the commemoration of war dead is simply an act of mourning for the loss of life. We gather around the Cenotaph, so the thinking runs, in order to remember the dead and to express our sorrow at the horrors of war. That makes it natural to include our one-time enemies when we pay our respects. But this does not really make sense. If we are just remembering lives lost then why do we commemorate lives lost to war? Why doesn’t the Queen lay a wreath once a year at a memorial to the Spanish flu epidemic? Or, if this is about the role of humans in ending one another’s lives, why don’t we demand everyone wear a commemorative broach in honour of the hundreds lost to murder every year in the UK, or the millions around the world?
Because to die in war is special. Those who die fighting for our armed services do so in our name and on our behalf, whether we agree with the particular cause or not. Their deaths are sacrificial. And so to commemorate their deaths through mourning alone is to insult their lives and the virtue of their deaths. We are not just grieving for our fallen soldiers—we are celebrating their deaths too. And we are also, uncomfortable as this may seem, celebrating and remembering their other sacrifice: killing their adversaries. To hold up those who they killed on our behalf as equally deserving of our celebration is to deny the central logic of war—that, together, we recognise a time and a space where it is right for our fellow citizens to take the lives of others.
Including those who were our enemies in our rituals of remembrance also chimes with a peculiar modern idea: the perceived universality of our obligations. Poll after poll shows that British people still cling to the idea of nation, that while they believe in general equality they feel more obliged to British people than others. Yet many in our political class believe that not only are all people equal but that they all must be equal to us. Such thinking—combined with our common story about the first world war and a fundamental misunderstanding of remembrance—inspired this proposal. It’s a well-meaning set of delusions that will, if enacted, insult those whose lives were sacrificed.
In war, we send boys and girls to kill and to die on our behalf. If, a hundred years later, we seek to deny the special covenant that this creates, how can those whom we send to die trust that we will honour their sacrifices? A nation that refuses to prefer its war dead to the dead of its enemies will find itself unable to inspire such sacrifice in the future.