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THE FUTURE OF REMEMBRANCE: REFLECTIONS ON THE CENTENARY OF THE ARMISTICE AND THE WORLD REMEMBERS

THE FUTURE OF REMEMBRANCE: REFLECTIONS ON THE CENTENARY OF THE ARMISTICE AND THE WORLD REMEMBERS PROJECT

Dr. Sean Howard

Adjunct Professor of Political Science, CBU

Campaign Coordinator, Peace Quest Cape Breton

CBU Library, Thursday November 8, 2018


From September 21 (UN International Day of Peace) until tomorrow, CBU Library is participating in The World Remembers project, displaying the names of over one million of the military dead (including over 20,000 Canadians) from 1918. In the century since the Armistice, nothing quite like The World Remembers has been attempted. Beginning in August 2014, and for the three months leading up to Remembrance Day each year of the Great War centenary, countries around the world (former Empires and colonies, allies and enemies) have been, in displays like this, slowly counting the cost, naming the price of the most brutal, far-reaching conflict the world had ever seen. In this final year, in 107 venues grand and small, 16 states are taking part, and I’d like to name them one last time: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States.

The ‘database of the dead’ compiled and shared by these nations contains almost 5,000,000 names. The Project was long in preparation, and originally Austria and Hungary, who between them suffered nearly 2 million military dead, planned to participate. The reason they didn’t, I think, illustrates perfectly why it’s so important for the world to remember this way. In 2010, Hungary swung sharply to the nationalist right, and its new, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic government, nostalgic for the country’s ‘glorious’ imperial past, wanted nothing to do with such an internationalist, ‘post-patriotic’ exercise in cooperative commemoration. And when Hungary withdrew, so – perhaps to ‘appease’ its rapidly rising far-right – did the more mainstream government in Austria (which lost power last year to the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic People’s Party).

The five million World Remembers names, then, could have been seven; nine, if Russia – itself in the grip of nostalgic, authoritarian nationalism – had accepted its invitation. In all, conservative estimates are that, of the 72 million men and women who served from 1914-18, at least twelve million died, plus at least five – the World Remembers website says seven – million civilians.

Death and destruction on such a scale, in such a short time (the loss, in particular, of so much youth, so much future) can simply act to put the numb into number, deadening our cultural and personal capacity to respond. In his 1972 masterpiece The Twentieth-Century Book of the Dead, cultural historian Gil Elliot wrote of the Western Front: “The war machine, rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation. … Whatever living thing or structure appeared in its path – a man, a tree, a famous regiment, a closely knit platoon, a strategic concept, an illusion of glory – this dull machine rattled on” and “the same dull fabric of six thousand deaths a day came out the other end.” Elliot concludes: “The one thing that stands out overall is that at no time, before, during, or after the war, was there a living organic structure in society with sufficient strength to resist the new man-made and machine-made creation: organic death.”

A great reversal: death organic, life synthetic; the defeat of reality, the mass destruction of meaning. And away from the Front, there was another way unreality won: the countless everyday ways in which – under the incessant pressure of totalitarian militarism – the authentic became the ersatz. On no group was this pressure more severe than the civilians of the ‘Central Powers’ of Germany and Austria-Hungary, caught in the pincer movement of the illegal British ‘Starvation Blockade’ and the hunger of the ‘dull machine’ for men, animals, wood, food, fuel, medicines.

Let us focus, for a minute, on what became of food and drink, taking as our guide Ring of Steel, Alexander Watson’s important new study of ‘Germany and Austria-Hungary at War.’ First (for some literally granular analysis) bread, where, Watson writes, the “rye and potatoes used” since August 1914 “to cut wheat flour” quickly “ran short, forcing their substitution with less appetizing alternatives. Ground maize, lentils, peas, chestnuts, soya beans, clover and bran were all used to ‘stretch’ bread. So too were sand and sawdust, although this was illegal. Legitimate grains were milled less finely than in peacetime, allowing husk to enter the bread, which made it difficult to digest.” ‘War bread’ quickly became “vile”: “you couldn’t slice it,” one woman remembered, “it was yellow, sticky…” Soon, “loaves made with rotten flour and poor ingredients” were having “alarming effects on the body. ‘I have been vomiting,’ a woman told relatives, ‘I feel burning from my mouth to my chest…and heaviness as if there is a stone inside.’” Such ‘bread’ might be served with ‘ersatz sausages,’ of which there were, by 1918, 837 registered ‘varieties,’ most, Watson says, “little tubes of slime,” up to “70 per cent water.” (Seasoned by ‘pepper,’ “85 per cent ash.”) And to wash this down, your choice of “Coffee-Ersatz,” ground walnut shells, plum stones, turnip heads, bark. You name it, someone faked it; “by the war’s end,” Watson writes, “11,000 ersatz products were on sale”.

But what does he mean by ‘war’s end’? Fittingly, the killing officially ‘concluded’ with an ersatz Armistice, an unconditional surrender thrust down Germany’s starving throat without ending the war against German civilians, another quarter of a million of whom (the estimate, again, is conservative) would die under a Starvation Blockade maintained with full force for another 7 months, until the by-then democratic-socialist government in Berlin capitulated and signed the politically and economically ruinous ‘Peace’ Treaty of Versailles. It is true an Armistice can be breached or collapse, by accident or design: but this one, the annually celebrated eleventh-hour-of-the-eleventh-day-of-the-eleventh-month ‘end of hostilities’ was by design intended not to end the most egregious form of hostility practiced in the entire global struggle.

Nor did the Armistice address the fighting beyond the Western Front, the ‘post-war’ warfare – featuring the endemic use of children as soldiers and rape as a weapon – that would rage for months and years in the ‘shatter-zones’ and badlands of the former Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires. And this was not a case of the victorious Allies looking on in horror, but rather of them sending arms, troops and money in hot pursuit of ‘wartime’ goals – as well as seeking the destruction of their former ally, good old Tsarist Russia, now in unacceptably ‘red hands.’ Some soldiers, by the way – including some Canadians – refused post-Armistice orders to fight the Bolsheviks in Siberia and elsewhere. Some of these unsung ‘refusniks’ were doubtless simply ‘done’ with risking and inflicting death, but many were surely also motivated by sympathy with the new Workers’ State, and the radical pacifism – the militant anti-militarism – then ‘infecting,’ as the authorities saw it, all armies.

I want to close on what I hope is a relevant personal note – to confide what felt like an uncanny coincidence – and then with a short poem, by a young man killed-in-action one week before the Armistice.

I’ve been trying to spend some time ‘with the names’ every day I’ve been in. As I confessed at the launch, I was worried how I might react; and after a few weeks (perhaps it was all the silence on the screen) I began to doubt – not for the first time, but very intensely – my faith in the power of words, those strange ‘things’ I spend so much time with, but which I can’t always tell are true or false, organic or not. And even if true, what can they do: “no poem,” as Seamus Heaney lamented, “ever stopped a tank”. But I didn’t want the ‘tanks’ to stop my poems, either, so I forced myself back here, to see (I guess) if I could still connect my love of poetry with my love of peace. And the first name I saw was that of a German soldier, Hermann Hesse – in Germany a common name (appearing, indeed, 7 times in the 1918 display), but to me a spell conjuring the great novelist who spent his Great War as a ‘traitor,’ a despised pacifist in exile in Switzerland.

Here’s what Hesse wrote in a December 1917 essay, Shall There Be Peace?: “The bigger, the bloodier, the more destructive these final battles of the World War, the less will be accomplished for the future, the less hope there will be of appeasing hatreds and rivalries, or of doing away with the idea that political aims can be attained by the criminal instrumentality of war.” And in The Path of Love, an article written, back in Germany, 12 months later: “Good ideas are in the air – the brotherhood of man, a League of Nations, friendly cooperation among all peoples, disarmament. There has been much talk of them, some of it not very serious. We must take these ideas seriously…[f]or never again must we revert to what we were: a powerful people with a great deal of money and many cannon, governed by money and cannon. … To do so would be to renounce everything which, prompted by deep affliction and desperate self-knowledge, we have done and begun...”

This was the ‘next war,’ the one for the world; the rebuilding, along entirely different lines, of a creative and caring global community, one surely keen to find and foster – as a vital step down ‘the path of love’ – cooperative, inclusive, demilitarized modes and rituals of remembrance.

In October 1917, Wilfred Owen, a 24-year-old officer convalescing at the Craiglockhart Mental Institution in Scotland, wrote a sonnet prefaced by two lines from the poet Siegfried Sassoon, sent to Craiglockhart after his sensational resignation from the Army in July 1917 in protest at “a war of conquest and aggression, being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” In 1916 Sassoon had written to fellow-poet Robert Graves, “War’s a joke for me and you,/While we know such dreams are true” – ‘dreams,’ namely, of a world waking from the nightmare of history-as-war, humanity saying (in the title of Graves’ celebrated memoir) Goodbye to All That. Here’s what Owen had to say.

The Next War

Out there, we walked quite friendly up to Death –

Sat down and ate beside him, cool and bland –

Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.

We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath –

Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.

He’s spat at us with bullets, and he’s coughed

Shrapnel. We chorused if he sang aloft,

We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours.

We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.

No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.

We laughed – knowing that better men would come,

And greater wars: when every fighter brags

He fights on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

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