< back |
In Britain after the First World War the choice was to foreground the 'sacrifice' of the bereaved families and eventually through the practical expression of solidarity with the Haig Fund appeal (poppy appeal as now is) the veterans also found a place in the annual commemorations that emphasised the essential shared values of society. By the end of the 20th century veterans had gained centre stage and the bereaved had been replaced with an assortment of occupational groups or some other category of people with tenuous and often remote and loose association with war. What these people have in common and what, if any, significance it may have over and above a wish to be associate with remembrance ceremonies is unclear.
After the First World War in Britain there was a shared perception of the war's meaning. This did not mean that there was a consensus but even the critics of Armistice Day spoke the same moral language as its supporters. In Weimar Germany the memory of the war was not underpinned by such a sense of solidarity and the divisions and tensions were finally resolved by an enforced consensus with the rise of Nazism.
By interpreting mass slaughter as sacrifice, Armistice Day was inherently an idealistic project. Sacrifice implied that there had been a purpose to the war. The problem was that the signs of a meaningful purpose became increasingly hard to find. There was no 'land fit for heroes' and by the mid 30s the 'war to end war' had become an implausible proposition. The validity of sacrifice became less an established fact and more of a moral exhortation, a demand that the new generation live up to the high ideals for which it was claimed that a million men had been sacrificed.
The Second World War created a much more complex mythology than the First and this has pervaded popular British culture ever since. Remembrance Day since 1945 has been a compound of partial and selective memories of the two wars. The day no longer carries the mythical conviction that it should be a transforming experience, one that makes sense of suffering and which rededicated the nation to high aspirations.
Today, the relatively small number of military deaths through relentless advertising, an ever growing number of fundraising projects and television filling its schedules with films of military life on the front or in the kitchen is giving British life a distinctly militaristic feel. The encouragement of Cadet Forces in school becomes easier that it ever was. Teaching young people to use guns in school while the police try to remove them from the streets does not seem strange any more than giving preferential treatment in the job market to ex military men and women.