Saturday, 27 July 2013

Bring Out the Dead

Paying Respect

     I don't mean any disrespect when I call this blog "Bring Out the Dead". I intend quite the opposite. In my previous post I talked about respecting people's stories. In this case I want to talk about the people who never had the chance to tell their stories.

     I've always been fascinated with war memorials. So I want to consider for a moment what it is that they achieve. Where do they spring from, why are they so poignant and who are they really for?


     I first moved to Germany in 2001. I was shocked to find that Armistice Day, 11th November, coincided on that occasion with the start of Karnival! At the very moment the clock struck 11am, I watched a massive street party begin in Krefeld.

     I hope I can be forgiven for thinking this was distasteful. I hadn't been in the country long and didn't really understand the German mentality. As I got to know more people it was clear that what I considered to be bad timing had nothing to do with disrespecting Remembrance Day. Karnival is an important part of German culture. The two events are simply unrelated.

Sins of the Fathers

     In fact, the Germans have as much respect for their war dead as any other nation. There's no sense of denial. When you speak to anyone aged around 35 to 50 years old they're only too eager to talk about the war. They'll discuss openly how Germany was at fault. It's still uncomfortable to mention the dreaded "Adolf" but there's no squeamishness about admitting the terrible acts of atrocity carried out under his dictatorship.

     Before living in Germany I had this idea that the Germans would be in denial and this, I think, was why I was so shocked about Karnival. It was naive to think the Germans would honour their dead any less than anybody else. There are literally concrete reminders of the war on every street corner.

     An almighty bunker stood on our market place. Once you've spotted one you can see them all over the city. When they came to demolish this one they found it almost impossible to destroy. Its massively thick walls and robust structure was way tougher than they'd anticipated. They might have just been better leaving it standing. Mostly they're used as practice rooms for bands now. The sound proofing is excellent and they're a great testament to the quality of German building in the 30s!

Writing on the Walls

     There are formal war memorials too. I found it very moving to see these, particularly because of the long lists of names.

     Some of the more elaborate memorials have scenes carved on them depicting heroic Panzer Grenadiers mounting an attack. Some are even quite reminiscent of the old Soviet montages depicting the heroic struggle of hard working men wielding sledgehammers. Occasionally these memorials are adorned with wreaths and flowers. There's no denial here.

All Conflicts Great and Small

    Since moving to Ireland I've had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of the "sins of the fathers" complex. There's no end to the amount of atrocities the Irish suffered at the hands of the British. No matter how much I protest my relative innocence by laying claim to my Welsh ancestry, the fact remains that the Irish were persecuted by my forbears. 

     I heard the question asked recently why was Ireland neutral during the Second World War? The answer was that she had suffered so much in her struggle for independence that there was no desire to become embroiled in another conflict so soon. Previously I had no idea just how complicated and multi-layered that conflict had been.

     The size of the Collins memorial in West Cork is testament to the greatness of a man who found himself in an untenable position. His murder was the result of an unsatisfactory compromise on the issue of Irish independence. But in truth this is only a small part of the story.

     The beautiful Irish countryside is littered with crosses and memorials from the civil war that followed. I pass at least four of these memorials on my way to work.  Each has a name and each has a story. I'm impressed by the care with which these memorials are maintained. Often they're in some of the most breathtaking areas of natural beauty. The juxtaposition of death and beautiful scenery evokes a strange mixture of reactions.

Over There

     On some level I think we can all understand the necessity to engage in conflict that results in death and misery. People sometimes mistakenly believe that Buddhism does not accommodate killing. In theory, a Buddhist can kill someone who threatens suffering on a large scale. Someone like Adolf Hitler would be a prime example. The human capacity to inflict pain and suffering makes conflict an unbreakable cycle. The repetitive nature of this was really brought home to me when I passed the war memorial in Bay City, Michigan.

     At first it seems just like any other. It's in a well tended garden and it lists the names of scores of victims. The majority of the memorials I've seen in the UK and Europe are dedicated to the 1914 to 1918 and the 1939 to 1945 wars. On the Bay City memorial you'll find the names of people who lost their lives in the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I was dumbfounded. I had never seen a memorial like it. I had never seen one more appropriate.

    Just to put this into perspective, Bay City is not a big place. There was no particular reason why so many different conflicts should be recorded. It's an amazing act of remembrance and very fitting. But it's also a way of dealing with the fact that we are here because these people died.

Roll of Honour

     I find it almost impossible to pass any memorial without reading the name or names that are inscribed there. Often I'll just stand and stare in disbelief. To think that each of these people lost their lives in the name of a cause over which they probably had little control. 

     I think the memorials are more for us than for the people listed on them. They certainly keep the memories of those distant conflicts alive. If nothing else they also serve to remind us of the worst possible outcome of war. 

     I felt quite uneasy reading through the catalogue of wars that had killed so many people from Bay City. Perhaps that's the reason we have these reminders. Perhaps we need to be unsettled.