100 years after the beginning of the first modern industrial world wide war, how do we remember?
The quality of our remembering seems to be very important as we humans require the same lessons over and over again if we are ever to learn anything. Empires rise insatiably and claw at one another ever more effectively.
Yet still there is a danger that we remember the dead only as some kind of noble sacrifice in a titanic struggle for goodness, freedom and the rightness of our national cause. But there is no rightness in Empire. For one to rise, another must fall. And there must always be casualties.
So how should we remember?
I found myself first moved by the Tower of London poppies installation, then deeply troubled by it. Troubled because it is one sided, one dimensional. It records only our dead, pouring out of the symbolic Tower of London, itself at the very centre of the old Empire, now overshadowed by the high rise monstrosities of the City of London financial buildings.
Blood should be gushing from the gutters thereabouts, not trailing in a delecate flush of elegant ceramic flowers.
How should we remember?
Perhaps the best way might be to consider a world without Empire. To imagine how we might strive for peace, not conquest. How we might evolve systems that share resources rather than exulting in avarice and subordinating all morality to economic growthism. Is an alternative really so impossible?
I heard a poem recently, written by a young German called lfred Lichtenstein, who was born in 1889 in Berlin, and studied law there until 1913, when he joined a Bavarian regiment for a year’s military service. At the beginning of World War I he was in Belgium, and was killed in action the following year, September 1914, in Vermandovillers. Lichtenstein had published only one small collection of poems, Die Dämmerung, published the year before his death.
In 1913, the year before the beginning of the Great War, he wrote this poem. Imagine it in the context of that river of British poppies;
Soon there’ll come—the signs are fair—
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.
The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.
With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Tumble rolling from their beds.
Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn.
—Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton