The dehumanising language about whole groups and nations that helped create the avoidable catastrophe of the First World War is stalking Western politics once again, writes Joyce McMillan.
The 11 November 1918, it seems, was not a Sunday but a Monday; and it’s strange to think that the first of all our Armistice Days – always marked, since 1945, on the nearest Sunday to the date – took place on what was then an ordinary working day, when people were rushing to factories and offices, or at home, getting on with the washing.
The laws of arithmetic dictate, though, that the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that marked the end of the First World War does fall on the Sunday of this remembrance weekend; marking the climax of a remarkable and often intense four years of remembrance in the UK. The British Government-funded arts festival 14-18 Now has supported an astonishing range of events over the last four years, from Tom Piper’s remarkable avalanche of red poppies seen at great buildings from the Tower of London to St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, to the National Theatre of Scotland’s 306 trilogy, designed to honour at last the memory of the 306 British servicemen summarily shot at dawn for cowardice, treason or desertion during the war; and many other artists and companies, along with organisations across the country, have also contributed their reflections on the war and its legacy.
For all our mighty and varied efforts to remember and learn, though, one thing is clear from the last four years of remembrance in the UK; and that is that while there is much consensus about the pity and horror of the war, we are still unable to agree about what lessons we should learn from this shatteringly destructive conflict. My own emotional education about this war came primarily from two sources; from an old family friend and “honorary granny” of my 1950s childhood who lost two of her three brothers and her sweetheart in the first weeks of the battle of the Somme, and who, like many women born in the mid-1890s, never married, and from Vera Brittain, writer and peace campaigner, whose wonderful Testament Of Youth is relentless, passionate and angry in its description of the huge loss her generation suffered.
Yet even here, the legacy is mixed. If Vera Brittain went on to become one of the most articulate and brilliant pacifist campaigners the UK has ever produced, my old friend’s parents reacted by becoming fiercely conservative British patriots of a very Scottish sort. And lest anyone imagine that these divisions have faded over the years – well, sadly not.
Only yesterday, the Tory minister Tobias Ellwood was to be heard on BBC Radio 4 exhorting modern Britain to stand up for freedom “as we did 100 years ago” (although few historians would agree with that sanitised account of Britain’s motives in 1914-18), and to resume what he sees as our natural role of exceptional global moral leadership. The brute fact about Britain in 2018 is that half the population has learnt so little from the history of the First and Second World Wars that it now thinks walking away from the European Union, amid a haze of vague assumptions about Britain’s intrinsic greatness and superiority, is a good idea; and the language of retro-nationalist British politicians only encourages those illusions.
On the question of what we should learn from the vast tragedy of the First World War, in other words, I think we can only return to the fundamental truth that in Britain alone, almost a million young men – every one of them infinitely precious to someone – were lost in a war that seems, unlike its successor 25 years later, largely like a ghastly avoidable human catastrophe. And our obligation to those who died is to try to mobilise every sinew of our imaginations not only to understand what they and their loved ones suffered, but to retain in every moment of our peacetime civilian lives that profound sense of the preciousness of each individual life that is captured in the thousands of stained and crumpled letters from the 1914-18 battlefield that survive to this day.
It was an enduring sense of that precious quality in each of us that, after the Second World War, inspired the founding of Britain’s National Heath Service and welfare state, and all the measures that were supposed, at last, to create a nation fit for heroes; it is the loss of that sense, and the gradual return, in our politics, of a brutal language of economic power, market values and consequent human worthlessness, that has enabled a gradual extension of those cruel and dehumanising attitudes back into our public life, in areas from social security to immigration policy.
And now, as in the 1930s, we stand at the moment when that pervasive language of legitimised inhumanity can become brutally weaponised against any group at all – Jews, Muslims, gypsies, gay or transgender people, “foreigners” in general – who present a convenient target for those in power. It was that capacity to dehumanise the enemy, on the part of those running the war on both sides, that killed those million young men on the British side, along with two million young Germans; it is that capacity to dehumanise whole groups and nations that is stalking Western politics again, like an old madness returned to haunt us once more.
And that means that hope, conversely, always lies in the power of human beings to see through that age-old lie about the inhumanity of others; in the common sense of the “Tommies” who knew very well, long before the end of the war, that “Fritz”, over in the opposite trenches, was not their real enemy. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” says the German soldier encountered after death, in Wilfred Owen’s great poem Strange Meeting. And if there is one thing that Owen and his contemporaries might have wanted to bequeath to us, 100 years on, it is that ability to see ourselves in the faces of others, regardless of nation, class or tribe; and to seek to build a world that cherishes each human life as it is lived, instead of recognising its unique and precious value only after it is lost, and its name engraved on some cold monument, to be mourned for ever more.