Only by standing together can we ensure the horrors of the past never visit our front door again, writes Joyce McMillan
The first weekend in August and Edinburgh begins to fill to capacity with visitors and artists, as the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe explode into life, this year celebrating their 70th anniversaries. The Festival was famously founded, of course, to help heal the wounds of a Europe devastated by war.
The international quality of the first programme in 1947 – which featured an emotional reunion between the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Bruno Walter, who had had to flee to the United States during the war – stood as a symbol of hope for a period of peace, stability, and spiritual renewal, after years of devastating conflict. And still today – with 58 countries represented on the Fringe alone – the Festival honours the idea of a city and a nation reaching out to “embrace the world”, in the words of the Festival’s founding Lord Provost, Sir John Falconer.
The first weekend in August also carries another significance, though, and one of which we’ve been forcefully reminded this week. It was 103 years ago today that Britain declared war on Germany and its allies, marking the beginning of that generation of conflict, between 1914 and 1945, that still often shapes the world we live in today. And although we have become used to regarding that 1947 dream of postwar peace-building in western Europe as one of the world’s great success stories, I could not help being struck, as I watched this week’s centenary commemorations of the terrible battle of Passchendaele, by how little real reconciliation there has been, in these core representations of recent British history; how little effort to move on, psychologically, from the pattern of alliances and hostilities, of “us” and “them”, that prevailed during those conflicts.
So at events like this week’s Passchendaele ceremony, those who represent the UK – Prince Charles, Prince William, Theresa May – stand shoulder to shoulder with the representatives of “plucky little Belgium”, the country we finally went to war to defend; but in the rhetoric and ritual at the Menin Gate, there is almost no mention of Germany, our ally for the last two generations, whose soldiers also died in their hundreds of thousands in the mud of Passchendaele.
The royal party laid wreaths at the graves of four German soldiers buried with the British near Ypres, and some translated words from the diary of a German soldier were read out; but Germany itself – its President, its Chancellor, its language – was strikingly absent.
By the same token, each November on Armistice Day, our leading royalty and politicians stand together at the Cenotaph with representatives from across the Commonwealth; but there is no wreath laid, in the presence of the Queen, on behalf of Germany, or France, or any of our closest European neighbours except Ireland, which in 1914-18 was still part of the UK.
Now inevitably, there will be those for whom the idea of including the old enemy in our rituals of remembrance is a step too far, or even an imagined “insult” to the memory of those who died.
Yet to them, the question needs to be put: if not now, a whole century after Passchendaele, and more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, then when will the time be right to stand together in mourning, rather than apart? At the moment, of course, these questions take on an intensely political character; one British newspaper this week attacked French and German politicians for posting social media comments about the need for European peace and unity, in the aftermath of the Passchendaele commemorations, calling their remarks a pro-EU “politicisation” of the event. And those who support Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union must be aware of the link between the emotional impulse to “make Britain great again” that seems to have driven many Leave voters, and the almost obsessive revisiting of images of wartime courage, stoicism and eventual victory against evil that still pervades British popular culture.
Beyond this bitter political controversy, though, there must surely be a sense among many people in Britain – whatever their view on the European Union – that it is time to move on from a world in which we remember only with our old allies, and never with those who are no longer our enemies. The people who founded the Edinburgh International Festival were already prepared, just two years after the war, to lay the conflict to one side, and to start rebuilding bridges with the great orchestras and opera companies of the German-speaking world.
And next year, as we reach the centenary of the Armistice of 1918, it is surely time for us, in our century, to rethink the way we remember these conflicts. On both sides, the greatest artists who fought in the First World War – from the British poet Wilfred Owen to Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the great German war novel All Quiet On The Western Front – had just one thing to tell us about that war: that our duty to those who died is not to glorify the terrible deaths they faced, but to do everything in our power to ensure that such carnage never happens again. The men in the trenches always knew, from the first months of the war, that they shared more with the Germans in the opposite trenches than they did with the generals.
And a whole century on, it cannot be too much to ask that our commemorations should begin to reflect that basic soldiers’ wisdom; and to show us the nations of western Europe now standing together in grief, and in our shared resolve that no matter what political changes we face, we will strive and strive again not only to maintain the long peace in our own corner of the earth, but to cease to be what European nations have so often been, now and in the past – exporters of conflict, willing to arm and fuel the horror of war elsewhere, even in the moments when we dare to hope that we have learned how to keep it at a distance from our own beloved fields and hills, and from our own front doors.