Yesterday was Armistice Day, the day on which the fighting stopped in Europe in 1918. Over the years there have been many debates in a number of countries about the value of commemorating this day, or perhaps about the way it should be commemorated. In a piece in the Irish Times newspaper yesterday Brian Hanley, an historian from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, suggested that the commemoration of the armistice with the use of the poppy as an iconic symbol amounts to ‘fuzzy nostalgia’ that supports ‘the justification of war’.
I suspect this perspective on the poppy and on the commemoration at this time of year, while not unique to Ireland, owes something to the complexities of Irish history. Experiencing Remembrance Day on this side of the Irish Sea (and that includes the observance in Scotland) provides a very different impression. Here every town and village has some ceremony, and in each case it is not at all about the justification of wars, but the expression of community through a shared memory of what was lost. And it is that sense of community mourning that the wearing of poppies on television, or on football pitches, conjures up.
In Europe, my generation was the first in a long time to have been able to go through our lives without the threat of imminent war or the reality of armed conflict between European nations. We have taken peace for granted, although obviously we have been well aware of its absence elsewhere in the world. And in Western Europe at least, we have had democratic government, with all its faults.
There is of course an academic role in all of this: the task of the community is to remember, but the academy should assess, analyse, question, doubt. Still, I believe that it is right for us all to commemorate November 11th, in the hope that remembering the conflicts and killings of recent history will tell each new generation that we must live with each other in peace and show tolerance and respect for the rights and dignity of all.