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12 November 2019

The further we get from VE Day, the stranger Remembrance Day becomes

There must come a point when even the horrors of the world wars will be so far in the past that commemorating them feels like an affectation.

By Jonn Elledge

When, do you think, does the whole Remembrance Day thing start getting a bit, well, weird?

On the face of it, this might seem like a stupid question, because in a very real sense it’s already got extremely weird. Pressure on anyone in the public eye to wear a poppy, and social media abuse for anyone who declines, have both been a factor for years. But this year especially the whole thing has moved beyond the pushy and into the realm of the surreal.

We’ve had the vintage plane dropping the better part of a million poppies on the white cliffs of Dover. The bloke in the audience on Question Time, whose poppy was roughly the size of his face. The words “lest we forget” shaved into the flank of a presumably freezing cold horse. Years ago, I cracked a vaguely tasteless joke, wondering how difficult it would be to convince someone that the only real way to show your respect was to show up to work dressed as a poppy. Someone was clearly listening, as this year some poor football mascot actually had to do it.

It seems as if, with each year that goes by, Remembrance Day gets more demonstrative and more detached from the events it was originally meant to commemorate. The day was inaugurated in 1919 to remember those who had died in the First World War; at that time, almost everyone would have known somebody who’d died in that terrible conflagration. So the idea of commemorating the fallen, and of giving those left behind a sense that they were not grieving alone, was both helpful and rather beautiful. But 1919 was a long time ago. The last British veteran of the trenches died in 2009, aged 111. And you’d need to be about 90 to have fought in the Second World War, so there are very few veterans left from that conflict either. When will the events we’re commemorating be too far in the past for “remembrance” to be a meaningful concept?

The commemoration has since been expanded to remember Commonwealth soldiers who have died in any conflict, and British forces have been involved in an upsettingly high number of wars since. But the share of the population that served is much smaller, and almost all of those conflicts were politically contested in some way. So war is no longer an overwhelming and shared national trauma, but the result of active political choices that directly affected a relatively small number of British people. And if the meaning of the wars has changed, the meaning of “remembrance” surely changes, too.

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Perhaps this shouldn’t matter. The horrors of the world wars are historical lessons worth remembering. “Never again” is a message that should retain its power, even after all those who were there have passed on.

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But whatever the intent behind Remembrance Day, “never again” is not the message that those most enthusiastic about it seem to want to convey. If peace in Europe was the goal, the poppy police would probably be more supportive of the economic and political union set up in large part to defend it. They wouldn’t be quite so keen about military symbols, or quite so angry towards those who don’t embrace them.

In the same way, if the original purpose of the two minutes’ silence every 11 November was to remind us of our shared responsibility towards British veterans, then the government would probably use the welfare state to support them, rather than undermining them at every turn.

And the passage of time clearly does change the meaning of such things. We no longer go out of our way to remember the victims of the Crimean or Napoleonic wars: they’re simply too long ago. There must come a point when even the horrors of the world wars will be so far in the past that commemorating them feels an affectation. We may not be there yet – but surely it can’t be far off.

I don’t think the increasing hysteria of poppy season is a coincidence: the further we’ve got from VE Day, the less tied Remembrance Day has become to the events that it’s meant to remember, and the easier it’s been for other actors to hijack it for their own ends. If I’m right about that, then the longer this goes on, the more hysterical it’s going to get – and, frankly, the less respectful towards those it was set up to remember.