two minutes of silence for the dead

Bf42494d-d5d9-454d-b5ea-f1bf834648ce-620x372Joanna Scutts at Lapham's Quarterly:

The silence (or Silence, as it tended to be styled in the interwar years) stood at the center of Britain’s Armistice Day rituals. From the beginning it was timed to correspond with the ceremony at the Cenotaph at Whitehall, and was later broadcast from there by radio and then by television. It was important that it was a broadcast ofsilence, not simply a two-minute interruption in transmission: the tension of the silence carried over to the listeners. If it was observed in public, the Silence was simultaneously a performance of remembrance and an opportunity for private remembering. It is difficult to know whether the inviolable sanctity of the Silence was felt to be coercive or oppressive. At the same time, within that public silence, there was no way of controlling what people were actually thinking. Newspapers frequently carried scare stories of “violators” being forcibly silenced and shamed, but they were always careful to present these as the spontaneous reactions of fellow mourners, never as any kind of official punishment.

The idea of the Silence spread quickly from London to Canada and Australia and throughout the Empire. Two years later, according the Times, the ritual became—like the visually identical war cemeteries then being constructed—a way of connecting British remembrance efforts throughout the Empire: “From the jungles of India to the snows of Alaska, on trains, on ships at sea, in every part of the globe where a few British were gathered together, the Two Minute Pause was observed.” It was felt most powerfully in urban, industrial areas, where silence was a rarity—and also, where fears of political unrest in the wake of the Russian Revolution were most acute.

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