by Carl Pierer
Since 2014, various student societies at the University of Edinburgh have but on musical performances commemorating the first world war. This article takes a look at one performance in particular. The content is neither highly original nor particularly radical; others have written more insightful and more sophisticated pieces. It constitutes merely an attempt to formulate and to clarify what is problematic with these particular performances, thereby hoping to understand something about the greater memorial tradition in the United Kingdom. In other words, by examining how a nationalistic, martial and oppressive Erinnerungskultur is reproduced in an amateur to semi-professional context – be it deliberately or not -, we may see how these values become normalised and why it matters that this takes place in this particular context.
The most recent performance in this series was the Edinburgh University’s Brass Band spring concert. The programme featured some classical, some modern classical and contemporary pieces loosely linked by the theme ‘pictures, moving pictures’, as well as some others, which were put together under the theme of ‘war’. While this in itself might already be seen as problematic, there are three features of this programme that I would like to focus on: First, the introduction and subsequent dedication given by the band’s director. Secondly, the poem read to accompany a piece in the second part of the concert. Lastly, the omnipresence of poppies.
The evening’s programme was introduced by the band’s director as a mix of pieces fitting the ‘moving pictures’ theme and – because “to remember the Great War in our days is important” – others fitting the ‘war’ theme. There is something odd about this amalgamation of themes. For one, it seems to take away from the remembrance aspect to see it intermingled with unrelated pieces such as Mussorgski’s Pictures at an Exhibition. What was even more bizarre was the almost casual introduction of the serious topic of remembrance. Yet, the most bewildering issue was that – in 2018 – such a memorial concert can be dedicated expressly and exclusively to the ‘heros’ of World War I. Of course, the term ‘heros’ in itself appears as a poor choice, for – unless problematised – it risks simply repeating the military distinction between soldiers willing to ‘die for their country’ (worthy of praise) and cowards, weaklings, traitors (who actively refuse to participate – and hence are worthy to be shot – or who are excluded from becoming ‘heros’ because of their sex, age, gender or some other reason). But above that, it is the exclusive use of ‘heros’ that is deeply problematic. Aren’t all the people, who battled to survive through the First World War but who didn’t (or refused to) die a ‘heroic’ death worth being remembered? Moreover, even if we were to accept this terminology, how can we continue to praise only the male ‘heroes’ – all but erasing the female ‘heroines’? As will become clearer below, the ‘heroes’ comprised by this dedication were only British ones, an implicit nationalistic tinge that is uncannily present in too many memorial events for the first world war in particular.
In the second half of the concert, then, the poem In Flanders Fields by the Canadian physician, poet, and soldier John McCrae was read out. Of course, the choice of such a poem barely needs justification: it is one that is used in remembrance ceremonies throughout the Commonwealth and it was written by a soldier during the war – what more could one ask for?
Yet, the poem, but even more so its repetition in this context, is deeply problematic. In the first two lines (“In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row,”) the remembrance symbol used in the UK and the commonwealth (the poppies, see discussion below) is made to stand for the fallen soldiers, both arranged in resembling military organisation (“row on row”). This image is strengthened by the fifth line (“Scarce heard amid the guns below.”); the dead, the fighting, and what will become a symbol for remembering the first world war are all intermingled.
This, however, is not a conciliatory poem. It is not condemning the cruelty of war. It is not doubting the meaning of this sheer waste of lives that is WWI. Instead, much like the ‘hero’ narrative of any war, it celebrates death and destruction, it urges us to carry on, to keep up the fight: “Take up our quarrel with the foe! / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high!” (Lines 10 – 12). Of course, those who question this cause, this honourable death, are once more portrayed as traitors who disturb the rightful memory of the ‘heroes’ (“If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep (…)”, lines 13-14).
One may like or dislike this poem. Certainly, it is to be read as the product of someone involved in a terribly destructive and cruel war, convinced that they are fighting for a good cause. This, however, is not the question at hand. Instead, what is problematic is its uncritical reproduction today, 100 years after the war has ended. 100 years after we should have moved on from this rhetoric of ‘foes’ and ‘heroes’, of good wars and of dying for one’s country. 100 years later we should be able to understand that maybe a war is never just one good side against one bad side and that maybe, just maybe, this war was the necessary consequence of the marriage between capitalism and imperialism. Presenting the poem, reading it out aloud without any discernible distance to the poem’s core message, perpetuates it.
Moreover, at a time when international solidarity seems to be once more at a low-point, especially in Brexit-UK, and the political rhetoric is infested with nationalism and xenophobia, with a distorted understanding of history, a University society should perhaps consider the context in which the message of such a poem is received.
The third point that appeared problematic was the abundant use of the poppy symbol. Used excessively on program flyers, on posters, and on a power point slide arranged around a large cross, it is maybe worth to look at this symbol and what it stands for. The inspiration for using a red poppy as remembrance symbol for soldiers killed in all conflicts was the above-discussed poem. It is “mostly used in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—countries which were formerly part of the British Empire”[i]. In the UK, the poppies are sold by the Royal British Legion – a charity, which is dedicated to helping those serving or having served in the British Armed forces – and they can only legally be sold as part of the Poppy Appeal, the RBL’s fundraising drive. According to their website, “The symbol of the poppy today represents Remembrance of the past and hope for the future.”[ii] However, in 2014, the symbol was still taken to stand for the following: “It is worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today and their loved ones.”[iii] As such, at least in the UK context, it is not simply a neutral remembrance symbol but one that is clearly linked to the British Armed Forces – past and present. And as such, it has also come under severe critique over the years. It has been seen to be abused to marshal support for contemporary military campaigns[iv], while the refusal to wear one has been construed as a betrayal: “the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery.”[v]
Since it is not as if there were no alternative symbol available, the choice is made to take a controversial symbol dedicating to representing the British part of the conflict. A symbol, which moreover “some far-right groups have used (…) as a symbol of militant British nationalism, while some Muslims have begun to reject it as a symbol of Western imperialism.”[vi] The choice may be unfortunate or ignorant, but neither of these makes it less grave.
Of course, one might brush such worries aside as an exaggeration, the event discussed here being a maybe awkward performance but nothing serious. While this may be true, it seems that there is something more fundamental going wrong. The issue is twofold.
On the one hand, the fact that a student society puts on such a performance, seemingly without any qualms about the subtlety of remembrance, is telling of the role that WWI plays in the collective memory of the UK. The war is nostalgically seen as one waged against the continental enemy, the lives lost in this effort are mourned, yet also their heroic feat need be mentioned, if not celebrated. In its essence, however, it is a British war: the lives that were lost, the lives that need to be remembered, the heroism – all of these are British. And it is the good old Britain that is remembered, the one that ruled the waves. None of this is explicit, naturally, but through uncritical repetition of war-time rhetoric the empire is brought back into the concert hall. And the fact that this happens at an amateur performance, one that does not stand in the spot light and that does not find itself under a lot of pressure to conform to dominant ideals, but rather that would open a space for an alternative, is all the more disappointing.
On the other hand, because remembrance takes place in this way, it is normalised, it passes as something not too serious, not too earnest. Perhaps the most urgent point is that such a performance is never innocent, never free of the political in which it drapes itself naively. Even if all the symbolism is chosen unknowingly, out of ignorance, this does not take away from its power. This is where the real issue lies: because the performance takes place in an amateur context, the symbol is ripped from its context and serves merely as aesthetics “fitting the theme”. Yet, an aesthetisation of the poppy, of heroism and of nationalism is not a subversion of these ideas, but – as was suggested above – their continuation. The political aspect of the symbol cannot be detached from the aesthetic, because the aesthetic is political. The danger of the amateur context is that it makes resorting to excuses all the easier: it is not too serious. But precisely this normalises the ideas that are perpetuated.
It is for these reasons that an ‘innocent remembrance’ performance is a dangerous thing.
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