Sunday, November 12, 2006

Remembrance Sunday

If Private George Osler had not been one of the 900,000 British soldiers killed in world war one, it is possible I would have met my great uncle. It would have been a meeting between a very old man and a very young boy, at some point in the 1960s. But I might have known him in person. I might still be carrying some sort of memory of him and who he was.

What did he think about the cause for which he fought and ultimately died? Was he a conscript or a volunteer? Family history doesn't record the details.

Meanwhile, my grandfather Willis Osler came out of the conflict with some decorations, and in 1920 married a German woman. I presume some of her relatives must have been on the other side. Maybe some of them were killed too.

My mother's family are German-speaking Swiss nationals, and at least one aunt and one cousin also married Germans. One of them - a man I did meet as a boy - had been a wehrmacht conscript in world war two. A reluctant conscript, he claimed. But it remains true that he fought for Hitlerism.

Another aunt married a Sudeten-German communist, who after a period in a concentration camp eventually found himself fighting with the Free Czech Forces in the UK. He stayed a diehard Stalinist until his recent death.

My father's half-brother did his national service in Korea. He is happy to boast of having killed 'communists', as he sees the matter. I suspect he regarded the fact that they were Asian rather white communists as, if anything, an added bonus. No reluctance there, then.

I'm sure all of the men mentioned above were - irrespective of the army in which they found themselves lined up - were 'brave' as individuals. And all three of the ones I have discussed it with had political ideas about why they found themselves called on to kill other men.

Few families will not have been touched by the massive conflicts of the twentieth century. But in these times when more and more people living in Britain can trace their recent ancestry to multiple countries, much of the patriotic narritive surrounding Remembrance Sunday inevitably erodes.

I do respect the memory of George Osler. How do I feel about the uncle fought for Hitler? I'm not sure, really. Much as I hate fascism, ultimately I do not disrespect him as a person. As a conscript, he didn't have a meaningful choice.

So even before I became a revolutionary socialist, my feelings on Remembrance Sunday were always ambiguous. Because members of my family fought on both sides in both world wars, subjectively I have never wanted to 'glorify' the dead on one side alone. That is why I have only worn pacifist white poppies.

I think the far left needs to handle these issues with a delicacy with which it is not customarily associated. We shouldn't belittle the emotions people inevitably feel on these occasions. What we need to stress is the nature of war, and how our brand of politics mean that there will not be repeat performances - again and again - across the rest of human history.

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