Let's Have An International Day of Remembrance of All War Victims
28 November 2006

"To what God
Shall we chant
Our songs of Battle?"

That question was asked by the war poet Harold Munro in one of his poems, which I just reread when the November 11th celebrations were taking place – the Armistice Day from the First World War, that marks the dead of our ‘world wars’. Like many others, Munro was struck by the fact that several nations, while going for each other’s jugular, referred to the same God as the basis of their identity and rights, including their right to fight and massacre.

Questions of identity are at the heart of many conflicts. Our sense of identity is such a basic element of our personality that whenever we feel that it is threatened we are bound to react forcefully. And we cannot define our identity unless we take into account all the human groups to which we belong: gender, family, social position, profession, nation, religion, etc.

Allegiance to a nation is a powerful element of our identity, and has a strong emotional content. Paradoxical as it may seem, nobody knows what is decisive in national identity. A few nations still use the ethnic criterion alone as the cornerstone of their identity; a few use religion; others rely on language as the decisive element; but many in our globalised era must now resort to the voluntarist definition established by the French historian Ernest Renan. He defined national identity as a ‘daily plebiscite’, and the nation as a group ‘having done great things together and wishing to do more’.

We can only admire the wisdom with which this principle was applied not to integrate but to peacefully break up Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak republics, and note that in many cases national feeling has led to more violent divorces – revolts and wars of independence. Strong national feelings often drift towards a more or less messianic vision of a ‘mission’ that a country is supposed to fulfil, and that has been an efficient catalyst for colonisation and war, including some of the most protracted conflicts of our time.

But while watching the moving tribute paid to veterans of WW I or to their memory, I wondered if Ernest Renan’s definition of a nation couldn’t also apply to Europe and to the world. While continuing to belong to our own nations – and most of us don’t want to change that – could we not grow a sense of belonging to larger communities? And to develop that sense of belonging, shouldn’t our remembrance day be a universal one? We would need to choose an internationally suitable day in the year when every nation would try and remember their share of the 160 million victims of the conflicts of the 20th century.

In Trnava, Slovakia, where I am now living, there is a WW I monument. Slovakia was then part of the Hungarian kingdom and most of the names there are those of victims of bullets or shells fired by France’s allies. The 60,000 American victims of the Vietnam War are commemorated at the moving Vietnam monument in Washington, but in Vietnam itself over one million civilian and military Vietnamese casualties lay buried. The revolt against French rule in Madagascar in 1947 resulted in about 90,000 dead, almost completely forgotten. All these victims need to be remembered too.

We in France would of course continue to remember French and allied victims of Verdun and other battles of both world wars, but we would systematically invite representatives of Germany and former enemies to join in, so that their dead are remembered too. And in the event that other nations would like us to be associated with their commemorations, we would make it a rule to accept their invitation. More often than not, it would mean remembering occasions where France is still seen as the aggressor: Turkey, Vietnam, Algeria... On that day, the rule would be: no blame, no lecturing of other nations about their past, no political agenda, just silence and respect for the dead.

What better tribute could there be to veterans and victims of all wars, civil wars, genocides and other atrocities than a day of joint remembrance of all these tragedies? What greater sign of maturity could nations display other than remembering at the same time the losses suffered and the losses inflicted? What better asset for peace would there be than this yearly meditation in common on the human cost of war?

Amazingly, there is no such day on the UN’s already long list of days and weeks designed to help focus the world’s attention on the issues where the UN has a commitment. By repairing that regrettable oversight, we would focus all nations on peace. And if the spiritual and religious leaders could associate with such an initiative, we could answer Munro’s question with that phrase by Thomas Paine: ‘My nation is the world and my religion is to do good.’




COMMENTS

Thank you for this insightful commentary on identity.
In some quarters there is awareness of issues like those raised in this piece. Although it is not directly in line with the author's point raised, may I mention a decision by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly for the "Establishment of a European remembrance centre for victims of forced population movements and ethnic cleansing". This was adopted on 5 October 2006.
I happened to be there and remember that it did not pass unanimously, so to say. However, here is one serious attempt under way to review those perceptions which, if unaddressed, can become so very harmful.
If readers are interested in details of the above mentioned resolution, then please read on here
assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta06/ERES1522.htm
Christoph Spreng, 30 November 2006


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