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Don’t mention the War?

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 15 August 2014

It is a fine line between commemorating and glorifying wars. The centenary of World War I is a good opportunity to reflect what this war, and other wars, mean to us today.

Having grown up in Germany and then lived in Britain, Australia and now New Zealand, I have seen very different ways of dealing with the same historic events. That in itself may not be too surprising given the latter three happened to fight on the right side of history. However, I always found the contrast remarkable.

In Britain, World War II is still regarded as “their finest hour” (as if the British lacked other things they could be proud of). For Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli and Anzac are probably more important milestones in the development of the nations than, say, Federation or the Statute of Westminster. In Germany, meanwhile, its military history was for a long time part taboo and part embarrassment.

A personal anecdote sums up the German attitude towards the war. When the council was pruning bushes outside the main portal of my grammar school many years ago, they revealed a big stone commemorating both World Wars. Its inscription read ‘To honour our heroes, to teach our youth’.

Nobody knew this stone even existed and, when it was discovered, nobody knew what to do with it. Keeping it in plain sight, without an explanation or retraction, would have been unthinkable. Removing it would have been ahistorical. So a compromise was found and dense shrubs were planted around it so that today it is fully covered again.

“Don’t mention the War” was not just a Fawlty Towers quote – it was my experience growing up in Germany. Against this background, the colourful ways in which the wars a remembered in the Commonwealth still strike me as odd.

I have no problem at all with sombre commemorations and mourning. In fact, I wish Germany had had a culture of grieving the loss of lives, the destruction of beautiful historic cities such as Dresden – while acknowledging the country’s historic guilt and responsibility for the present.

Both New Zealand and Australia have such a culture of mourning. However, I am still occasionally shocked by some aspects of our commemorations, particularly in Australia. WW2 bomber cockpits and original anti-aircraft guns at the Australian National War Memorial and other memorabilia still make me feel uneasy. To me all wars, even the ones fought for the right causes, are failures of civilisation and should not be portrayed as adventure playgrounds for grown-ups.

Yes, we should mention the wars. The way we do it says a lot about us as a nation.

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