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Tower of London poppies mark another wave in the rising tide of British nationalism

Lest we forget … Nick Ansell/PA Wire

On Remembrance Sunday, while in my native Germany a wall of white balloons dissolved into the air to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I joined thousands at the Tower of London to get a final glimpse of another transient memorial, the art installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.

Since August 5, 888,246 ceramic poppies have been progressively planted in the moat of the Tower of London. The last is to be placed just before 11am on November 11. Each represents a British death during World War I. Seen by over four million visitors, Paul Cummins’s and Tom Piper’s artwork has led to a heated debate about the way we should remember war. Jonathan Jones caused a stir when he termed the installation a “fake, trite” memorial, criticising the focus on British fatalities as nationalistic. He also criticised the “deeply aestheticised” form as inept to represent the horrors of war. The artists replied that they did not intend the work as “an illustration of war’s violence or barbarity”, but as “a location for personal reflection” on “loss and commemoration”.

An old argument

Of course, the manner in which such an unimaginable loss of lives should be remembered has caused controversy for 100 years. Less than ten years after World War I, the Austrian writer Robert Musil observed that “there was nothing as invisible as a monument”. They blend into the streets unnoticed by passers-by. Some people, such as Otto Dix, kept the horrors of war alive through art. Others argued that the best way to commemorate was by transforming battle fields into peaceful landscapes and to erect cathedrals made of trees.

Such memorials had a therapeutic function for those who were traumatised by the experience of war. And it is this “theraputic” function of commemoration that seems to have fed into the Tower of London’s poppies. But I’m not sure that this language is still the right one today. A society whose “living memory” of World War I is fading surely needs stronger reminders of its brutality.

Controversial poppies. Chris Jackson/PA Wire

Despite this I don’t think the accusation that the installation is aestheticising the horrors of war holds up. It is serene on one level, but the sea of red does powerfully evokes blood-swept lands and visualises both the individual and collective loss in a moving and admirable way.

British nationalism

But yes, this collective isn’t as collective as is could be, only paying tribute to the British and Commonwealth dead. And indeed, the national framework of many contributions to the centenary came as a bit of a shock. Over the last few decades there has been a far greater emphasis on comparison, both culturally and academically. The history of the war is often now approached, not through national eyes, but by presenting combatants’ and civilians’ common suffering. Not so at the Tower.

Despite the great variety and nuance of events, I was struck by how questions of cause and consequence are sidelined by judgements concerning guilt and righteousness. I was equally surprised how many programmes and events in Britain focus on the idea of a just war as I was by how the German press used Chris Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers to refute ideas of sole German responsibility. Something of a stuck record. Despite this, overall the commemorations in Germany and in France have a much more transnational focus. They are more staged to reflect on a “shared memory” and more strongly place the centenary in relation to the later history of the 20th century.

Berlin’s white balloons. gastaum, CC BY-NC-SA

A European sensibility

I grew up in this quite different commemorative culture. In pre-unification Germany there was little space for celebrating heroism and sacrifice. November days were marked not only by the end of World War I, but also by the anniversary of the “Night of Broken Glass”, and later, the fall of the Berlin wall. Commemorations were specifically used to overcome nationalism and promote a European sensibility. One of my earliest political memories is the image of the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl and the French president, Francois Mitterrand holding hands at Verdun on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in 1984.

In Britain, as in France and Germany, the commemorative culture of the World War I has been profoundly transformed by World War II. But while 1939-1945 made 1914-1918 more problematic in France and Germany, in Britain World War I’s sacrifices were given meaning through World War II.

There is at the moment a tendency to disentangle British history from Europe. Although the more trans-nationally focused commemorations are also selective, they do serve as a reminder of why borders across Europe were opened and human rights were codified. These attainments should not easily be given up.

Despite this, listening to conversations between people around me at the tower on Remembrance Sunday left me feeling that the artwork connected. Its meaning is not fixed to nationalism. Perhaps through their very transience, the poppies have not been an invisible monument. And so although they might leave something lacking in their inward looking nature, they have also enabled a real debate about how and why we commemorate.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Nick Ansell/PA Wire

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