What kind of company uses the memory of WWI to sell products?

If you’re not from the UK, Sainsbury’s is a leading chain of supermarkets. It has received a fair bit of criticism for releasing a Christmas advert that focuses on the events of the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’.

The criticism largely rests on the fact that a supermarket chain is exploiting an emotially-charged piece of history in order to promote its commercial offering.

However, there are also some flaws in the history as well. The Christmas Truce is a legend that keeps growing.

But there is also a positive side to all this. When the rival firms are exploiting the emotionally-charged first brushes with romance, it is refreshing that a company has decided to focus on a historic event. It is a particularly bold step to take when that event happened in the middle of a war, and your primary range of goods is groceries. I think Sainsbury’s should be rewarded for its boldness by more publicity, like this.

#LightsOut and why we try to remember

A couple of months ago I wrote this blog, about whether it is appropriate to deliberately forget history. I thought that, in the wake of this week’s 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, it might be appropriate to look at why we conduct such massive memorials, and whether we still need them.

The first thing to address, particularly in the case of WWI, is that we do not do this for those who fought, and died. The last veterans of the conflict have since passed on, and the whole thing is nearly beyond living memory. The dead cannot hear us, and the living would probably rather forget about that time altogether. I have heard at least two veterans over the last week say that it is probably about time we stopped these grandiose memorials, and, against the backdrop of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and the Ukraine (among others), this doesn’t necessarily seem appropriate. In my earlier blog I implied that ‘the war to end wars’ was a huge misnomer, and that still rings true with tragic irony.

But if we’re not doing this for those who died, then who is it for? Almost every family has lost people in conflict, but in the developed world those wounds are now healing over. All of the ceremonies and memorials that I have seen, from the ice soldiers slowly melting in central Birmingham, to the fields of ceramic poppies outside the Tower of London, to the vigil service that I attended in a local parish church, all seemed to be particularly haunting affairs. The people behind these things worked hard to create a deeply affecting ritual.

Lights Out itself was the centrepiece for this ritual. The idea, conceived by the Royal British Legion referred to the words of the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The RBL asked that, between 10pm and 11pm on 4 August, people turned off all their electric lights, and left a single candle burning. To their credit, most places, including the local pub where I went for my vigil, joined in. I heard about a service at Bath Abbey where the final song was “A long, long way to Tipperary”, but the men of the choir filed out of the Abbey during the song, and their part grew quieter and quieter. The congregation left in silence, in ones and twos.

These memorials allowed people to express their creative side, in ways that we would never try with a funeral for fear of appearing crass, or over-dramatic. We haven’t gone in for ostentatious mourning since the end of the Victorian era, so maybe public ceremonies are a way to channel that side of our spirit. Even so, I don’t think that we conduct public memorials simply to provide an outlet.

One thing that has struck me, is that these ceremonies are all about the past. If they were about remembering so that we do not repeat the same mistakes, then there would be at least some focus on the future. A pledge, perhaps, that we would all work together to prevent such barbarism from ever occurring again. But there isn’t.

The two World Wars are the last time that conscription was used in the UK. The ugly realities of war were common knowledge to almost every household. For those veterans who are still alive, they would probably rather not remember. They had many comrades who died in battle, but most have also had quite a few friends who have died since.

I think that, whatever the memorials started out as, they have become a way for people who were not there to get a sense of what it might have been like. It will not be a complete picture; I’m sure there were moments of laughter in the trenches; times when the traditional picture of war broke down. But those of us who were not there want to understand how it felt for those who were. Rituals such as Lights Out give us that opportunity.

Google and D-Day; is it appropriate to deliberately forget history?

Google was recently ordered by the European Court of Justice to grant members of the public the ‘right to be forgotten’. This will allow individuals to exercise more control about what appears about them (or doesn’t, in this case) in the public domain. Google has expressed disappointment, and I know that many historians will be uneasy with the implication that a company could be legally compelled to remove a piece of information if asked.

The destruction of history has been going on for a long time. One of the craziest figures of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty was Akhenaten, who tried to remove the power of the cult of Amun by worshiping the Aten instead, and making himself the god’s main intermediary. It was all very Henry VIII. So anyway, things eventually went south for Akhenaten, and his rivals managed to hustle in Tutankamun, who may or may not have been Akenaten’s son, as a puppet ruler. They also committed damnatio memoriae by removing his name from a bunch of monuments, and this is one of the main reasons why our knowledge of the guy is so shaky. That said, we do still know who he was.

Akenaten and family, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

So, damnatio memoriae doesn’t exactly work. However, I thought it might be interesting to contrast Akenaten with Hitler. They definitely aren’t a direct comparison. Akhenaten did not, to the best of my knowledge, deliberately round up millions of ‘undesirable’ minorities and murder them. However, he did preside over a period of massive upheaval and was subject to a consensus criticism. The big contrast for this topic is that while Akenaten’s successors thought his ideas were so dangerous that they should be forgotten, the attitude to the Nazis has been that their crimes should never be forgotten, so that they are never repeated. Mein Kampf is available to buy on Amazon.

For me, the attitude towards Hitler and the Nazis is one that respects the power of history. There is an acceptance that the past cannot simply be whitewashed over. Furthermore, by suppressing the transmission of potentially dangerous ideas, you are acting like the very people you have sought to overthrow. That said, this is something of a false comparison, between two people separated by over 3,000 years, and very different circumstances. The whole world was involved in WW2, whereas Akhenaten and his successors were probably removed in a palace coup. It is much harder to whitewash over history when the whole world knows about it.

It was also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings recently, and the memorials surrounding the event reminded me of something that has sat a little bit uneasy with me. ‘Least we forget’ and ‘Never again’ are phrases that are often used in conjunction with the two ‘World Wars’, but there have been many other wars with massive death tolls that are not similarly remembered. As we begin to slip out of living memory of the First World War, is it time to stop commemorating it – at least on such a large scale? It very much depends on our reasons, but if the main reason is something along the lines of ‘to make sure it never happens again’, then we have already failed. This was not ‘the war to end all wars’. I would put money on the probability that your country is currently involved in an ongoing conflict.

With the Google case, the important thing is that individuals can only exercise this right on their own behalf.  The Conservatives can’t duck out of their embarrassment quite so easily. Furthermore, it seems as though there are caveats that the information has to be ‘irrelevant’ or ‘outdated’. That said, this does not seem to be the case with the precedent case, which was brought by a man called Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was annoyed that a search of his name brought up an old story about debts that he owed. Ironically Mr Gonzalez will now be suffering from Streisand Effect in that, by trying to suppress information about himself, he has made himself far more notorious.

Of course, this ruling only applies to the search engines that Mr Gonzales asks to remove links; not to the websites that host the pages themselves, or to other search engines, or to internet archives. The actual teeth of this ruling do not cut particularly deep into the facts of history, but they do set a nasty precedent; one that could lead to individuals censoring the section of the web that relates specifically to them.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them in the comments section, below.