It is a week of remembrance ceremonies. Throughout Europe, November 11 (today) marks the annual remembrance of the fallen soldiers of past wars, especially the World Wars and even more specifically the First World War, which began 100 years ago this year. This week much of Europe is also commemorating 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, while here in Israel we have had an additional round of remembrance ceremonies, marking 19 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Of the three, it is the annual Remembrance Day which is the most significant, commemorating the millions who died in the service of their countries in the two great wars of the 20th century and in subsequent conflicts in which their respective countries have been involved. The armistice agreement signaling the end of WWI came into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, since which time this has become the moment the continent becomes silent and remembers those who fell in one of the longest and bloodiest wars in history.
In 1997, author Hunter Davies wrote a book in which he interviewed 20 people living in Britain who would reach the age of 100 in the year 2000 – people who had lived throughout the entirety of the 20th century. Each of the interviewees, from completely different backgrounds and with diverse life histories, were asked a series of common questions.
One of these questions was what the single most important and formative event of the 20th century was. World War I received the highest number of responses.
For a young adult growing up in this period, many of whom would have been called up as young soldiers toward the end of the war and many of whom had close relatives or friends who lost their lives to the conflict, this was perceived by them as being a much more formative event than WWII.
In today’s European Union, is almost impossible to fathom the former levels of animosity and hatred among European countries, which came to a bloody high point in the two World Wars. Despite the internal feuding between member countries of the EU over economic and social matters, one cannot but praise the vision of the EU founders and dreamers, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, for their political foresight in the creation of internal European unity and the removal of borders, bringing a level of political stability which was no greater a dream for the European visionaries of the 1950s than was the idea an independent Jewish state as espoused by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century.
The destruction of the Berlin Wall has also brought about an intra-European rapprochement, between East and West, which few believed possible in the period following World War II. Despite all the new walls and fences which have been constructed during the past 15 years in response to the events of 9/11 and global terrorism, the overall impression of an open Europe, with free internal movement between countries and regions which have a long history of animosity and warfare, cannot be dismissed.
With the exception of Russia and its immediate satellites, Europe has become transformed into a unified region which belies the region’s history of warfare and bloodshed.
This year, Remembrance Day takes on an added dimension, as it is now 100 years since the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The many memorials located throughout the Flanders region in the north of France and south of Belgium, the sites of the fiercest and bloodiest encounters of that war, have become the focus of world attention. The past weekend has witnessed memorial ceremonies in almost every European country, with the largest event taking place at the Cenotaph in Britain in the presence of government leaders and the royal family.
Even mass events not normally associated with quiet and reverence, such as large sports events, have stood respectfully for a minute’s silence in memory of the fallen – not just of WWI but of all wars and conflicts in which the country has taken part. To be present at a soccer game with 45,000 singing and chanting (and sometimes cursing) fans, all of whom come to attention in total silence and respect for the fallen, is an event to be experienced.
The most impressive event this year was the carpet of thousands of plastic and ceramic poppies which were laid around the Tower of London. The red poppies, replacing the green grass, in stark outline against the ancient walls of the Tower of London, have become transformed into an artistic statement causing us all to reflect on the individual sacrifice on the one hand, but equally the futility of warfare and the deaths of so many hundreds of thousands young people.
The Jewish communities of the Diaspora mark this event as they gratefully acknowledge the countries in which their own freedom of expression has been safeguarded through the role of the armed forces.
As of this week, the British Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis has introduced a change in the prayer which is recited weekly in all synagogues for the welfare of the royal family and the government. He has added a sentence praying for the welfare and safety of the country’s armed forces, much in the same way that in Israel we have a prayer for the IDF and its soldiers.
This coming Shabbat, synagogues throughout the UK will mark “Remembrance” Shabbat, when they will hold special services, to be followed on the Sunday by their own ceremony at the Cenotaph in central London.
As a child growing up in Europe of the 1960s, the event was relatively low-key, and we perceived it as an event for the adults, the parents (who may have fought in World War II) and the grandparents (who may have fought in World War I). But these events have taken on a renewed significance in recent years, as many European countries have become embroiled in new wars and young people have, once again, become the victims of war in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Young soldiers are being killed in these places today, and Remembrance Day is no longer just an event to recall those who fought 100 years ago. It has become as current as it is historical and it has taken on a new significance and prominence within the public perception.
In Israel we need no reminding of the significance of Remembrance Day. We are engaged in an ongoing conflict which claims lives on an almost constant basis. Each year our Remembrance Day sees new names in the cemeteries and on the gravestones. Next year we will be remembering those who died in the latest Gaza conflict and in other incidents which have taken place during the year. In Israel, as throughout Europe, we remember those who have answered the call of their governments and have given their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms and democracies of today. We may not necessarily agree with the cause, or the objectives of every war which has taken place, but we respect and mourn those who died at the behest of their governments.
While each country, not least Israel, has its own remembrance dates, the annual November 11 ceremony is the global event which must never be forgotten. For as long as we resolve many of our conflicts through warfare, we must never forget those who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.