Revolutionary Remembrance: Ireland’s Forgotten War

The other day my attention was called to this BBC article, “Germany’s Forgotten War”, discussing German remembrance of the First World War, which the author notes as being less engaged than that of the British and other nations.

The reasons given seem fairly self-explanatory, but are still worth noting. For Germans, World War One is very far away, not just in time but in politics. The Second German Empire might as well be the Roman Empire really, for all the connection modern Germans have to the state, in a way that Britain and France do to their 1910’s counterparts. Germans also balk at the perceived injustice of World War One’s conclusion, and the “war guilt” that was attached to the land of the Kaiser, something not really worth thinking about, since Germany will only acknowledge shame where it is due (and even then, its stretching it a bit to expect modern Germans to feel bad about things that happened over 50 years ago).

And then there is the overarching spectre of the Second World War, with its larger death toll and destruction of the German territory, for more important for remembrance to Germans today than anything that came before. Germans shy away from World War One cemeteries and few encourage the creation of monuments to that conflict. The reign of Hitler is something that cannot but be acknowledged head on; Wilhelm’s is something to be shunted to the side. Even the author of the piece swings his focus to World War Two with the last line. The only real engagement that the author notes as being above the usual is when debate comes on Germany’s true culpability in the war, with modern Germans eager to explore the theory of equal fault among European nations.

The parallels with Ireland are obvious. The linked article notes that, for Germany, World War One “is not a moment of national reflection” and such a turn of phrase can be perfectly applied to Ireland as well. We have never had the same connection in our national consciousness to the First World War as Britain and France have had, even though it was our war as well. Like Germany we shy away from confronting our role in the conflict, preferring to focus on another war, that of our revolutionary period. The Irish involvement in World War One is a slight embarrassment to the remembrance of that nationalist struggle, something that we embrace wholeheartedly and have throughout our 20th century history, with the struggles on the Western Front being an inconvenient truth. If it is acknowledged, it is as just another sin committed by Britain, tricking/forcing young Irish men into dying for their empire when there was a real struggle erupting at home, the sort of embedded Republican-type history that has dominated the popular remembrance of that period in Ireland.

But things do seem to be changing, but the process is still to reach the proper extent. The centenary decade has focused attention on this time period, as have numerous books and academic publications (for the right torpedoing of the above mentioned “tricked/forced into service” idea for example, see Neil Richardson’s A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall). People seem more willing to look at the period without the traditional blinkers on.

But I’d like to see more. And I don’t mean just visiting a cemetery and feeling sad, an activity I always felt as rather pointless to modern remembrance beyond simple respect for the dead. No, I mean engagement with the issue. The history of the Irish revolutionary period is tied up directly with World War One, so that study of the first must come with study of the second. I want the government to take a lead on that process, beyond wreath laying with David Cameron. Activities and memorials of this centenary decade should have room for the First World War. More books. More articles. More documentaries. More fiction if it’s your thing. More debate. Ireland refuses to have the kind of public and newsroom discussions on World War One that currently seem to be popping up on the likes of the BBC every other day, and the reason is that our level of engagement remains startlingly low for a country that lost as many people in the fighting as we did. This decade will pass, the First World War will grow ever more distant. The men and women of the War of Independence will not be forgotten, which is only right. But I fear and mourn for the remembrance of our other war dead of that time period, those who have, according to one German tombstone, “gone down shining brightly” but whose light continues to dim.

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