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Finding realistic, compassionate memorials to losses of war, and the resolve that such dark and painful days will never again be experienced

By Ian McKay, Jamie Swift      

Ian McKay and Jamie Swift are shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for their book The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, published by Between the Lines. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 10. 

Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, co-authors of The Vimy Trap: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, which is a finalist for the Writers' Trust's Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for the best political book of the year.
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Just before Remembrance Day, 2014, the Canadian government unveiled seven new bronze figures that together comprise Parliament Hill’s first-ever war memorial. The authorities solemnly deposited some dirt—now inevitably described as “sacred soil”—from the War of 1812 battlefields at the base of the fighting figures cast in bronze. The memorial sits in a prominent spot in front of the East Block.

The monument recalls action figures in a toy soldier set marketed to small boys. One fellow is firing a cannon, another a musket. One figure brandishes a knife; another raises a fist. Two of the fighters seem to be aboriginal (one may be Métis). A woman is bandaging an arm. The statue is not just about patriotism but inclusiveness and diversity. “Canada’s Newest Monument Evokes the Memory of War of 1812 Heroes,” proclaimed the official press release. For sculptor Adrienne Alison, who had previously known little about the War of 1812, the commission was all about history. “After this, I really feel like we, as Canadians, don’t know our own history,” she said as she began work on the piece. “It’s an important thing, to popularize this. It’s nation-building.” Heritage Minister Shelly Glover situated the new monument in the now-sanctified setting of the Great War: “To me, now, this is as important as Vimy Ridge.” In martial nationalism, all of Canada’s wars—even, in this case, one fought before there even was a Dominion of Canada—are rolled into one: wherever and whenever the forces of empire were engaged, there we should find our meaning as a people.

On the other side of the ocean, carved in stone, in a German military graveyard at Vladslo, near Ypres, sits a very different memorial. The grave markers lie flat, shaded by mature deciduous trees. A tall rhododendron hedge forms the cemetery boundary, sculpted to grow higher behind two mournful statues that kneel on low pedestals, overlooking the grave of their son. Musketier Peter (Pieter) Kollwitz was killed just weeks after the war began. He was 18 years old.

“It seems so stupid that the boys must go to war,” Käthe Kolwitz wrote in her diary shortly before learning of her son’s death. “The whole thing is ghastly and insane. Occasionally there comes a foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness?”

When Kollwitz visited the Roggevelde graveyard in 1926 to plan a memorial to her son, she and her husband Karl decided to place the memorial that would become known as “The Grieving Parents” directly across from the entrance so that the kneeling figures would have the whole cemetery before them. Kollwitz’s work—“The Mother” and “The Father”—has no trace of patriotic bombast. Unlike Walter Allward’s Vimy Memorial, its scale is modestly human. Many visitors approaching the famous work know that the grave of the artist’s son lies a few steps from the statues. Some may sense something else, no less profound than parental grief. It had taken Kollwitz seven years to complete the project. “The memorial begun for Peter had grown to encompass all the victims of the war,” suggested one biographer. “It had been the most difficult trial of Kollwitz’s life.” We are reminded of the anguished question that resounds in Timothy Findley’s ground-breaking novel, The Wars: “What does it mean—to kill your children?”

Kollwitz’s work often dwelt with the theme of sacrifice, while avoiding conventional patriotic tropes of soldiers sacrificing themselves for the nation. For Kollwitz, sacrifice often meant women giving themselves up for their children. With respect to the war, it meant that her son had been sacrificed for nothing. Pieter had marched off to the front as an eager volunteer. “Is it a break of faith with you, Peter,” Kollwitz wondered, “if I can now see only the madness of the war?” Once she had finished “The Grieving Parents,” Kollwitz searched for an exhibition in Berlin where they would be safe. She was worried that they “might be scrawled over with swastikas.” After two weeks at the National Gallery, the statues were moved by train to Flanders.

Although the notion of “breaking faith” echoes through John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, the clash between the German Expressionist and the Canadian militarist could not be sharper. McCrae implored his readers not to break with those who die—by continuing the killing. Kollwitz was bereft because she believed that her generation had failed to prevent the catastrophe.

After Kollwitz got the news of her son’s death, she wrote: “There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.” The message on the principal plaque at the graveyard ends with these words (translated): “The dead of this cemetery cry out for peace.”

As official Canada bedecked Parliament Hill with a permanent homage to the glories of war, the president of France and the German chancellor together inaugurated a new European war memorial not far from Canada’s Vimy Ridge monument. On a far larger scale than Kollwitz’s quiet, grief-laden meditation in stone, this European monument is a massive elliptical “Ring of Remembrance” 129 metres long and 75 wide. Part of the ring appears to balance precariously out over the ground, symbolizing the fragile nature of peace. The ring has five hundred panels of bronzed stainless steel that invite visitors to ponder a list of 579,606 names, German and French alike. The Great War killed that many people in Northern France alone. Architect Philippe Prost explained that it is all about reconciliation, to “unite yesterday’s enemies.” He added, “The Ring is synonymous with unity and eternity. Unity, because the names form a sort of human chain, and eternity because the letters are joined without an end, in alphabetical order without any distinction of nationality, rank or religion.”

Canadian actor, playwright, and director R.H. Thomson also turned his back on national distinctions. Having lost five great uncles, killed between 1914 and 1918, he based his play The Lost Boys on their letters home. He went on to initiate The World Remembers/Le monde se souvient, which entailed the creation of a database of the names of as many of the war dead as possible. “The challenge of Remembrance Day is to honour the dead in ways that communicate the immensity of the loss,” Thomson explained. “And surely we must have multiple narratives about the problems of war and the challenges of peace.” In 2014 The World Remembers began projecting their names in public places—schools, libraries, churches, the walls of public buildings. The display would terminate every 11 November in each of the centenaries of the war years. The World Remembers embraced the approach of the transnational Ring of Remembrance. The projected database display featured a Canadian at the centre of the moving image, circled by the rapidly changing names of people from other countries. In 2015 the name of Robert Keenan, for instance, remained on the screen for five minutes. Every twenty-three seconds a ring of names surrounding the Canadian name faded away to be replaced by another group: Ali Mustafa, Turkey. Charles Parker, Great Britain. Otto Weideke, Germany. Alphonse Leroux, France.

Nearly eight decades after the unveiling of Allward’s majestic sermon against war at Vimy, in nearby Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, the name of Canadian nurse Katherine Maud McDonald of Brantford, Ont., appeared on the Ring of Remembrance. She was killed at the First Canadian General Hospital in 1918. Placing her name together with those of the German dead, perhaps those who fired the gun that killed her, reflects the transnational spirit of mature mourning and painful reconciliation that suffuses The World Remembers.

From Varley and Kollwitz to Prost and Thomson, post-patriotic commemorations take us beyond the narrow nationalisms that have for so long claimed to speak authoritatively about the meanings of state-orchestrated mass death from 1914 to 1918. Archaic, romanticized talk of valour and glory fades away, as does the strutting jingoism of those who would still speak with a glib enthusiasm of wars that they did not directly experience, and the likes of which they themselves will most probably never suffer. Instead, we find realistic, compassionate memorials to the losses of war—and the resolve that such dark and painful days will never again be experienced.

Ian McKay is the L.R. Wilson Chair in Canadian History at McMaster University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 2009 he won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize awarded by the Canadian Historical Association for Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890–1920. He lives in Hamilton, Ont. Jamie Swift is a lecturer at Queen’s University and the author of 11 books, including Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, which was also co-authored with Ian McKay. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, The Kingston Whig-Standard, and Briarpatch Magazine. He lives in Kingston, Ont. Excerpted, with permission, from The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift (Between the Lines, 2016).

The Hill Times 

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