Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features The Politics of Remembrance​: Nationalism and the State

The Politics of Remembrance​: Nationalism and the State

Jonathan Chern explores the narratives of remembrance and examines its significance on our sense of nationalism.
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A month after the event, Jonathan Chern explores the narratives of remembrance and examines its significance on our sense of nationalism.

I remember a Year 13 assembly when our Head of Sixth Form – a history teacher – expressed her disappointment that very few of us were wearing poppies around Remembrance Day. At the time I didn’t really know how I felt about the Poppy – not really knowing what it represented to me or how I should relate to it. 

Poppies are a symbol with disputed meaning – you can look at the White Poppy movement, criticisms of where the money raised goes to, or of what the Royal British Legion stands for. For some, Poppies are about remembering the dead (civilian and military) of all wars, and for others, they are about remembering specifically the British soldiers of the First World War. For some, they are about respect and gratitude for sacrifice and, for others they are a sobering reminder of a need for peace.

Beyond the disputed meaning of poppies, they communicate a sense of nation

So why then were we being told by a teacher to wear them? What place does a school have to decide the meaning of Poppies for students? I think it was because, beyond the disputed meaning of poppies, they communicate a sense of nation. It is their ambiguousness which makes them so pertinent to people’s sense of collective national (mis)remembering.

This is common across all symbolic remembrance. Look at the tomb of the unknown soldier: how is it that, on one body, millions of different expectations and sentiments of nationalism are placed? How is it that one person, whom we know nothing about, has become the focal point for the collective grief of a nation?

If theorists who claim that nationalism is about mortalitySee Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, on the significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the nation. (the human need to imagine that one is part of a legacy that will survive after personal death) are right, then the unknown soldier, more than anything else, communicates a sense of continuity of the nation. It tells us that we are ingrained with canonical tales of heroic sacrifice. It also tells us that our nation is just a sum of its parts, and our individual bodies mean the same thing to the nation as that unknown body.

The Poppy, for all its ambiguous appeal, can’t be separated from the state

This kind of detached ambiguous remembrance only goes so far, though. Political theorist Jenny Edkins describes the Cenotaph at Whitehall as an ‘embodiment of nothingness’ – it is we who place our own emotions on neutral expressions of grief, and this makes it malleable to thousands of different narratives. But when, on Remembrance Sunday, soldiers march past the Cenotaph and politicians lay wreaths on it, it takes on the narrative of the state.

Cenotaph – Whitehall, London [Photo Credit: Andrew Shiva]

Likewise, the Poppy, for all its ambiguous appeal, can’t be separated from the state. Rather than any anti-war symbol, the appeal is run by the Royal British Legion and has been defined through the mechanisms of the military-industrial complex. The central tenet articulated by the Poppy Appeal is the assumption that remembrance is about gratitude. 

A fear that the public will not accept the state’s moral justification of war.

This points to the question: why, after being processed through the mechanisms of the state, has remembrance come out to be a tale of sacrifice? One view is that it is based on a fear that the public will not accept the state’s moral justification of war. By targeting the bodies – rather than political justifications of war – the state can circumvent criticism and bring war into an emotive nation-building experience.

Look at the two main British narratives of WW1: a tale of heroic sacrifice vs. a tale of death in vain and military blunder. Both tell a story of defeat and cleanse all (apart from the generals in the latter) of guilt, and therefore both are conjunctive to modern British nationalism. Nations tend to have confusing parallel narratives – it just reflects the reality that nations form in confused and non-rational ways. 

The idea that ‘they died for us’ makes their deaths essential to our sense of national identity

The Poppy Appeal puts a large blanket over all the (British) war dead, assuming they all died the same way for the same reasons; in much the same way that it places previously non-existent narrative over the unknown dead soldier. But in this way, remembrance is made to be about a shared identity. This enforced anonymity of the dead allows us to relate our own experiences to theirs, even though they’re probably entirely different. The idea that ‘they died for us’ makes their deaths essential to our sense of national identity (despite British nationalism 100 years ago and now being substantively different identities), and is paramount in connecting the act of remembrance to nationalism.

Whether it is remembrance or misremembrance does not matter. History fades into myths of the past, and all nations use these myths to justify their present. My use of the word myth does not mean that millions did not die in awful ways. But the way British cultural lexicon has adapted the narrative over and over again in a century has solidified our collective cultural understanding of the First World War as not being grounded is specific historic objectivity, but as something within British identity. In such a way, the stories we tell about the First World War and our understandings of the bodies harmed and unharmed have become a nation-building myth.

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