Today, the eleventh of the eleventh, it is 98 years ago that the guns fell silent on the Western front. Growing up, Remembrance Day was not an issue for me. The Netherlands did not participate in the First World War, and where I come from the eleventh of the eleventh means the start of the carnival season, and not the end of a world war. For us the fifth of May, when the Netherlands was liberated during the Second World War, holds much more significance. We remember the fallen on the fourth of May, in pretty much the same way the English-speaking world did today.
Remembrance Day became a thing for me after I moved to Scotland and was introduced to the history of the First World War. Dutch schools almost exclusively educate us on the Second World War – to the extent that universities don’t bother with it anymore, as the general opinion is that we already know it all. Both the First and Second World War were covered within one single lecture at uni.
World War I is a much bigger topic on the other side of the pond though, and during my studies abroad I started to appreciate the rich military heritage of the UK, and particularly Scotland. Last weekend I went to pay my respects at the Commonwealth War Cemetery here in Hamburg, and even though I don’t share a (national) background with the soldiers lying there, I feel touched. Having studied the era for so long, I have read their letters, their dairies, their poems. I know their stories, their backgrounds, their experiences. Not them personally of course, but the nation’s, the regiments’.
On a daily basis my Facebook timeline is flooded with articles and posts from all sorts of First World War groups. Every day I learn about the lives of soldiers who died for their country. This is history how I prefer it: not just battles, but ordinary people just like you and me. These ordinary people became war heroes when laying down their lives. Now, whereas I absolutely don’t mean to say anything that contradicts that, I am somehow bothered by the fact that only soldiers of one side are celebrated as heroes, whereas the opponents’ soldiers are forgotten – just like that.
Remembrance Day is not so much of an issue here. No day off, no wreath laying, no ceremonies. A couple of years ago the initiative to include all war deaths – including the German – in the Dutch ceremonies on the fifth of May caused a huge uproar in the Netherlands. We remember the British, American, French and Canadian fallen, but not the German. Today I wanted to do things differently and attend a service for the German fallen. It didn’t seem right not to remember them, especially now I’m living here. Couldn’t find any. Not sure whether that means they’re not here, maybe I didn’t use the right search terms. There is a ceremony at the Commonwealth cemetery, but not for the German war death. Germans would rather forget, it seems. After all, they didn’t win this war.
Two of my grand uncles laid down their lives fighting for Germany. No one ever called them heroes, maybe only during the war itself. Only a couple of months ago my grandmother showed me some pictures for the very first time. I don’t even know their names – so much of a no go it is. Even after 70 years, people don’t talk about the war. That makes me sad. It does matter whether history has proven your cause to be the just one. One a hero, another a villain. Whereas after all in fact they didn’t really differ that much: young kids fighting for their country, tragically losing their lives. And I just wonder, isn’t it about time to put the German soldier into the limelight too?