The Remembering ‘We’

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The photograph on the left is of Otto Gregor, one of my paternal great-grandfathers. All I have of him is this photograph and his military passbook. The former is a prompt to vague thought, but little more. The latter is fragile, barely legible, and full of silence on the things that would interest me most.

It is fragile because it was printed on flimsy paper, then made its way through thirty years of soldiering of one kind or another – including those of the First World War – during which time it was repeatedly opened, written upon, and closed again by many indifferent hands. It has the wear and tear to match. It has survived through benign neglect and a good dose of luck, rather than through the care that is bestowed on meaningful objects slated for pious preservation.

It is barely legible because it has been written in, hurriedly, in various personal hands in the Kurrent style taught to German schoolchildren in the nineteenth century. It is a struggle to decipher such writing even when one has a lengthy passage of text into which  one can tune one’s eye for any given hand. Faced with a few scratched words entered by many different people it is, in many places, almost impossible. But the hurried, uncaring handwriting, and the corresponding illegibility of many entries, are as much part of the story that the passbook tells as are the particular details of Otto Gregor’s deployments. They bespeak the repetitive, resigned agency of so many lower-ranking officers – processing passbook after passbook, soldier after soldier, as they were allocated and re-allocated to troop unit after troop unit as the war took its endless toll.

OG papers

It is silent because it tells us almost nothing about Otto Gregor himself. Who he was, what he thought of the war, how he felt about fighting, how he felt about the enemy, and how he felt about killing: none of this can be read from the book. Of all the hands that write in it, his is the obvious one missing. We are limited to the basic facts of his life, the stages of his army career, the details of the units to which he belonged, and where he was deployed – all recorded by others, for the purposes of others, in a manner indifferent to his own perspective on the matter. The nearest we get to his own voice is in the eyes through which he looks back at the camera as he is photographed.

He was born in 1873 in what was then Glogau, in the district of Liegnitz, Silesia, then part of Prussia – it is now Głogów, in Poland. He joined the Royal Bavarian 5th Field Artillery Regiment ‘King Alfons XIII of Spain’ in October 1893, was promoted twice, and transferred into the reserves in 1897. In 1904, his service complete, he was transferred to the first tier of the Landwehr, akin to a ‘home guard’; in 1907 he passed into its second tier. In 1913, at the age of forty, he might reasonably have assumed that his period of military service was safely behind him.

The outbreak of the First World War changed all that. He was recalled in May 1915. He was first assigned to a reserve machine-gun regiment and deployed in Saarbrücken, near the border with France. There followed various deployments, mainly in other reserve machine-gun regiments. Between February 1916 and February 1918 he was a member of Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 220, and – if I read the passbook correctly – took part in the Second Battle of the Aisne, fighting on the Chemin des Dames in 1917. In July 1917 he was awarded the Iron Cross, II. Class. The record also notes, periodically, that his conduct was  ‘good’ or ‘very good’. Ultimately, though, it tells us nothing of substance about his experience as a soldier.

He survived the war. The last entry records his transfer to Bahlingen, near Emmendingen, in Baden, in early 1919. Here, according to family accounts, he owned vines on the Kaiserstühl. (The subsequent loss of these vines was, for a time, a source of regret to me – until I tasted the wine they produce). By that point, however, such an onward trail as exists has long left the passbook behind.

My great grandfather survived the war, but many others did not. His life is thus a prompt to ask: what place is there for him in contemporary British memory culture? There are over 100,000 German citizens living in Great Britain today, whose ancestors fought and died on a different side. There are, likewise, many descendants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose ancestors fought against the armies of the Entente – there are, for example, nearly 100,000 Hungarians in Britain too. The story becomes more complex when one considers the histories of the 900,000 or so Polish-born residents of Britain, whose family trees – depending on which part of Poland they come from – may contain subjects of the former Russian, German or Habsburg monarchies.   Whichever side they fought on, they will most likely have done so on the eastern front, a theatre that has next to no place in British imaginations of the war.

The story becomes more complex still when one considers the many people living in Great Britain today who hail from the various states that, directly or indirectly, succeeded the Ottoman Empire – Turks, Syrians, Lebanese, and so on. Members of some of the ethnic groups that constituted the Ottoman Empire will have fought on the opposing side to British soldiers – at Gallipoli, most obviously. Others (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) became the victims of state-sponsored genocide.

When one remembers, further, that there are many British citizens born to mixed relationships, with ancestors who fought on both sides, one is forced to recognize that British society contains an endless multitude of overlapping, contradictory, messy histories of wartime experience, wrapped up in an endless multitude of different family heritages. Yet there is little, if anything, in formal British memory culture that acknowledges these complex histories, still less that seeks to ponder properly their significance. Indeed, the more diverse British society becomes, and the more diverse the family histories it incorporates, the more insistently that memory culture seems to refuse their presence. The slow, inadequate and begrudging acceptance of the contribution of colonial subjects to the British war effort is perhaps the partial exception here, but this is not enough, and does not substitute for incorporating the supposedly ‘other’ dead into the account.

It is in those many silences, ultimately, that one detects the underlying nationalist script that runs through British memory culture. Both the remembering ‘we’ and the circle of the remembered are defined by silent lines of inclusion and exclusion that map onto, and sustain, silent assumptions about belonging and its limits in contemporary British society. These are underpinned, in turn, by the central conceit of nationalist imaginations always – the fiction of straight, bold, direct lines of continuity between the society that underwent the experience and the society that purports to remember it. It is hard not to sense that the denial of the complexity of the present is sustained by a denial of the complexity of the past, and that a refusal to accept the complexity of the past is, equally, what permits refusal of complexity in the present. Sadly, as a result, British society seem farther than ever from a remembrance culture that does justice to the victims of the war that it claims to be remembering.