by Simon Winder
I first went to the annual British commemoration in London of the two world wars in 1978, when I was 14 years old. On the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice on December 11th 1918 there is a huge march of veterans with accompanying royalty, politicians and marching bands. It is watched each year by millions of people on television. The spectacle is a very impressive one. The music, prayers and wreaths, the terrible injuries of some of those wheeled along Whitehall, create a sense of serious mournfulness.
In the usual insidious way that time operates the parade has, of course, changed drastically since 1978, even if the ceremony itself remains almost identical. Back then there was an enormous contingent of men who had fought in the First World War – old, at least in the second half of their seventies, but generally hale. These were matched by those who had fought in the Second World War – then vigorous-looking figures, some younger than I am now. It was a time still soaked in the active memory of both wars. The then Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Minister of Defence had all fought and, while many of the principal military leaders had died in the previous decade, the nation’s mythology was filled with discussions of those extraordinary events – through television, books, toys, endless conversations and reminiscences.
2014 saw the accidental alignment of two anniversaries: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the 75th year since the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. These have been widely commemorated across Europe, but while they have provoked many interesting books, lectures and events, they have also shown something both obvious and unexpected: that these two cataclysms now and undoubtedly happened a long time ago. Watching the Remembrance Sunday events in London in 2014 I inevitably thought of my much younger self in 1978, and the contrast between the two parades was overwhelming. Even an 18-year-old who had joined the British army right at the end of the First World War would now need to be 114 years old to be in the latest parade – everybody who was marching back in 1978 has now died. But the Second World War, which still seems so close, has also slipped away: an 18-year-old who joined up in 1945 would now need to be in his mid-eighties.
What were for generations two shared experiences are now coming to an end. Perhaps even more disorientating is that even the Cold War does not form a shared memory anymore – with the scenes around the Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate being no part of anybody’s experience under the age of, say, 35 at least.