Friday, 18 November 2011

Praise the Dead

In France we have just passed through two weeks of mourning. That is between November 1st and November 11th.
This is a heavy period. November 1st, “All Saints Day” is for remembering your personal dead and a pall of grief hangs over the country. People buy chrysanthemums in pots or in cut bunches to place on graves. I was, in my first year in France reprimanded by a florist when I asked for potted chrysanthemums at a different season: in London one bought them to decorate the house during the winter months. I remember their distinctive scent in my drawing room. I did not associate it with death. But I live in a country where such symbolism is not transmutable. Chrysanthemums mean remembrance of the dead.
November 11th is quite different. The dead are the dead of history. Whereas in the UK this day is a moment to pause with pride to remember the victorious dead, with poppies, in France it is a moment of terrible grief. There are no poppy sellers in the streets of Paris.
To know the difference between the suffering of France and the UK of WW1 for which November 11th is the Armistice Day one need only take a long walk around parts of rural Normandy where every hamlet has its War Memorial. This is also true in the UK, but somehow it has never had the emotional impact for me to read a list of war dead in the UK compared to reading such a list on an isolated cenotaph in the heart of rural Normandy. Why? This gives one pause for thought. Is it worse if the war took place on your own nation’s soil? The terrible losses for France in that war and the fact that the blood of the slain, yes and English blood also, soaked the soil of northern France, changed her history for the decades that followed. In France Germany and elsewhere in Europe, it was the source and cause of the political errors that led to WW2. France was not alone in making the political misjudgments that allowed Hitler to build a powerful army. The British government was equally to blame. But then, when WW2 came, Britain is protected by the Channel, and this gave time to rearm. Too quickly, France could only capitulate. Would a powerfully armed France with strong political leadership have been able to resist the Nazi invasion? If only: but the realities were otherwise. I have read what Antoine St Exupery wrote when he was a pilot in those early days before De Gaulle went into exile in England, the days in late 1939 and early 1940 when French pilots were flying against the Luftwaffe in Eastern France. He wrote that their calamitous attempts, in terms of casualties, to stem the Lufftwaffe’s onslaught was “like trying to throw a glass of water on a forest fire.”
This history is also behind the terribly poignant sadness of November 11th here in France. It is also behind the desperate attempts being made by France and Germany, especially Germany, to save the Euro and with it the European Union that is the phoenix arisen from the ashes of these two terrible wars.
I can only say that the terrible sadness of the losses of WW1 and the Nazi occupation in WW2 still lingers in the hearts of French people, handed on from one generation to the next: that and a terrible sense of defeat. On November 11th, I find it hard to hold back my tears at the thought of those tragic years and their historical consequences. November is a sad month in Paris.
I prefer to think of November 1st as the Celtic New Year, the beginning of life after the disquieting night of Halloween when the earthbound dead walk abroad. And as a part Celt, that is how I celebrate that day. Death passes into history. Life is reborn.

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