How do you remember the 231 million people who died during the 20th century?

As the annual arguing over poppies season draws to a close I thought I’d discuss memory and remembering. Specifically, how do we remember the 231 million people who died throughout the 20th century?

Why call it remembering at all? None of the couple of generations of my family I’m aware of have died in wars. I’ve met people who have fought in wars and whose friends have died in wars. I can think about war, but Remembrance Sunday calls on us to remember the fallen.

On Remembrance Sunday I think about the Menin Gate and the trenches I visited as a teenager, I think about the limbless veterans I see on the television (and at who I glance fleeting if I see in real life), I try to picture the people who have died and why they died…and I fail utterly.

What does remembering mean? Memory is a funny thing. None more funny than when we’re trying to remember things that didn’t happen to us. Each time you remember something you’re really recalling the last time you remembered. The degradation of memories with repeated recall is inevitable.

The poppies In Flanders Fields were aide memoire to more mass murder when John McCrae remembered them. They’ve changed now so that for many their blood red colour recalls wasted blood. They’ll change again too. This is why remembrance isn’t really about remembering at all, it’s about creating new memories and new meanings. The old ones are gone and they must be replaced with something new. This is the real reason we argue so much over poppies. What remembrance means is up for grabs each year.

However, everyone is wrong when they think they can pin a memory down adequate for the enormity of the 20th century.

Because of this remembrance can coincide with trying to go to war with Syria and selling arms to Middle Eastern dictatorships. It’s the conceit of remembering and of comprehensive that I find most off putting about remembrance ceremonies. A few million people can remember and understand in very personal ways the people and the causes that took them away. But even they are unable to see the enormity of what humans did to one another through the 20th century.

Within that slaughter, the holocaust is the most awful of the awful things humanity did to itself in the 20th century. I visited the holocaust museum last week and I prefered the way they did things. They didn’t pretend that we could comprehend of adequately commemorate the holocaust. The industrial scale of the holocaust means that even remembering it you are alienated from its workings. 

The museum wants you to remember the Jews who died. It wants you to try to understand the holocaust. Just like remembrance services every November. The difference comes because the holocaust museum knows you will fail. There is no way one mind can take it all in and process the reality of industrialised mass murder and the scratching of nails on gas chamber walls. Small items were on display at the holocaust museum:

A small brush made by a jewish workshop, it’s owners transported to Treblinka and murdered.

A letter smuggled out of a camp, it’s writer having been transported to Auschwitz and murdered.

A locket of two lovers, its owner (and his lover) having been transported to Dachau and murdered.

A photo of a family at dinner who were transported to Sobibor and murdered. 

I’m not being asked to remember anything just being shown this grain and shown this other grain and then, like some horrible sorites paradox, being told to look up and seeing a mountain of suffering and murder and exile rising up and knowing I’ll never understand.

That’s what remembrance should be about. You should be humbled by the suffering you can contemplate and then look up and be humbled further by that which you cannot.