The first two weeks of November are rich in remembrance. On November 5th, 1605 Guy Fawkes’ attempt to assassinate James I by destroying Parliament was discovered and thwarted; the Berlin Wall came down on November 9th, 1989; and at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, WWI hostilities ceased on the Western Front.
In England, Veterans’ Day — or Armistice Day, as it is called on that side of the pond — is synonymous with the slogan “lest we forget”, while Guy Fawkes’ Day is inseparable from the nursery rhyme which begins “Remember, remember the fifth of November,/ Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.” Why should these memorial days be so closely associated with the rhetoric of memory, with promises, made in language, never to forget? It seems to be a case of protesting too much: a guilty, deep lying cultural recognition that inasmuch as memorialization keeps events fresh in our minds, it consigns them to the dust bin of history.
In the case of Guy Fawkes’ day it is ironic but probably unimportant that fireworks, bonfires and a nursery rhyme about memory have overshadowed the events of a Catholic plot on a Protestant king’s life. The daily stream of body bags from Iraq and Afghanistan reminds us daily of the sacrifice of our troops, but perhaps not of the 1918 Armistice. That only twenty years on, however, the fall of the Berlin Wall is being memorialized is more pernicious: the risk of what we forget in the process of ritual remembrance, is much greater.
The Berlin Wall was standing when most Yale undergraduates were born, and fell before our first memories. Historically immediate but nonetheless unrecallable, those of us in our late teens and early twenties celebrate the event as we might the storming of the Bastille. It is of course a great thing that Berlin and, for that matter, Germany is no longer artificially cut in two. However, in consigning the physical wall to history it is all too easy to consign its history to history.
As the artifacts of WWII – human and physical – disappear from the world, it’s as dangerous as it is easy to see fascism as a historical phenomenon. We have a black President, the Jews have their own state, and the enemy is without, and wears a turban. Sadly, a black President does not mean racism’s dead. This kind of intellectual indolence, coupled with the real-world conditions of recession, blue-collar unemployment, and low voter turn-out are a petri-dish of fascist ferment. Unsurprisingly, Neo-Nazi activism is on the rise worldwide: 6,000 skinheads marched through Dreseden, Germany in February this year.
Furthermore, the internet has facilitated a virtual community of white-supremacists who might otherwise have remained isolated lunatics. Indeed, the forum “stormfront” attracts 40,000 unique visitors per day and the volume was so great in the days following Obama’s election that the server crashed. More frightening than the popularity of the website, and the Nazism of its members, is the moderate tone of its home page. The strength of modern fascism rests on people’s perception of it as a historical phenomenon.
In Britain in the 2009 European Elections, the British National Party took 6.26% of the national vote. Its leader, Nick Griffin, went to Cambridge and his website promises to put “British workers first” and “crack down on crime”. Recently he was granted a primetime television interview on the BBC, alongside mainstream political figures. This is the same man who can be found, on camera, telling David Duke a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, that “there is a difference between selling out your ideas and selling your ideas. The BNP isn’t about selling out its ideas, which are your ideas too … that means basically to use the saleable words, as I say: freedom, security, identity, democracy”.
An on-record fascist, and confederate with an American and illegal terrorist organization, is on the road to the political mainstream in Britain; the power of Nick Griffin, and those like him, comes from a mistaken belief that fascism lives in a different country where they do things differently—called the past. So, let us celebrate that Berlin and Germany are once again whole, but let us not forget, in all the midst of our memorials, why it was divided in the first place.