Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

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Time Decides for Ireland


Punctuality has never been a strong Irish trait. In historical terms Ireland is particularly late to appreciate things. But a bit like many of the buses I spent what seemed like my entire youth waiting for, eventuality it turns up and life continues on amicably and prosperously.

Yesterday saw the unprecedented recognition of Irish soldiers who fought for Britain and died, along with so many other young men from many other countries, at Gallipoli in the First World War. A ceremony to celebrate the centenary of the battle’s commencement took place and saw members of Britain’s royal family, the Turkish president, and significantly the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. This form of recognition is a vital step in appreciating a significant link which has existed for centuries between Britain and Ireland, and this is the service of Irish men as soldiers of Crown.

Commonwealth soldiers’ graves overlooking the blue of the Adriatic Sea at Gallipoli (image: wikipedia)

For more there is a worthwhile account here: Gallipoli “Shrapnel burst as frequently as the tick of clock”

Since independence in 1922 a blanket has been thrown over this aspect of Irish history, but is now gradually been drawn back. For many years the contribution of Irish soldiers to the British military has been ignored in official circles, and in many corners considered an embarrassment for people who fought for their rulers.

During British rule of Ireland, military service has featured as an important component in the relationship between the two countries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish troopers were recruited regularly and made up a significant human resource for the then expanding British Empire. They were mostly soldiers, and in that respect cannon fodder. At the same time, service in the Royal Navy was considered a worthwhile punishment for miscreants, be they political or social, before the idea of dispatching them to Australia hatched.

Despite the obvious threat that military service presented, it was considered a worthwhile service right up until the end of the World War One. Namely because it paid a salary and also a widows pension, a luxury farmers and labouring jobs were never entertained with. Job security was an attractive perk, as was being away from one’s spouse for large periods of time while the soldier was deployed in places foreign. My own great grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these people, and saw action in Sudan, and the Boer War among other conflicts. I think that he may have been too old to fight during the Great War, but he was certainly enlisted at the time.

The First World War saw an unprecedented number of Irish recruits signing up to fight. It was perceived that with good behaviour Ireland would eventually earn the Home Rule it had so desperately strove for. In total almost 50,000 Irish soldiers perished during the war. The effects of the 1916 rising saw this effort may have been a waste of time.

The National War Memorial, Islandbridge, Dublin 8 (Image: Wikipedia)

While Irish recognition of its contribution to World War One has been slow, the service of its people as soldiers has never been in doubt, it’s role in the second World War is something much more in doubt. The state officially took a position of neutrality, but had no qualms about introducing conscription, rationing, and preparations in the event of an invasion. Meanwhile thousands of Irish people took the short journey to British territory and signed up to take the real fight to tyranny in Europe’s battlefields. While nowhere near as many people died as did between 1914 and 1918, the number is close to 10,000 and it is a figure which exceeds many other political causes of death, including the Troubles and War of Independence.

This process of recognition is probably easy for most people, especially when given an opportunity to consider life as it was. A better understanding of history, as well as a stronger understanding of humanity are key to this. Irish people are more comfortable in their relationship with their closest neighbour than they have ever been, and they are also more confident in their own understanding of their own national identity that we can appreciate who we are and what really makes us so. As a more globablised condition exists in Ireland so does a stronger belief in the necessity to understand Ireland’s role in the future, and to do this right, understanding the past is an important component.

It is with a slight sense of bragging that I should be reminded that it was on this day two years ago that I took part in one of these processes of recognition. On a wet morning in Yongsan-gu outside the Korean War Memorial I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to lay a wreath at the newly laid memorial honouring the Irish who during the Korean War. The Irish contribution, while quite small, was an unofficial contribution as those who fell did so wearing mostly British uniforms. The significance of this was twofold, in that it recognised that while Ireland had not officially supported the war, its people had rallied in defence of Korea’s freedom, and this is something that the people and veterans of that time appreciate.

Also, with respect to yesterday’s ceremony in Turkey, it is another step by Ireland towards understanding our contribution to the history of the twentieth century. Previously it was buried away as a past which spoiled Ireland’s image as a nation which fought for its freedom from Britain.

In Ireland we now look at our past and realise that our connection is stronger than the rules inscribed with the mere signing of a piece of paper. We look to ourselves now for our answers, and we look to the way we can make our country better and stronger. This is always a learning process, but knowing that is a process makes the journey a lot easier.