Berlin Wall and First World War : So where are the poppies?

This week’s celebrations were all about the Mauerfall, but in his column "Espiner's Berlin", Mark Espiner wonders if some other important events were overlooked too.

British Prime Minister David Cameron places a poppy along the Roll of Honour during a visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
British Prime Minister David Cameron places a poppy along the Roll of Honour during a visit to the Australian War Memorial in...Foto: Reuters

A German word has passed into my English vocab and I’m trying to get it into English usage. Mauerfall. If I fail to slip it in in German, I say “wall fall” instead, but both are so much easier to say than “the fall of the Berlin wall”. I’m hoping it will be in common use by 2039, just in time for the 50th celebrations of the wall fall, which, incidentally, will also be the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 2.

While I’m on the subject of the mauerfall, I thought that perhaps the most significant anniversary would be the 28th and not the 25th, since 2017 will mark the point at which the wall will have been down longer than it was up.

Anniversaries are a funny thing. Berlin chose to celebrate 25 years of the mauerfall on November 9. But the same fateful day also marks Pogromnacht - otherwise known as Kristallnacht - and when I spoke on the phone to a friend in London she was commemorating that instead, a more sombre event than the wild cheering and spontaneous singing in the background on my end of the line. And those two aren’t the only significant events in German history that happened on November 9 as has often been pointed out. It wouldn’t surprise me if Beethoven conceived his 9th symphony on 9/11.

I had a headache after all the celebrations and visited my doctor, who was outraged at all the mauerfall fuss. I was about to say how wonderful I thought it all was, how the border of light balloons gave a real, albeit benign, impression of what a divided city must have felt like, to recall the feeling of a people movement and imagine what it must have been like in 1989. But before I could get any of that out, she said: “Where are the poppies?”

It took me a moment to clock it. November. Armistice day. The day of peace marking a 100 years since the beginning of WW1. She said it was the Great War. It should be remembered and said she had just got back from Scotland which was a sea of crimson poppy buttonholes.

It’s true. In the UK in November poppies are everywhere. Every year most people - and it’s obligatory on the BBC - wear a poppy with pride, honoring the senseless loss of life in a pitiful war. It isn’t jubilation at a victory. It isn’t triumphalism over the Prussians, Germans, whatever. It is a pause to consider a catastrophic European war and the waste of life it brings. This year it’s in even fuller bloom on the centenary.

Mark Espiner, a Londoner in Berlin.
Mark Espiner, a Londoner in Berlin.Foto: Thilo Rückeis.

But here? Nothing. Or have I missed it? I saw a picture of Angela Merkel doing her best to look kindly on David Cameron. He was sporting his poppy, while Angie had none. What a missed opportunity, I thought, for good Anglo-German relations, or for a recognition of a crazy European war. Even more, proof of strength and peace lying in togetherness and not behind trench lines - or in arguments over Brussels and immigration.

Maybe you can enlighten me as to why this particular anniversary is so muted? There isn’t anything like the complex issues that surround the second world war around the first. If you want a quick resume of how it all came about there’s a very good description and historically accurate explanation of it all as a pub fight.

But most important, I guess, is the need to state the obvious. The seeds for the second world war lay in the end of the first. And bricks for the Berlin wall were built out of the second. So you can’t really celebrate the mauerfall without recognising that it arose from an event 44 years before it went up. And the seeds for the first world war? Well, they lay in a divided Europe - and there’s a lesson for Britain in that too.

You can follow Mark Espiner on twitter at @deutschmarkuk. You can read a German translation of this column here.

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