Visiting the museum at James Stephens barracks in Kilkenny brought a sense of the divisions of Irish history. The museum tells a military history: the history of the soldiers of the British army who served there until 1922; the history of the soldiers of the Irish army who have served there since, some (many?) of whom would have fought against the British occupants of the barracks in the War of Independence. The museum remembers all of them.
I remember being in Germany in the summer of 1994. We visited the island of Fehmahn on the Baltic coast. The countryside around was flat and unremarkable. There were few trees, a few villages dotted the landscape – for Germany it was very quiet and very sparsely populated. There was one small town on the island – Burg-im-Fehmahrn. In the middle of Burg there is a big Lutheran church – a huge building which dominated the skyline.
We went into the church and as we walked in I noticed the war memorials in the porch. On each side of the door there were memorials to the war between Prussia and France in 1870; they were dwarfed by the massive tablets on the porch walls. One commemorated those from the town who had fallen in the 1914-1918 war, the other those who had fallen in the 1939-1945 war. Burg today is a town of about 6,000 people – the war memorials contained hundreds of names. In the space of thirty years the whole future of the island had been wiped out.
No-one would wish to dismiss Germany’s aggression in precipitating the outbreak of war in 1914 or the evil ideology that led to war in 1939, but the people who suffered were the ordinary people. It was not Kaiser Wilhem and his generals who died in the trenches; it was not Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party leaders who died in battles from Norway to Africa, it was ordinary young men, men like those whose names appeared on the memorial tablets of the Lutheran church in Burg. Like the faces in the photographs at the James Stephens museum, the tablets recall the individual, personal nature of military conflicts.
History can become a spectator sport. Sit and watch the latest pictures from Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya from the comfort of your armchair, and it can become almost a piece of theatre. But the cast is real. The names are real. The names that carried with them heartbreak and grief, names with stories you could not switch off with the remote control. Names that knew inexpressible horror. It’s important to remember the names; all of them.