Friday 4 July 2014

28th June

Greek poppies
I wrote this last week but owing to a massive thunderstorm putting the internet out of action, couldn't post it.  Clearly the gods were also commemorating the date in their own way ...


Today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  It is also my birthday.  The coincidence of these two events has always made me particularly conscious of the significance of the date – never more so than this year. 

It is of course pure coincidence that I happened to be born on the anniversary of the day Gavrilo Princip shot and hit Franz Ferdinand and gave Europe the excuse it had been looking for to declare war.  But, connected by a date, the two events overlap in my mind’s eye. Franz Ferdinand so formal with his uniform, his waxed moustache and plumed helmet; his wife Sophie in white, with flowers tucked into her belt.  My mother in a stuffy, green-tinged hospital room, wearing a white nightie.  I see myself, face scrunched up, howling the way I am in my earliest photos, held at arms’ length.  I see – not the Archduke - but the man in the crowd; one of many who had taken potshots at various royals over the centuries.  Two deaths, one birth.

The other day, walking around Thessaloniki – a city which has suffered more than its fair share from the conflicts of the 20th century – it occurred to me that perhaps we have needed a hundred years to make our peace with 1914. I know this is a thought based on instinct and not on science, but bear with me.  Count a generation as thirty years and a century roughly equates to three generations.  My four grandparents were all born before or during World War I; at least two of them were old enough to remember it though none, thank God, were old enough to serve in it.  Now my grandparents are dead, and that generation is gone.  There are no World War I veterans still alive.  From here on out, our understanding of that war will be at a remove.

Hearing about the 1917 fire that devastated Thessaloniki and the outfall of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the population exchange of 1923 that seemed like some politicians’ idea of a solution to religious conflict (hint: it wasn’t) and the German occupation during WWII and the rounding up of the Jews who had made Thessaloniki their home since their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century … any one of these events could have put paid to the city and yet, somehow, it survived, adapted, endured.  Perhaps the city takes its lessons from the traces of people who have gone before: the Byzantines, the Romans, the Macedonians.  Given enough time, the edges of the past can be smoothed out.  Still present, but no longer capable of causing so much pain. 

Standing in the crypt of St Demetrius’ Church, where you can see traces from the multiple cultures who have inhabited Thessaloniki, I had a sudden, strong instinct that the passing of a century might clear a bit of space around the memory of 1914.  Give it some distance that would allow fresh air in to heal some of the wounds. 

They say that it takes a year before we really start to come to terms with the death of a loved one.  A year of events and anniversaries (birthdays, holidays, Christmas) to come and go before we lose the cold-water flinch when we are, once again, hit by the shocking realisation that someone is no longer with us.  And now we have had a hundred years of the 28th June signifying – not the outbreak of the most devasting war the world had witnessed to that point – but the date of birthdays, weddings, holidays or even just happy, normal, event-free days. 

Anniversaries – both the public and the private – are important.   I was always struck by the decision to have the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on the 28th June 1919: a conscious acknowledgement of the symbolism of the date, an attempt to cauterise the wound.  Five years was optimistically soon, but after the commemorations of the centenary of WWI pass, I think the significance of the date will also change.  Its meaning as the harbinger of a long century of conflict will fade into history and, over time, some other event will take place on this date and that will be what we remember.  For me, ultimately, the coincidence of public anniversary and birthday is a reminder to celebrate life and the good things it has brought. 

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