Blood red, white and blue

March 19, 1999

The Germans have spent years anguishing over an appropriate Holocaust memorial. Isn't it time the British erected one to the victims of their imperialism? asks Brian Brivati

The Germans have finally decided on the form for their memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The debate has lasted ten years.

At present though, the recently completed Jewish Museum, a startling building in the centre of Berlin, remains unopened. Arguments continue on the nature of its displays. The quality of these debates and their intensity, at least as I encountered them on a recent visit, was humbling.

I was moved to the extent that I would much rather that the debates had rolled on and on. While the deliberations continued there was the possibility of individuals coming to terms with their history. With a decision the debate is concluded but not resolved.

I was humbled, because so little of our own reflection on the millennium and on the century passing, has the morality or the honesty of the discussions I listened to.

The process that has been going on in Berlin needs to be replicated. Indeed, I suggest that the Germans abandon their plan for a permanent memorial but rather build one that will last for three to five years before being put in a special museum and replaced with a new memorial. In the middle of this period a competition should be started to construct a new memorial. Comparing the winners and the range of designs entered over time would form another layer to the debate and the remembering.

The German debate has much to teach us. It is time that we British climbed down from the lofty moral heights that most of us inhabit when we think of this century. Total war made war criminals of us all because it demanded acts of war against civilian populations. Imperialism and slavery are features of our past that live on in the daily racism of our cities. There is much that we should be rightly proud of in our island story: we fought wars in the name of freedom and we traded around the world to make our people wealthy and founders of a global community who speak English and share traces of a common heritage. But in each of these sources of pride, there is also shame.

We have to begin in earnest the process of remembering the moral hiatuses that litter British history. We are a generation behind countries like the United States and Germany in coming to terms with this guilt. This gives us an advantage in the way in which we can conduct our own debates about the blood that stains our past. We do not need to go down the agonised road of American political correctness: there is no need to denigrate our achievements, but we must acknowledge that while we gave the world much, we have taken more.

The landscape of silence at the centre of West German historical imagination for much of the postwar period is also at the centre of ours. We are in grave danger of building a "New Britain" without a soul and marking the millennium with little sense of humility. There are victims of our imperialism, our capitalism and our war among the Germans, the Boers, the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, the Irish and the Africans.

A just cause is not enough and does not extend to Ireland, to India, to Africa. Nor does it explain our continued role as the supplier of arms to all the major conflicts that rage in our world today.

There will be many celebrations in the moral vacuum of the Millennium Dome exhibition. As a way of creating a more balanced debate about our greatness and our evilness, I propose the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square as the site for a memorial to the casualties of history, to all the victims of this bloody century.

The plinth should be filled by open competition, with the entered designs exhibited and discussed. And the process should be paid for by the abolition of the Turner and Booker prizes and the transference of their sponsorship to the Casualties of History Memorial.

Brian Brivati is reader in history at Kingston University

* Should there be a Casualties of History memorial in Trafalgar Square? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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