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11th November: a date (not) to remember

November 11, 2010, 21 Comments

For the last week or so I’ve been wearing a poppy. If you’re reading this in Britain then that statement may sound rather mundane. It is early November after all, when almost everyone, from TV presenters to taxi drivers, sports a little paper flower. But in Switzerland Armistice Day is an unknown event. Every year I’m amazed at how many Swiss people, young and old, ask me why I am wearing a fake red flower. My answer usually proves to be rather long as I not only have to explain what the poppy symbolises but also the significance of the date. And that’s the oddest part, because today means something completely different to many Swiss: party time.

At 11.11 on 11 November, when the rest of Europe is commemorating its century of loss, the Swiss get out their brass bands and garish costumes. For German-speaking Switzerland, this is the traditional start of Carnival. That event doesn’t actually happen until the spring, but today marks the moment when hibernation begins to get through the winter months. The first time I saw this it seemed so incongruous given what the date was; it felt almost as if the Swiss were dancing on the graves of Europe’s fallen soldiers. Of course that’s not the case, but I still find it hard to be one of a handful of people wearing a poppy and thinking about what happened over 90 years ago. And the dearth of poppies isn’t the only thing about today that is obvious.

Once you’ve visited a few Swiss towns and villages, one thing soon stands out. Not the time-warp medieval centres with their sculptured fountains; not the stencilled decorations and overhanging roofs; and not the sturdy churches and pristine graveyards. It’s the lack of a stone cross in every village centre, no engraved lists of dead sons on a town cenotaph. That took me a while to notice. Such things are part of the fabric of nearly everywhere in Britain, France and Belgium, but in Switzerland they are almost non-existent. How strange for a place to be so close, both geographically and culturally, but for it to have a completely different collective memory of the last hundred years.

The two world wars affected the Swiss but just not in the same immediate, every-family-lost-someone way; they have had the luxury of no lost generations. How lucky they are. So today there are no poppies, no two-minute silence, no Last Post. There’s no Remembrance Day in Switzerland because the Swiss have nothing to remember.

21 Comments on "11th November: a date (not) to remember"

  1. aegeanx Thursday November 11th, 2010 at 09:04 AM · Reply

    Whenever I read your blog, I’m always amazed at your insight.

    Great work!

    Regards,

    Y

  2. papalbina Thursday November 11th, 2010 at 10:23 AM · Reply

    I hadn’t heard about that date-celebration- poppy-thing before. Spain was neutral during the World War I and there’s no commemorations for that. Nobody remembers that date in any particular way (except perhaps historians, I suppose).

    The whole Carnival beginning celebration in Switzerland on 11/11 at 11:11 surprised me too, when I found out, but for completely different reasons…

  3. Juliette Thursday November 11th, 2010 at 02:18 PM · Reply

    November 11th is a remembrance day in France too, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone wearing a poppy – it’s actually a British symbol.

    • swisswatching Thursday November 11th, 2010 at 03:20 PM · Reply

      Well, I think English-speaking might be a better term as the poppy is also used in America, Canada, South Africa etc. But the bigger thing is that France and Belgium still mark Remembrance Day, something that Switzerland never has done.

  4. Lady Estrogen Thursday November 11th, 2010 at 03:39 PM · Reply

    Thanks for reading my post – yours truly is a different perspective – a good read 😉
    I guess that’s what happens when you remain neutral.

  5. Imogene Thursday November 11th, 2010 at 04:50 PM · Reply

    I have a foot in both camps, as it were: my English grandfather was in the RAF in WWII; my Swiss grandfather was away from home, guarding the border. There was hardship in neutral Switzerland, too, and fear and uncertainty. The women, as in the countries that were at war, were left to keep the show going. But it’s true that the Swiss do not have a reason to ‘remember’ in the sense that they were not drawn into the conflict and did not suffer bloodshed. And yes, I concur with Juliette above that the poppy is not, as I’ve read elsewhere, a commemoration symbol of the entire ‘western world’. It’s a symbol prevalent in English-speaking countries.

  6. Patrick Monday November 15th, 2010 at 01:51 AM · Reply

    You write of “the lack of a stone cross in every village centre, no engraved lists of dead sons on a town cenotaph”… indeed, there are not many of those. However, if you want to see such a list, you don’t have to travel far. In a side chapel of the Münster in Bern, you’ll find six marble memorial tablets and a Pietà im remembrance of the fallen sons of Berne of… 1798. The French invasion of Switzerland. It’s called the “Steiger-Kapelle” and I found some information about it at http://www.g26.ch/bern_denkmal_steiger_kapelle.html

  7. Jeanine Thursday November 18th, 2010 at 12:19 PM · Reply

    Thank u so much for this entry! At the end of October I was in Scotland for 10days and everyone was wearing this red flower and I just didn’t know why! I’m happy to know now! 🙂

    • swisswatching Thursday November 18th, 2010 at 01:37 PM · Reply

      You are welcome! I know this blog (and book) are mainly about Switzerland and helping outsiders, or even the Swiss themselves, get to know the country better, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to bring a bit of the outside world into Switzerland as well.

  8. nicholasle Saturday November 12th, 2011 at 06:03 PM · Reply

    i live in the Valais and the 11.11 is St martins say when traditionally a pig is slaughtered and there is a big pork fest… i find it hard to stomach as well… the swiss may not have had the bloodshed or loss of the direct involvement but belgium were neutral and if it hadn’t been for the alies switzerland would have eventually become prey to nazi germany… and yes ther are one or two monuments here and there. two in St georges cemetry in geneva one for the brave swiss who fighting for the allies the other for the brave swiss who died fighting for the wehrmacht. there is also one in bouvret (valais) for the crew of a lancaster bomber that went down near there….

  9. George Sunday November 11th, 2012 at 07:54 PM · Reply

    Remembrance Day is a Commonwealth tradition, not a European one. I understand that you’re used to it, but people in most European countries (except France end Belgium) don’t even know what the Remembrance Day is.

  10. Gianluca Sunday November 11th, 2012 at 08:47 PM · Reply

    Well now I understand a lot of things! I am traveling across Europe and yesterday I was in London and saw all these people with this red flower and soldiers “selling” them in every rail station. I thought it was just some fundraise for the veterans!
    I’m a bit ashamed now XD

  11. Daniela Sunday November 11th, 2012 at 09:16 PM · Reply

    Fully agree with you, Switzerland has a different historical memory compared to the rest of Europe. We are aware that the 2nd WW didn’t end that long ago. We are aware that terrible things happened during this time. However, that a potentially even more cruel war took place in Europe less than 100 years ago is frequently overlooked in Switzerland. You acctually need to go away to a country where poppies are worn and where you find a war memorial in every town to realise the impact these events have had on Europe and other countries involved, such as Australia and Canada. Diccon, keep up reminding people of what happened fairly close to their own doorstep not so long ago.

  12. Stella Wednesday February 6th, 2013 at 11:12 AM · Reply

    The Netherlands too did not participate in WW-I. Here 11 November is both St. Martins Day and the start of the Carnival. I had to google this date, why it is your Remembrance Day, for I didn’t know the English word armistice. The Dutch Wiki mentions Britain, Germany, Belgium, France, USA.

    In the town of Utrecht (patron is St. Martin) is at the cemetry Soestbergen a group of 21 British graves. I have seen poppies there, I think because of 4 May, Dodenherdenking, our Remembrance Day of the death (WW-II).

    But yes, we know that WW-I made deep wounds on bodies & minds and we know the symbol of the poppies on the slaughter field, afterwards. Poppies are light-germinaters; where the rural ground is spaded, poppies can explode. So the trenches left this flowering fields.

    No, I didn’t know you remember this day by each wearing this poppy.
    Some years ago I heard that the older generations of Germans still cann’t speak about the war, while burdened by guild. A woman in her fifties mentioned weakly the weighty imprintings during her school years. I learned during the primary school how dangerous our neighbour land was, with new wars hanging for the future. Writing this, I see how crazy that was, for Germany was forbidden to have an armee any more. But the baddest I heard, is that some forumers told that they learned at school in the ’90 how bad the Germans are. Germany in common, not Nazi-German, not a nation long brainwashed – think of the obliged Hitler-Jugend. After 50 years, children should be teached better!

    Photos of the graves at Soestbergen: : http://nl.tracesofwar.com/artikel/2262/Oorlogsgraven-van-het-Gemenebest-Begraafplaats-Soestbergen.htm
    List of Dutch cemetries with war graves of the Commonwealth :
    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lijst_van_begraafplaatsen_met_oorlogsgraven_van_de_Commonwealth_War_Graves_Commission_in_Nederland. .

  13. J C Monday November 11th, 2013 at 07:11 PM · Reply

    Lucky? Luxury? I respect what you’re trying to say, but do you really think the Swiss are merely lucky? I would say that they chose their policy (armed neutrality), they executed it competently, and they reaped the natural rewards. If other nations had done likewise, World War I would not have happened, and if World War I had not happened, World War II would not have happened.

  14. Carrie Wednesday November 12th, 2014 at 12:22 AM · Reply

    Thank you for remembering the USA in our shared history. We also remember.

  15. Marianne Cross Saturday November 15th, 2014 at 09:07 AM · Reply

    Poppies are worn in the British Commonwealth Remembrance Day ceremonies. ( Americans have Veteran’s Day which is quite different from Remembrance Day in term of ceremonies and symbols.) The money collected is used to support veterans and their families.

    The Poppy symbol comes from a poem by Canadian Army officer John McCrae from the First World War 1914-1918.

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

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