Tower of London poppies: Yes, we remember. But we also choose to forget

We identify with all the innocents who died – and them alone

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A hundred years ago this week, Carl Lody died in front of a firing squad. After his execution on 6 November 1914, 10 similar victims followed over the next two years: all foreign nationals convicted of espionage for Germany, and all shot at the Tower of London. Lody had passed information on naval movements in the Firth of Forth to Berlin. On the day of his death, he assumed the officer in charge at the Tower would not care to shake the hand of a spy. No, replied the marshal, “but I will shake the hand of a brave man”. He did. A twelfth German agent, Robert Rosenthal, was later hanged at Wandsworth prison.

All the belligerent powers of the First World War executed foreigners deemed to have acted as enemy agents. On the German side, the shooting of nurse Edith Cavell in Brussels created a cherished legend of courage and magnanimity. These 11 judicial killings, however, took place with heavy symbolism at the Tower – the first within its blood-drenched precincts since 1743.

This weekend is the climax of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation which – witnessed by vast crowds – has filled the Tower of London’s moat with 888,246 ceramic poppies to mark the First World War dead of Britain and its empire. You do not need to slur as jingoists the swarms of people who have taken to heart Paul Cummins’s sea of mourning – they are not – to ask what such a spectacle conceals as well as what it reveals. Whatever radical-chic art critics may think, First World War remembrance in Britain has seldom had a triumphalist or xenophobic tone. No one who comes to see the scarlet tide across the moat wants to give it one. They visit to acknowledge the massacre of the innocents and the sacrifice of youth.

What would it take, though, to remember not just the wanton suffering of total war but ambiguity, confusion – even guilt? Should Lody and his fellow agents have died at all – and who will pay homage not just to a small-time spy, but to the hapless soldiers who killed him?

A wave of scarlet wipes out shades of grey. Spats among historians aside, the First World War has mostly moved beyond the realm of blame. Even Field Marshal Haig and the gold‑braided “donkeys” of the General Staff, who generated so much scorn in the era of Oh! What a Lovely War, now rest in relative peace. The Somme, Passchendaele and Verdun figure almost as natural disasters. A belief in universal victimhood prevails. As so often in the public rituals of history, we identify with all the innocents who died – and them alone. Only a bold, simple idea – like the poppy sea – can keep that solidarity intact.

Now consider another kind of remembrance: one that invites its witnesses to think hard about connivance and culpability. It asks visitors to reflect not only on what others did to them, but on what they – or their forebears – did to others. Where necessary, it lays blame and assigns guilt. You will not find many such memorials in London. In contrast, Berlin almost overflows with them.

From the mile-long strip of displays that run along Bernauer Strasse to the kitschy daubs painted along the so-called “East Side Gallery”, you can hardly take a stroll around the German capital without stumbling across the many Gedenkstätten – memorial sites – devoted to the Berlin Wall and the East German state that went extinct a quarter-century ago.

This weekend, balloon releases and light shows along the zigzagging path of the Wall will turn these spots into the focus of global attention. None of them – least of all the sinister Stasi remand prison turned museum at Hohenschönhausen – tries to argue for a moral equivalence between the agents of repression and their victims.

Yet only mass complicity sustained the GDR regime. The Stasi built its empire of surveillance on the willing backs of almost 200,000 informal collaborators, the “IMs”. Could you have become an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter? A couple of weeks ago, at the merrily interactive DDR Museum beside the river Spree, I failed dismally at the quiz that tests your suitability as a Young Pioneer. My score was a bourgeois 12 out of 30. The verdict? “You need to work hard to free yourself from the influence of the class enemy.”

Another exercise measures your performance as a Trabant production manager against the state-imposed quota. Stung, I did my level best this time. Guess what, comrades? I exceeded my target by 6,000 cardboard cars! In that mood, and with a bonus to spend on quality booze and food at the regime’s elite network of Delikat and Exquisit stores, might I have come to a little agreement with the Stasi, had they called?

In Berlin, you may – just about – have fun with the memory of the unlamented GDR. As for the various Gedenkstätten that mark the crime scenes of the Third Reich, they manage a humbling dignity, clarity and candour in the remembrance of absolute horror. On the bomb‑flattened site of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, where the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Service all had their headquarters, the cool glass pavilions of the Topography of Terror chart the rise of Nazism and the savagery it brought to Europe. No euphemisms, no excuses, no smart comparisons seek to muddy the waters or deflect the guilt.

The Topography of Terror stands, quite literally, on the ruins of genocidal hatred. Go to number 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee, a plush villa in a leafy lakeside suburb of Berlin, and you can still wander through the place where the worst atrocity in human history was planned, agreed, minuted – and signed off with every bureaucratic nicety. Meticulous explanatory panels now fill the elegant house that hosted the Wannsee Conference – when, on 20 January 1942, 15 senior Nazis settled the “final solution of the Jewish question in Europe”.

It took decades of struggle to convert the Villa Minoux into the Wannsee House. For long years, historian Joseph Wulf sought to gather support for a museum on the spot where the Holocaust took shape. It opened only in 1992. Revisit bad memories, for a nation as for an individual, and many will try to block your path. With any bitterly disputed past, victims as well as perpetrators may wish for bygones to stay bygones.

Some Spanish Republicans as well as Francoists supported the country’s pacto del olvido – the “pact of forgetting” that for years drew a veil over the bloodshed of the civil war while democracy returned.

In Britain, we have no treaty of oblivion. Yet most public memorials stay mute about the more divisive chapters of history. We live not so much with silence – since the media and publishing industries still have a nose for historical quarrels – but with a reluctance to put the contentious past too overtly on show.

London, for instance, has no comprehensive museum devoted to the British Empire. No, the empire was not the Third Reich – although it is hard (for example) to see the mass torture of Mau Mau suspects in the camps of 1950s Kenya as in any sense superior to fascism. Any distinction lies not in the level of racist cruelty but in the protests of some colonial officials, and the public outcry led by the liberal press and brave parliamentarians such as Enoch Powell and Barbara Castle. A proper museum of empire would tell their story too.

Always plagued by patchy funding and internal dissent, a British Empire and Commonwealth Museum did operate between 2002 and 2009 out of Brunel’s original railway station in Bristol. Its failure to thrive surely reflects not just managerial mishaps but a deeper national ambivalence about imperial history. The slave trade, both bulwark and driver of colonial expansion, does have its memorials – in Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum on Albert Dock, or at the Museum of London in Docklands (itself sited on West India Quay). Since the Bristol collection closed, however, this country has had no flagship venue where natives and tourists alike can discover the whole imperial past. Questions of balance, bias and context would render each choice of exhibit – each caption, even – a minefield of rival interpretations. All the more reason to attempt it.

Any such encounter with a painful past might reopen old wounds. In contrast, the sea of poppies seeks to heal them. Don’t underestimate the value of that rite. Still, even the British experience during the Great War has its moral thickets and quagmires. How, for instance, will Britain mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, and the vicious war of independence that ensued? In the Irish Republic, the government has made a far-sighted appointment of a new culture minister to oversee public commemorations. She is Heather Humphreys, an Ulster Protestant from County Cavan. As a signal of the need for mature, inclusive, non-sectarian memorials, that was a strikingly bold move.

Sooner or later, the unifying tide of poppies will ebb. History’s bones of contention will resurface, raw and jagged as ever. The German spies in the Tower – and the squaddies forced to shoot them – deserve remembrance too.