It is a tradition to erect monuments to commemorate important facts and events that had a big influence on life. In view of the often traumatic impact of war, it’s not surprising that many monuments refer to wars. War memorials are found everywhere. For instance, in France and Belgium each town and village has a monument commemorating the First World War and its dead. After 1945 they have been “updated” for commemorating World War Two and its victims. In my own country, the Netherlands, you find also many war monuments. Most of them refer only to the Second World War, since happily the Dutch succeeded to stay out of the Great War. Nevertheless, also in the Netherlands there are more monuments related to the World War One than most people expect.
Almost all war monuments refer to the past: to what happened, like a battle won or lost, people that died or events that took place. Some want to say “never more”, other ones glorify an act or a fact, again other ones are only there in order to keep a memory alive. However, sometimes it happens that a war memorial doesn’t remember so much the past and the losses suffered but that it pays attention to a better life that we expect: It shows hope. Then often a tree is planted instead of putting there a monument of stone, marble, concrete or whatever kind of dead material. A tree lives and it grows through the years. A tree represents hope and a better future. But alas, there are by far more monuments that look backward to the misery that has ended and to what we have lost than to the future that we have gained. War monuments are found everywhere, while peace monuments are still exceptional. But there is a tendency to a positive change, for nowadays more and more peace poles are erected in many places in the world. Although war monuments outnumber peace monuments out and away, our feelings tell us that peace is better than war. Wasn’t it George Orwell who made it clear to us that war is often put forward as a kind of peace? “War is Peace” is the well-known slogan in his novel 1984, telling us that war is peace in disguise.
In view of this it is to be expected that peace monuments are cherished and better maintained than war monuments, even if it were only for preserving the illusion that peace is the highest ideal in politics. Far from that. And with this three words I do not only mean that war monuments are better maintained than peace monuments, but also that in fact peace is not the highest ideal in politics. For it is a well-known phrase, said by the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics with other means, but no one has said until now that peace is the continuation of politics with other means.
I think that all this is symbolized by the peace tree that I photographed lately in the town of Emmen in the north of the Netherlands. Note that this peace tree is the only monument in the Netherlands related to the First World War that can be interpreted as a real peace monument. The other monuments are nothing but war monuments in the sense indicated above. One would think that such a monument would be the pride of the community if not of the country and that it would be well maintained, just as the monuments referring to the Second World War in the Netherlands are, for instance, or as all war monuments in Belgium and France along the Western Front are as well. But nothing is further from the truth. Look at the picture above that shows the peace tree in Emmen. Once the tree was planted in the garden of a hotel where many Belgian fugitives lived during the war. The hotel and garden no longer exist. Now you find there a flat with shops and apartments and the tree blocks the rear entrance of a snack bar. Left and right there are rubbish containers and untidily parked cars. Branches have been cut on request of the residents. It’s a place unworthy of a monument let alone a peace monument. In this way, it symbolizes no longer the reason why it was planted in 1918, namely peace, but how we think about peace today.