Not Just another Veterans’ Day at Peace Square

The poppies that bloomed this year on November 11th in Prague’s Peace Square (Namesti Miru), - and not just them – had a different sort of ‘feel’ than in years past. Veterans’ Day has over the past several years, and even the last couple of decades, become a recognized event. Today, a poppy attached to a coat collar is hardly surprising. But it wasn’t always like that. I can recall when around 1996, Czechoslovak veterans of the RAF took me along to the British embassy to a small ‘party’ they called ‘Poppy Day’. I really didn’t have a clue as to what it was about, why the poppy had been singled out, and where the roots of all of this lay. Information ignited by memories of my school years didn’t materialize because there simply weren’t any. It’s not because the school system’s emphasis on honoring history is any better today (maybe depending on where), but major steps forward have been taken in terms of remembering vets of past wars, and for that I am grateful. The tradition began to develop in the civilized western world already in 1919, under the influence of King George V for nations of the Commonwealth. It got to us a little later due to some ‘historical twists’. Eastern Europe remains somewhat untouched by the notion of the Poppy. By some strange way, as if at the crossroads between East and West, the Poppy symbol found its way to Ukraine. There, the poppy pin began to show up in 2014, when the country moved a bit further from the East, but not in connection to November 11th, but rather May 8th, a day that is associated with the final victory at the end of the Second World War. I was surprised to learn that the red poppy in Ukraine (where in 2014 it replaced the standard badge of the Red Star) is generally not understood as a reminder of Flanders Fields like it is here, but a symbol of that ‘small hole in the coat’, i.e. a bullet hole, with blood soaked around it. A symbol of wartime sacrifice in a somewhat more sobering guise. It must be said though, that even that concept has something to it. Either way, even there the poppy became a symbol associated with respect for the fallen and for veterans. The answer to the question as to why the poppy, as a symbol of respect for the victims of war, did not get any further east than Ukraine is maybe best left up to the individual.I can't help but return to the notion expressed above and still maintain focus on Ukraine. I noted the fact that this year's event at Peace Square in Prague was different from previous years. Of course, why this is has become quite obvious The act of paying homage to, and reflecting upon, such memories has never been accompanied by a war so physically close to home. Although no new crosses appeared on the lawn of Peace Square symbolizing fallen Czech soldiers in modern wars, the awareness of the current horrors being played out in eastern Europe was ever present.  Eduard was again present at this event and again sold kits with proceeds going to the Military Solidarity Fund. And I can thus compare the moods, tension and sense of belonging, which could be felt from the participants and visitors of the event, to previous years. I was a little worried about what we would encounter during Memorial Day. And that was mainly under the influence of two demonstrations against the government of the Czech Republic and generally against our aid to Ukraine, which took place in Prague not long before. The cold day in Peace Square alleviated my fears. Not only did many Ukrainian refugees, temporarily living in Prague, come to the event, stopping by our stand to thank us, the reactions of the ‘locals’ in particular were completely favorable and in line with our own understanding of the world. Social conflict, in which no one knows exactly where the balance of power lies, did not manifest itself at this event. There was unity. There was no ‘us against them’. Perhaps, it was because those ‘patriots’, spewing nationalistic, selfish and pro-Russian crap at various meetings and demonstrations, are actually not interested in the victims of those who helped win our freedom.