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Has the Two Minute Silence on Remembrance Day Lost Its Original Meaning?

The famous two minute silence of Remembrance Sunday is a moving tribute to those who lost their lives defending this country in military conflict... But is the distinctive psychological power of the two-minute silence now endangered in the modern era?

The famous two minute silence of Remembrance Sunday is a moving tribute to those who lost their lives defending this country in military conflict.

The silence allows for private reflection, and yet also creates an exceptional sense of solidarity. Boundaries of age, sex, class, and religion, are set aside for this unique ritual, adding to the psychological power of the event, helping us feel bonded to each other in remembrance.

The silence has historical roots in the Victorian era which emphasised solemnity, sobriety and the suppression of overt emotional expression in public. Silence becomes the most dignified way to grieve, when loss is normally expressed in private.

Steven Brown, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Leicester, in his study entitled, 'Two minutes of silence: Social technologies of public commemoration', sees the hush as a striking and uncanny interruption of the ordinary rhythm of life, re-creating the silence that follows the clamour of battle.

But is the distinctive psychological power of the two-minute silence now endangered in the modern era?

The key reference on Armistice Day is Adrian Gregory's 1994 book 'The silence of memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946'. Gregory points out early Armistice Days had enormous impact because of the extraordinary effect of whole cities falling still. Steven Brown contends 'modern silences' no longer carry that force, partly because the noise of contemporary life means they are never terribly quiet any more, plus the psychological novelty has worn off.

Professor Brown wonders whether we shouldn't be finding new practices that do generate novel experiences, where we can reflect on the important things being commemorated. Are we holding on to formal public silence as a commemorative technique that may have had its day?

Liam Foster and Kate Woodthorpe from the University of Sheffield and the University of Bath have pointed out in their recent investigation of silences and commemorations at Football matches that there is mounting controversy over 'silence inflation'. More and longer silences have been added in recent years to commemorate various events.

They cite the examples of how in 1996, following the murder of 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, a two minute silence was held across the UK. 9/11 was commemorated by a three minute silence across the Western world. Following the train bombs in Madrid, March 2004, was Europe's first three minute silence. At noon on July 14, 2005, a three minute silence across the United Kingdom was for those killed by suicide bombers in London.

Foster and Woodthorpe point out in their recent investigation of this subject, entitled 'Football Games A Golden Silence? Acts of Remembrance and Commemoration at U.K.' that in response to the three minute silence for victims of the Asian tsunami disaster at the end of 2004, military historian Max Hastings suggested in the Daily Mail, that, "the three minute silence diminishes the only such event that matters, our annual two-minute commemoration of those who fell in the world wars."

Published in the 'Journal of Sport and Social Issues', Foster and Woodthorpe's study highlights how true silence is increasingly difficult. Examples include the 2008 decision of the Manchester United board to hold a minute's silence at the Old Trafford derby game, in memory of the 1958 air crash. It directly contradicted Manchester City Supporters' Club's desire to request fans applaud as a way of remembering those who died.

In fact much of Manchester City Supporters' Club's oppositional stance to the silence was anxiety over potential trouble from their fans. From the perspective of Manchester City Supporters' Club, a minute's applause provided the opportunity to cover up any disrespectful chants by Manchester City fans.

On the day itself the silence was respectfully observed, but when Liverpool played Italian side Juventus in the first leg of the European Champions League quarter-finals at Liverpool's Anfield Stadium, things did not go so smoothly.

The game on 5 April, 2005, was the first time the two clubs had met since the European Cup final in Brussels on 29 May, 1985, when rioting caused a wall to collapse, crushing 39 Italian spectators.

To mark the event, both sets of fans intended to be gracious toward rival supporters. But when asked to stand in silence to remember the recent death of Pope John Paul II, the typical Italian custom of the minute's applause, clashed with the Liverpool supporters' expectations of a minute's silence.

As a result, Juventus fans spontaneously applauded in the middle of the minute's silence, and were aggressively booed by the Liverpool followers when the minute ended.

Steven Brown traces the history of the two minute silence back to before Armistice Day, which was first marked through the use of the two minute silence at 11am on 11 November in 1919. Public silence had been adopted before in the UK - the death of King Edward VII in 1910 was marked with a minute's silence, as was news of Titanic sinking in 1912.

But the real reason the two minute silence was adopted was in fact political, points out Professor Brown. National unity was a very real concern for the British government in 1919. The establishment was facing the mass return of demobilized soldiers, many with legitimate grievances against the state, who might potentially be recruited to extremist political causes.

The two minute silence was deployed then, according to Steven Brown's argument, published in the journal 'Theory and Psychology', for the community to rediscover itself, to temporarily suspend disputes, becoming unified in common remembrance of loss. The silence was a way of combining private thoughts with a collective sense of solidarity. An enormous objective - all from just two minutes of silence - indicating its peculiar psychological ambition and power.

Brown points out that when we fall quiet today for the remembrance two minutes, we don't achieve much hush at all - the modern world continues to be noisy. The silence just makes the background din to our lives more apparent. This might sound cynical - the BBC images of the monarch standing amidst the hush are powerful - but does the two minute silence now only really work as a television spectacle?

Professor Brown also points to the examples of one minute modern silences held at major sporting events, where cameras feeding images to large screens around the stadium, linger on faces of players and selected members of the crowds. The terraces see, in close detail, how the silence is being "felt" by each other.

Professor Brown argues that the original power of the silence was the idea that no words could do justice to the full measure of the losses being considered.

But have we lost the ability today to be properly quiet and still? Perhaps a deeper understanding of what true silence means, has long vanished.

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