25/04/2014 06:50 BST | Updated 24/06/2014 06:59 BST

We're Not Lining the Streets of Ypres, but Lessons From History Are With Us


This year marks the 100th anniversary since the outbreak of the 'war to end all wars' that saw over 16 million lives lost, many of them the same age as me. Despite these haunting facts, my generation are often cynically dismissed as being disengaged and having little respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, not only during World War I but the following war also. As a character assessment this is both unfair and far from the truth.

Walking around the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, where the Last Post ceremony is conducted every evening, I saw mass grave-sites, memorials and, somewhat jarringly, shops selling t-shirts with poppies on them. I saw visitors in the Fields in Flanders museum trying to explain to their grandchildren that "this is important." I saw the piles of shoes in Auschwitz. I left with a new understanding of how vital it is that we understand the past; like George Santayana said, "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Upon visiting these sadly infamous locations, I was told by my elders and teachers that this is "something everyone my age should see". Of course the shock factor did have an impact on my perspective on the world, but for better or for worse these feelings did subside rather quickly as time passed.

The way in which my generation remembers the past has fundamentally shifted from how our grandparents and parents commemorate such loss of life. Many of my peers will not wear a poppy every November, or attend a Remembrance Sunday church service. This isn't out of ignorance or disrespect; as young people today know only too well the horrors of war. We see innocent lives being lost in Afghanistan and the hundreds of thousands of civilians dying in Syria as a consequence of the on-going crisis. To say we don't understand or care about the needless loss of life is utterly ignorant.

Our generation looks at a Europe where far-right ideology is on the rise, not just in austerity saddled Greece, but in stable and supposedly tolerant nations such as the Netherlands with Party of Freedom leader Geert Wilders. Or in France where Marie Le Pen who has declared 2014 as 'year zero' for French politics. These parties and individuals use racism and xenophobia as their battle weapons; they try to divide communities by placing blame on a small group of disenfranchised people, often the most vulnerable within society.

Thus it's the responsibility of us, to see past these cries of hate and fear by countering them through championing ideals such as solidarity and tolerance. For our battle is not one that will be fought on a field, it continues to be fought in our everyday lives. It's one that we see in our classrooms when a teenager is bullied because they are gay. It's one we see in our newspapers when the working classes are branded as 'scroungers' and 'lazy'. And it's one we see when populist politicians talk about 'swathes' of immigrants coming to steal jobs. However by opposing these daily examples of insidious, dehumanising evil, we're showing that we won't acquiesce in the face of these fights.

So please do not point at me for not wearing a poppy or call my friends ignorant for not visiting war graves in Flanders or Normandy as that does not make us any way less respectful; for the biggest mark of respect my generation can leave is one that looks beyond our differences and in the process creates a fairer and more peaceful world, for everyone.