By Monte Bohna, PhD, Coordinator, Study Pittsburgh Initiative
One of the most unusual gestures in the cause of international peace has been recalled with the sound of a tolling bell in the heart of New York City.
Today, September 21, is International Peace Day, first declared in 1982 by resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, and “devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples”.
Little noticed in the United States – and agonizingly distant to the people enduring any of the twenty-nine armed conflicts now raging around the world – International Peace Day is traditionally marked at the United Nations Headquarters with a ceremony during which the UN Secretary General strikes the Japan Peace Bell, the centerpiece of a garden and pagoda built in the style of a Shinto shrine on the grounds of the UN complex.
The bell was given on behalf of the Japanese people to the United Nations in 1954, at the initiative of Chiyoji Nakagawa, mayor of Uwajima. The bronze for the bell, inscribed in Japanese characters with the phrase “Long live absolute world peace”, was made from coins collected by children from delegates of the 60 nations represented at the 1951 Paris General Conference of the United Nations. The bell normally sounds on only one other occasion each year, on Earth Day, the day of the vernal equinox or first day of spring. In the half-century since the presentation of the UN bell the World Peace Bell Association, founded by Nakagawa, has endeavored to raise awareness of the world peace movement by presenting Japanese temple bells in sixteen countries around the world, including several each in Japan and the United States.
International Peace Day is not the only commemoration dedicated to the promotion of peace around the world. In 1967 Pope Paul VI, inspired by his predecessor John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in terris, proclaimed “World Day of Peace” as a feast day of the Roman Catholic calendar on January 1, a date it shares with another Roman Catholic feast day, the Solemnity of Mary Holy Mother of God.
However, perhaps the best-known, and certainly the most widely-observed, commemoration of world peace is tied forever to the “war to end all wars”. On November 11, 1918, at the eleventh hour – 11 a.m. – the armistice negotiated on a rail-siding in the Forest of Compiègne took effect, ending the First World War on the western front.
In the United States, by proclamation of Pres. Wilson, the commemoration of November 11 was originally known as “Armistice Day”. From 1938, by Act of Congress, the day was officially dedicated “to the cause of world peace”. After the Korean War, the act was amended to rename the day “Veterans Day”, signifying, in the words of President Eisenhower’s official proclamation that year, “homage to the veterans of all [American] wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation”. Since that time, the focus of the commemoration has tended to rest on the specifically military “sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly”, replacing - if not quite eclipsing - the hope for universal world peace which was prominent in the early decades of Armistice Day observance in the U.S.
Conversely, in many countries formerly part of the British empire, “Remembrance Day” is a generally-observed occasion, marked by the wearing of red lapel poppies by all generations and walks of life, and by a minute of silence at the stroke of 11:00. According to the Manchester Guardian, the very first minute of silence, on 11 November 1919, brought the city to a reverential halt:
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead…Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still…The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain ... And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.
Today, students and public servants crossing the lawns of Queen’s Park and the University of Toronto Student Union, to whom the First World War is a matter of family stories and grainy old photos, slow their pace in the name of peace, until the minute’s silence is finally broken by the carillon of the bells of Soldier’s Tower. Even London’s Heathrow Airport adjusts its arrivals and departures before and after 11:00 each year on Remembrance Sunday, in order to preserve the silence.
Among continental European countries peace commemorations are, unsurprisingly, often connected in one way or another with the traumatic events of the first half of the 20th century. In France and Belgium, the November 11th Armistice is commemorated annually both as a day of hope for future peace and in memory of the human cost of the two world wars, and in both countries the role of military forces are highlighted in a way similar to the United States. Italy follows in the same tradition, with a focus on military service, except that its “Giorno dell'Unità Nazionale e delle Forze Armate” is held on November 4, the day of the end of fighting on the Alpine front, rather than November 11th. In Germany, Volkstrauertag, the Day of National Mourning, is dedicated both to German military casualties and also to victims of violent oppression, is marked by a solemn address from the ceremonial head of state to the Bundestag, followed by the singing of the national anthem and I hatt‘ einen Kamaraden, the German equivalent of “Last Post“ or “Taps“. Instead of the date of the 1918 Armistice, still a sensitive and contentious memory to many Germans, Volkstrauertag is observed on the second Sunday before Advent, in mid-November.