What is it about the Second World War that fascinates us, seemingly endlessly? Historian Keith Lowe looks at the lasting legacy of the war and the myths and misconceptions that cluster around it. And yes; today, 3 September, 2019, is the 80th anniversary of Britain’s entering the war. Historia’s just as guilty as anyone else.
It has been more than 40 years since Basil Fawlty uttered what was probably the most famous line of the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers: ‘Don’t mention the war!’
Today, it seems, there is a touch of Basil Fawlty in all of us: the Second World War is still impossible to avoid. It dominates our TV schedules and our bestseller lists. There are major commemorations of one sort or another almost every year. New monuments are popping up like mushrooms, especially in London’s royal parks and around the Houses of Parliament. Winston Churchill’s face now adorns the back of our £5 note.
It is only natural that we should want to know more about the event that formed so much of the world we live in today. But there are dangers in our fascination with the war. We are drawn to these stories not only for intellectual reasons, but also for emotional ones – and often our emotions are so strong that they drown out any rational appraisal of the actual history.
There are now so many myths about the war that I barely know which mole to whack first. Britain didn’t ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during the Blitz: we were terrified, we panicked, and then we pulled ourselves together – just like the Germans did under the British bombs.
Neither did we all stand in unity for the war effort: in fact, workers in vital industries regularly went on strike for better pay, the black market was rife, and during the blackout there were huge increases in all kinds of crime. The war may have brought out the best in some people, but it also brought out the worst in others.
People are forever telling me that the war years were a simpler time, when everyone had a much clearer idea of right and wrong; and I get tired of pointing out that, actually, it was a time when we were pushed into all kinds of painful moral compromises. Despite our solemn promises to ourselves and to others, we ended up deliberately bombing civilians.
We imprisoned people without trial because they were too right-wing, or too left-wing, or because they were suspiciously foreign. We curbed freedom of speech, withheld news, and created fake stories in order to manipulate public opinion.
After 1945 we harboured war criminals for the sake of their secrets, betrayed our Polish allies for the sake of peace with the Soviets, and enabled ethnic cleansing across central Europe. There were sound reasons for each of these compromises, but they always left a sour taste in our mouths. Wartime morality was very far from black and white.
Other countries nurse as many myths as the British do. In the USA the cult of wartime heroism is so strong that anyone who dares say anything critical about their ‘greatest generation’ immediately becomes a target for trolls.
When I wrote in my last book that American GIs were not superheroes but ordinary, fallible human beings, I immediately began receiving emails telling me to “go fuck myself”. (One particularly charming correspondent suggested that my wife and daughter might like being raped by Islamic fundamentalists. His logic seemed to be that Islamic State and Nazism were exactly the same thing, and that I was obviously a supporter of both.)
In Poland, the populist government not only bangs the Second World War drum at every opportunity, it also seeks to control the message behind this history. If you wish to write about the thousands of Poles who helped Jews during the war, that is fine; but if you dare to mention the thousands of other Poles who were complicit in the Holocaust, you now risk being prosecuted, particularly if you are clumsy about it.
There is a similar situation in Russia, where criticism of the Red Army’s behaviour in 1945 is also illegal. (I have direct experience of the atmosphere in both countries. The Russian publication of one of my books was pulled, presumably for its stance on the crimes of the Red Army. The Polish publication went ahead, but once again I found myself receiving a barrage of abuse from those who refused to believe that Poles could occasionally be villains as well as heroes.)
This is the landscape that Second World War historians are forced to inhabit: as Basil Fawlty discovered, it’s almost impossible to mention the war without offending someone. This history inspires such dark memories, and such emotion, how could it be otherwise?
Unfortunately, there is much to be gained by those who can harness these emotions. Nationalists everywhere like to drum up memories of the Second World War, because it reminds us of a time when our compatriots were willing to lay down their lives for our countries. Reawakening such passion is every nationalist’s dream.
But liberal internationalists also like to drum up memories of the Second World War, because it reminds us of the reasons why the postwar international order was set up in the first place. Neither side is much interested in a nuanced history of a conflict that was fought for both sets of ideals, and many others besides.
We ourselves are not much better. We all use the war as a metaphor whenever we want to underline a point, regardless of whether it is an apt metaphor or not. When we disagree vehemently with someone else’s point of view, we call them a Nazi. If we support Brexit we liken it to Dunkirk; and if we oppose it we liken it to Stalingrad. Trump is Hitler. Jeremy Corbyn is Stalin. Francois Hollande is a concentration camp guard. And so on.
When the war and its symbols are invoked for just about any situation where emotions run high, how can we ever let it go? And when there are reminders of the war everywhere we look, is it any wonder that we find ourselves mentioning it again and again?
This September sees the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of war. Next May sees the 75th anniversary of the war’s end. In the coming months, work will begin on the new Holocaust memorial right outside the Palace of Westminster.
Channel 4’s Catch-22 has recently ended, and BBC Two’s Rise of the Nazis begins on 2 September, the day before the 80th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the Second World War. Soon we will also be treated to a big budget, star-studded drama on BBC One called World on Fire.
Don’t mention the war? Fat chance.
He has also written Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943.
A milkman delivering milk during the Blitz: via Flickr
Dresden, 1945, view from the town hall: via Wikimedia
US Marine Corps War (Iwo Jima) Memorial sunrise by Craig Fildes: via Flickr
Still from Brexit Blitz spirit: Why does it always come back to the war?: Channel 4 News via YouTube
Rise of the Nazis