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Friday, 8 May 2020

Do we remember? Britain and World War II

World War II was such a vivid historical memory in Britain when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, that I sometimes had the impression that the conflict had had ended at all. When I attended the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of VE Day in Marlborough in 1995, it was if my local town was now appearing in its true form: that both survivors of the conflict and their descendants still inhabited that bygone age, and that the passing of time had been little more than an illusion. I can still remember the sounds of jubilant street dancing mixing with the ghostly wail of the air-raid siren, the sight of proud veterans showing off their uniforms and medals, and the smell and taste of freshly-baked cakes and coronation chicken.  Although World War II led to far greater loss of life on a global scale, our memory of the conflict seemed to be almost jubilant, in contrast to the sombre commemorations of the First World War, and this seems not so much to do with the fact that it was comparatively recent, and more to do with the way in which the conflict had involved unprecedented mobilisation of ordinary civilians, as Home Guard, ARP Wardens, Land Army volunteers, Wren girls, and members of the Auxiliary Fire Service.

In contrast with what seemed like the senseless slaughter of World War I, people felt much more confident in celebrating Britain’s success in defeating Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The conflict was therefore imbued with a greater sense of clarity and moral purpose, even if we tend to forget about the efforts of the British army to preserve the empire in the Far East, and the country’s inadequate response to the plight of Europe’s Jews.

More importantly, whilst other countries had lain down their arms in 1945, the conflict has raged on in British cinemas and living rooms ever since. War movies were amongst the most successful films of the postwar era: Casablanca, The Great Escape, The Dam Busters, The Longest Day, Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen thrilled audiences at the time and have continued to be regarded amongst the most popular and successful films of modern times. More recently, films such as the The King’s Speech, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour show that our appetite for the conflict has not diminished. In contrast, the recent success of 1917 is a rare example of a successful film about the First World War, a conflict that provides a less satisfying moral narrative.

The Second World War is also one of few conflicts that has spawned a wide range of TV comedies. Growing up in the 1990s, there were usually repeats of classic comedies such as Dad’s Army, which remains popular to this day and ‘Allo ‘Allo, which featured British actors doing terrible impressions of German spies and members of the French resistance. One of my favourite programmes of the time, now sadly forgotten, was ‘Goodnight Sweetheart, in which Gary Sparrow, an ordinary Nineties man, discovers a secret portal in his garden that takes him back to a London pub in the time of the Blitz. The show captures the strange relationship between modern Britain and the era of the Second World War. Early episodes of the programme highlighted the differences between the 1940s and 1990s, with Gary Sparrow struggling to adjust to the changes in dress, money, speech and cultural attitudes of people in wartime London. However, these differences quickly fade away as Sparrow leads a regular sign-song round the pub piano, chats up the barmaid and shares in the challenges faced by Londoners in 1941.

In shows like Goodnight Sweetheart and Dad’s Army, we sense that strong identification with the courage and determination of the civilian population, whether they were Home Guard volunteers, ARP wardens, or black-market traders, in the face of terrifying threat. The enemy itself was largely invisible, usually only appearing overhead in the form of a deadly air raid. But this sense of an invisible menace from across the Channel remained potent in the imagination of the British people during my childhood, manifested in increased prejudice against the German people, and a suspicion towards Europe in general. When we laughed at Basil Fawlty’s increasingly zany attempts to avoid ‘mentioning the war’ to his German guests, we recognised in ourselves an enduring obsession. This was fuelled especially by the tabloid press, who in the 1990s regularly covered encounters in European football and politics in the 1990s, as if this was simply another phase in an ongoing conflict stretching back to 1914. Although we boasted that ‘football’s coming home’ when England hosted the Euro 96 football tournament, we still viewed ourselves as the outsiders when drawn to face Germany in the Semi-Final, and the Daily Mirror could not resist using the language of popular war films on its front page. When England lost the match, I remember feeling quite vividly that the result was an historic injustice, and that the ‘bad guys’ had won. 

EU correspondents in the 1990s wrote as if they were reporting on British army manoeuvres in a particularly hostile conflict zone. One broadsheet columnist of the time was famous for his ability to make the mundane details of EU trade negotiations sound like a thrilling wartime spy movie: full of ‘plots’ and ‘traps’ laid by the ‘dastardly’ Europeans, and urging British politicians to defend their liberty and freedom against these threats. Having made a name for himself as a journalist in Brussels, he went on to become a Conservative MP, Mayor of London and is now, of course, the country’s Prime Minister.

We should be in no doubt that the way the Britain has commemorated World War II has shaped how we see ourselves in the present day. Images from the conflict continue to pop up in difficult times. During a difficult stage of the Brexit negotiations last year, the Daily Mail printed a famous cartoon published after the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, in which a defiant British soldier shakes his fist defiantly at Europe and vows to continue the fight: ‘Very well alone’.

More famously, the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster devised in 1939, has been widely imitated ion the twenty-first century, appearing on Tea-towels, mugs, items of clothing and, inevitably, memes on social media. According to design historian Susannah Walker, the poster has become an evocation of British stoicism: the "stiff upper lip", self-discipline, fortitude and remaining calm in adversity. The success of the poster owed much to the financial crash of 2008, and the need for an inspiring message from the past in a time of crisis. Ironically, though, the poster was barely used during the Second World War itself. The slogan was regarded as patronising and divisive, given that wartime suffering was not easily distributed throughout the country, so carrying on was much easier for some than for others, and almost impossible for those whose house had been destroyed, and loved ones killed or wounded. In our modern commemoration of the conflict, we tend to forget about the real hardship, fear, suffering and doubt that ordinary people experienced during the Second World war. Instead, we have mythologised the conflict, remembering an unbreakable Blitz Spirit in which the British people’s single-handed defiance of Hitler enabled them to triumph against the odds.

It is understandable why British people have found this myth so persuasive and powerful over the last 75 years, but I believe that it is becoming increasingly dangerous. If we do not understand the real reasons why Britain was able to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany on VE Day, then we will learn the wrong lessons from the conflict. In the final analysis, the war was a triumph of strategic planning and international cooperation. Even in ‘its darkest hour’ in 1940, Britain was never alone. It still controlled one of the largest empires in human history, and this provided crucial opportunities to hamper German military efforts. More importantly, the entry of the Soviet Union and the United States into the war in 1941 proved to be vital turning-points. Britain’s contribution to the war remained important, but not because of its much-mythologised ‘stiff upper lip’. Instead Britain contributed vital technological innovations to the preparations for D-Day and the assault against Germany on the western Front, creating the famous floating harbours that supported the D-Day landings, and constructing the PLUTO fuel pipeline that sustained the military operations of the allied forces until the German surrender in May 1945.

The challenges that we face in the twenty-first are complex and global in nature. Britain has spent too much of the last 75 years believing that a retreat into ‘splendid isolation’ will insulate it from these challenges, our safety assured by our superior national character, our values and our inherent righteousness. As we are being reminded once again in 2020, the world doesn’t work like that. A spirit of plucky defiance and manic improvisation is no substitute for strategic planning. Leadership requires attention to detail and courage, not just bombastic speeches. If we believe that Britain is exceptional, we may forget that we are also vulnerable. As the country marks VE Day on Friday, take time to draw inspiration from a conflict in which the British people faced a terrible threat, and overcame it with common purpose, international alliances and technological innovation. And then – look forwards.

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