Things I won’t be warbling this Friday: We’ll Meet Again, Rule Britannia, There’ll Always Be an England. (Aides memoire available on several VE day Spotify commemorative albums.) Things I won’t be reprising from English Heritage’s VE cookbook: cheese and marmite swirls, carrot scone, home made ginger beer. Things I won’t be tuning into: a re-run of a Churchill speech, a “wartime” spirit royal address, a national singalong.
The second world war ended 75 years ago. There are but a handful of veterans , all in their nineties, with actual, personal experience of it. Yet there is a modern army of nostalgia mongers still selling a vision of these terrible 6 years in which the predominant flavour is selective amnesia. They played the “we won once, we can do it again card” all through the lies and distortions of the Brexit campaign. Now they’re deploying the same linguistic troops and tropes for the “war” on Corvid.
Include me out.
How much does this all offend my sensibilities: let me count the ways.
For starters, amongst our most steadfast allies in the very real and current fight we have on our hands against the pandemic is Germany. A nation which got its virus quenching act together rather better than us. Which has a calmly rational leader. And which has long looked some unsavoury facts about its role in 20th century history firmly in the face. Would that we had done the same. This time last year I interviewed the right wing polemicist Peter Hitchens on the publication of a book he had written about WW2. In its introduction he wrote:
“I don’t think anyone is going to be very keen to be associated with this book.”
That was because Hitchens, the son of a decorated naval war hero and a wren who worked through the blitz, had decided to make a few points over which politicians like Francois and Farage prefer to draw a veil. That we spent four of the 6 war years not fighting the principal enemy at all but engaged in Africa and elsewhere. That the myth that Britain fought a lonely war against Hitler was just that, and airbrushes out of history the role of French, Belgian and Polish troops and the input of the Commonwealth and was then still Empire.
That Pearl Harbour and the Battle of Stalingrad were what essentially finished the Germans. And that the famous deal between Churchill and Roosevelt entailed massive British gold reserves sent to the US and the handing over of British territories in the Atlantic to become US bases. That we fought to protect European Jewry when we had long averted our eyes from their plight and had a shoddy subsequent record of welcoming refugees.
And perhaps his most devastating passage had a rather different take on Dunkirk:
“The most popular film in British cinemas of summer 2017 was Dunkirk. But it made no attempt to explain to a new generation why the entire British Army was standing up to its armpits in salt water, being strafed by the German air force, having wrecked, burned or dumped arms and equipment worth billions in today’s money.”
His point, as he is at pains to make clear, is not to deny or decry the very real sacrifices made both by the armed services and those left behind. His father was on the Russian convoys. His mother was an eyewitness to nightly bombing raids. Rather his motivation was to salvage history from the determined efforts of British propagandists to re-write it.
One aspect of WW2 which is consistently underplayed is the bombing of innocent German civilians, not as collateral damage of raids on factories or supply lines but as a deliberate act designed to undermine morale. We used bombing raids over highly populated areas of German’s major cities and quite literally incinerated families fleeing for their lives. Women, children, men too infirm or elderly to fight. We did it. We’ve never quite got around to owning it. The fact that the Nazis were capable of extraordinary brutality does not excuse the UK from its sometime cavalier attitude to human life and worth.
All wars are tragedies. Only those who have never been up close and personal to carnage whether in Afghanistan or Auschwitz imagine that cheap tunes and jingoism are emblematic of national resolve and courage. Captain Tom Innes, and his genuinely heroic efforts last month, reminded us, as he turned 100, just how long ago that conflict was in all its blood and guts and precious little glory. So let’s stop basking in the warm glow of another generation’s experiences – there have been two going on three since then. Let’s quit investing real loss and sacrifice with false memory syndrome.
Vera Lynn, Glen Miller et al brought light and comfort into dark times. Their music retains a potent ability to entertain; and their own wartime efforts are worthy of genuine respect. I won’t be the only post war viewer to have shed a tear when the Glen Miller Story was re-run the other evening. But it was a movie. A cinematic construct which took the customary liberties with the actuality. Five years ago there was a raft of celebrations of the 70th anniversary of VE Day. This might be the last time we can honour these veterans, was the government line at the time. It should have been. I felt for the German ambassador who was forced to stand through hours of song, dance, and speechifying to celebrate the surrender of his country.
To be staging a re-run of this jamboree again seems wholly inappropriate in the midst of a real global war in which there should be no sides, and maximum international co-operation.
My dad was in WW2. When I was having a lockdown clearout I found his army cap. I didn’t chuck it. Instead I remembered the kind and gentle man that he had been.
Like me, I believe he would be a VE Day dodger.
First published in The National 4.5.20