From War Picture Library comics to Olivia Manning’s enlightened trilogies, or in Nevil Shute’s charming novels of modest valour, every fictional account of the Second World War is a moral tale of sorts. It is a war of gentle, civilised people against a nation of militarised, brainwashed barbarians. It is a war for Good against Evil.
We conducted it in a chivalrous fashion. And We Won It. Knighted historians have denounced me for saying so, but the common idea of that war in modern Britain is a vague belief that we went to war in 1939 to save the Jews of Europe.
Of course no historian says this. Nobody who knows anything at all about the war could possibly believe it. As it happens, we did not in fact save most of the Jews of Europe, or make any great efforts to do so once we knew they were being murdered. But then, most people don’t really know anything about the war.
Where was Narvik? Did we really attack the French fleet? Why did Danzig matter? What are the Ardennes? What happened at Tobruk? How on earth was HMS Hood sunk so easily? Why did the USA take so long to enter the war? Why weren’t we invaded in fact, as we have been so many times in fiction?
How come we ended up in alliance with the monster, Stalin, if our cause was freedom and civilisation? Why did we send all our gold to America? Did we get it back?
The whole story is a bafflement of obscurity and confusion. Most of us just know the legend, which more or less requires us not to think, or study the matter. Let’s just have another book about codebreaking geniuses at Bletchley Park or brave Special Operations Executive agents parachuted into occupied France.
Or perhaps another film about the Dunkirk evacuation, which entirely glosses over why our army, bereft of equipment worth billions, was standing up to its armpits in salt water on the French coast. And the newspapers print the legend. And the publishers print the legend. And TV shows the legend.
TV’s latest excursion into this Churchilliad is a drama called World on Fire. It features a number of plucky and intrepid characters, several of them quite Left-wing — for this is after all an anti-Nazi war, which was therefore surely Left-wing. But here come the contradictions again, which I doubt the BBC will bother with very much: it was not so Left-wing at the start, if you happened to be a Communist, hamstrung by Stalin’s 1939-41 alliance with Hitler.
And much of it is set in Poland, at that time a military dictatorship which had recently taken part in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and where anti-Semitism was common, even if not officially encouraged. We are invited to sympathise with one character’s fury at Britain’s inaction as the Nazis prepare to invade. Yet most British people at the time were baffled by our alliance with Poland, and Britain never had any intention of doing anything serious about it, lacking the offensive forces needed to do so.
The historical vagueness and confusion in the scenes which follow is astonishing. I doubt whether one in a hundred of those watching could find Danzig on a map, or know why its Polish Post Office was so important in 1939 (A clue. Danzig at that date was so overwhelmingly German by population — 98% — that the Polish Post Office was one of the very few pieces of Polish real estate in the city).
I personally was puzzled to see, in late August 1939, young Polish men shown apparently volunteering to join their country’s army in its hour of need, as they would already have been under arms. Poland, which though poor and poorly-equipped and not as big a military power as it liked to think, was not unwarlike, and had maintained a two-year compulsory military service requirement since the 1920s.
This misty lack of clarity about checkable facts is, in my view, a direct result of the wilful ignorance we have imposed on ourselves, rather than make an honest examination of the origins and aims of that war. Asked why we signed a treaty with Poland, I doubt one British person in 100 could tell you. Asked what British troops were even doing in North Africa, where there was so much fighting, they cannot really explain.
You will hear stuff about the need to defend the Suez Canal, in fact rendered almost useless throughout the war by our inability to control the Mediterranean. Or there will be the need to defend “the oilfields”, by which is meant those in Iraq, a vast distance from North Africa.
In fact, how is it that a war which began very much in the heart of Europe so quickly spun into lots of small pieces on the far side of the world? Why, for four years of a six year war, from Dunkirk to D-Day, were British soldiers not in direct contact with the main body of the main enemy, Germany?
Why, if the peril of invasion was so great in 1940, did that invasion never happen? Would you be surprised to know that in 1940 Germany did not possess, or build, a single landing craft? Or that its naval chiefs were strongly against any attempt to mount such an invasion, which was never seriously prepared?
We rightly condemn the horrors of the Blitz, especially on poor Coventry. How come almost nobody has heard of any German city bombed, in a morally dubious way, by the Allies — except Dresden in February 1945, which even the most bellicose person accepts may have been going a bit far? In fact from 1943 to 1945, we deliberately bombed working-class German civilians in their homes in dozens of German cities, killing hundreds of thousands.
As for our endorsement, at Potsdam, of a colossal and extremely violent ethnic cleansing of central Europe after the war, it is perhaps the least known major event in human history. To know of these things is to be unable, any more, to listen to the legend in the same way.
Yes, it was good that we won and they lost. Yes, our enemy represents an appalling unequalled evil. No bad deed done by us could possibly obscure or cancel the evils of the Third Reich, or be equated with them. But the unique evil of the Nazis does not wholly blot out lesser evils on our side.
This bleak realisation has been a loss for me, for as a child I loved the legend, and kept a place for it in my heart well into adulthood. It was only when it was repeatedly used as a sort of exemplar for modern wars of choice that I began to wonder about it.
In the end I grew tired of being told that every crisis was a new Munich and every petty foreign despot was a new Hitler, from Manuel Noriega to Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. I grew even more tired of being told that people such as Anthony Blair and George W. Bush were the inheritors of Winston Churchill.
And I grew sick of being told that, as an opponent or critic of voluntary war, I was the modern version of Neville Chamberlain — or worse. And because I was dismayed by the use to which the legend was being put, I eventually examined the legend and found it wanting.
But we are on the dangerous edge of things here. If you mention doubts about the World War Two myth, you are quite likely to be falsely accused of several severe misdeeds. You will immediately be told that you are a defeatist who thinks we should have made peace with Berlin in 1940. I am no such thing, and have never written a syllable to suggest that I am. Yet I find that people just assume it to be so, of anyone who departs from the cult of unmixed heroism and virtue. As it happens, I think Churchill’s greatest action was to refuse to talk to Hitler in 1940, and I believe that a peace with the Third Reich would have been a crime and a mistake.
I am filled with admiration for those who fought and took appalling risks to fight the war. I should be, as my father was one of them, spending long months on the “Worst Journey in the World”, the Russian convoys between Scapa Flow and Murmansk. Knowing what I know about that theatre of war (my father seldom spoke about it, but suggested some reading so that I could learn from others), I doubt whether most present-day British people (including me) would even have been prepared to set out, let alone endure what happened on the way.
Though my father died more than 30 years ago, I recently devoted some months to obtaining the British medal which was eventually issued to those who took part in this very severe theatre of war. It arrived, at length, in a cheap plastic case, very inferior to those in which modern civilian honours are presented. This seemed in a way to symbolise the contrast between the grandeur of what we believe and the pinched, stretched and weary truth about what actually happened.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday and author of The Phoney Victory: Britain’s World War Two Illusion (Tauris)