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How we mythologise the Second World War The meaning of the conflict has been retconned, becoming the origin story for a new world

Seventy-five years on from the War, its meaning has changed (Photo by Gareth Copley/Gareth Copley)

Seventy-five years on from the War, its meaning has changed (Photo by Gareth Copley/Gareth Copley)


May 8, 2020   8 mins

When I was in sixth form, one of my masters was an enthusiastic collector and distributor of obituaries featuring notable persons from the Second World War. Two I remember in particular were both fighter aces: the Luftwaffe’s Adolf Galland and the RAF’s Air Vice Marshal “Johnnie” Johnson (not to be confused with Squadron Leader “Johnny” Johnson, who at 99 is the last survivor of the Dambusters raid).

My secondary school years, 1994-2001, seemed to be a busy period for such obituaries. Perhaps this was just my impression, but it was the age when men who had been in the prime of life during the war years were entering their eighties.

Over the course of my life the generation of people who actually fought in the Second World War has been gradually leaving us. I entered the world shortly before Mrs Thatcher’s stonking general election victory in 1983, and VJ Day, the end of the war, was not so very long ago. Factories and officers and schools still contained plenty of people who had served, some of them relatively young and vigorous.

Anyone in their late forties or older was likely to have some clear recollection of the war years. We were still living in a decidedly post-war world; there were four British armoured divisions permanently stationed in Germany, and Rudolf Hess remained a prisoner in Spandau, 42 years after his flight to Scotland.

Public life in 1983 was full of people who had been in uniform between 1939 and 1945. This included two of the previous three Prime Ministers, Ted Heath and James Callaghan, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Runcie, indeed, had won the Military Cross during the advance to the Rhine, a distinction he shared with the popular cricket commentator and broadcaster Brian Johnston and the former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, who had honourably resigned the previous year after the Foreign Office failed to foresee the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. The Chief of the Defence Staff during the Falklands War, Terence Lewin, served with great distinction in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

Such links are now extremely rare. In 2020, anyone who saw active service against Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan is well over ninety. Almost the only prominent people in public life who served in the war are the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who saw some lively service in the Mediterranean as a young naval officer.

This chronological distancing has been accompanied by a curious change in the way that we collectively remember the Second World War. It’s hard to describe this change precisely, or say exactly where it has come from. But if I had to try, I’d say that a folk memory of the Second World War as essentially a war fought for patriotic reasons against other countries to defend the British national interest, as part of a wider ongoing national story, has been substantially replaced by one that regards the war as an idealistic conflict fought in defence of universalist moral values, especially those that nowadays form the bedrock of high-status elite thinking — equality, diversity, non-discrimination, anti-nationalism and so on.

Now of course there is some truth in this account, and some incompleteness in the older version. As the war went on it was framed increasingly by Allied leaders and populations as a fight for civilisation against barbarism, and of course this was a strong theme in British propaganda from the very early days of the war.

In Churchill’s famous speeches in 1940 he referred to the “odious apparatus of Nazi rule” and the “abyss of a new dark age”. The horrific revelations at the end of the war about the death camps and the atrocities throughout Occupied Europe made it very clear that the war had in some sense truly been a struggle against a diabolical evil.

But this is not the whole story. The Finest Hour speech appealed to a fundamentally patriotic understanding of the war, noting with regard to the Battle of Britain that “upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire”. The “Fight Them On The Beaches” speech explicitly situated the danger from Hitler in the context of a long series of threats to British independence from Continental tyrants, and declared the Anglo-French intention to “defend to the death their native soil”.

And Britain had entered the war for old-fashioned strategic reasons; not to defeat a country with a wicked government that was oppressing its population, but to stand up to a continental power that threatened to dominate Europe and so undermine the British national interest.

There is also, of course, the little matter of our alliance with the Soviet Union, a savage tyranny which had killed far more of its own citizens during the 1930s than Nazi Germany had managed. If the war was straightforwardly a crusade against barbarism, it is hard to account for our forging a jewel-covered ceremonial longsword as a present to Joseph Stalin, who had carved up Poland with Hitler in 1939, and whose armies raped and murdered their way across Eastern Europe in 1944-45, shadowed everywhere by battalions of secret policemen ready to shoot local dissidents, and indeed terrified peasant boys who fled the front line.

The Soviet alliance is intelligible and defensible in the context of a war for national survival and the national interest; less so if we conceive of the conflict as a grand battle of good versus evil.

A useful concept here, I think, is the neologism “retcon”, a portmanteau of the words “retroactive” and “continuity”. Retconning is a term originally coined by comic book readers, and it refers to the retrospective revision of completed fictional works, typically with the addition of new information to make us understand previous events in a different way.

Something similar has been happening to the Second World War over the last few decades. Not only are the events of the war itself being repurposed to tell a simplistic tale about an idealistic war, but additionally the war is treated as an origin story for all that is considered good in the post-war world, from the NHS and the welfare state to our ability to rise above primitive notions like patriotism and national interest to the sunlit uplands of universal benevolence.

This retooling of the popular imagination is necessary partly because of sweeping demographic change complicating conceptions of national history and popular memory, but also because what you might call “old-fashioned” wars, entered into and fought for reasons of national self-interest, are seen as increasingly problematic.

To celebrate a hero because he fought or died for Britain, for King and Country, for the land from which he sprung, makes people uneasy; to celebrate him because he fought for “freedom” or “against Fascism” is much more acceptable. Ironically, this suspicion of national feeling is a result of the terrible events of the war, which have forever tainted patriotic energy with the horrible shadow of genocide and racial bigotry.

The semi-conscious move to the story of the war as a morality tale has surely also contributed to the curious transformation in our attitude to veterans of conflict, and not just the world wars. Across great swathes of public conversation, we seem to have only two cultural templates for those who have served in war; hero, an appellation now applied freely and therefore uselessly to anyone who has spent time in uniform, and victim, the man left emotionally and psychologically scarred by the experience of battle, grappling with addiction or PTSD and unable to function effectively in civilian life.

While it is very good indeed that we now take more seriously the mental health of service personnel, there is little evidence that veterans have worse mental health than the general population, once you have controlled for possible confounding factors.

Thus surviving Second World War veterans — such as Captain Tom Moore, NHS fundraiser extraordinaire — are held in the most exaggerated reverence, treated almost like holy objects rather than normal people who lived through an incredible chapter in our history and have had the good luck to live to a grand old age.

This is in line with the reimagining of the war as a high moral endeavour and the catalyst for the dawning of a new Britain freed from the shackles of an unenlightened past. It doesn’t help that there is no-one left alive who had any kind of senior or strategic role in the conflict, to temper the impressionistic, partial and fragmented recollection of the poor bloody infantry with a wider perspective that makes clear the difficult choices constantly faced by military commanders.

I am fairly sure that this exaggerated reverence is something new. I don’t recall it from the big wave of Second World War remembrance in the early 1990s. Then veterans were still treated with great respect, of course, and their recollections listened to with attention, but the very fact that there were so many of them, and that so many of them were still of an age to be actively engaged in normal life, arguably meant that we had more of a sense of them as normal people, for good or ill, rather than enormously aged relics of another world.

There is another reason for this pivot to extreme deference to Second World War veterans, and it was neatly summed up by an astute Twitter correspondent of mine, who noted that the wartime generation have become less culturally threatening as they have aged. Discussing the recently-discovered footage of Captain Tom Moore on the TV show Blankety Blank in 1983, he suggested that at that time he was the right age (63) to be a resented authority figure, liable to tell you to get a haircut and turn that bloody racket down, rather than in the category of enormously ancient and hence admirable sage from times long past.

This seems like a very plausible dynamic to me. The generations who have grown up since the war have complicated psychological attitudes to those who fought in it. They are compelled to admire their sacrifice and their resilience, especially if the cause for which they fought can be reconfigured as a war for modern liberal shibboleths, but also keenly convinced of the moral backwardness of the world which the wartime generations stood for, and which they still to some extent represent. It is entirely plausible, then, that the younger generations’ attitude to the few remaining survivors of the old world, should become more indulgent when any meaningful political and social threat from them has entirely passed (as it had not done in 1983).

The effect of the various phenomena noted above is to make it increasingly difficult for people to have a nuanced, realistic understanding both of our military history in general, and of how we should think about particular soldiers’ experiences. It’s always a delight, therefore, to see pushback against the sentimentalist or simplistic presentation of such experiences.

For example, one of the great strengths of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, released in autumn 2018 to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War, was that it avoided a clichĂ©d over-emphasis on what you might call the “muddy futility and tragic poetry” view of that war.

Over the end credits we heard not the usual sad piano music, or a famous actor reading Dulce Et Decorum Est in their special Shakespeare voice, but a jaunty and – it must be said – filthy British Army marching song, Mademoiselle From Armentieres. Jackson, if I remember correctly, included voices noting that we did actually win the Great War. Not alone, certainly; the immortal French heroics at Verdun and the arrival of the Americans in the last year or so cannot be ignored. But the British Army and its imperial allies — and the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany — played a decisive role in actually defeating the Germans in the field.

Also featured were testaments to an under-discussed aspect of the modern presentation of remembrance and popular history: i.e., that a large proportion of soldiers actually rather enjoy the experience of battle. This insight is fascinatingly explored in Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, among other works. However, it struggles to get much discussion time in the modern media environment because it runs so strongly against the grain of our conception of human nature.

It will be intriguing to see how the remembrance of the Second World War develops over the next two decades, as the conflict passes out of living memory altogether. I fear that the trend towards an ahistorical and politicised folk memory will only intensify, and that our collective endeavours to memorialise that great struggle will become ever stranger, as we try ever harder to cling to the mythologised version of the war, one of our few remaining collective reference points for the vanished past.


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

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Richard Slack
Richard Slack
4 years ago

I was born in 1952 so my childhood was peopled with those who had fought in the second world war war. My father was in a reserved occupation (I was not sure what it was for many years, his loyalty to the official secrets act forbade him from telling me) but I had relatives and teachers who had seen active services and, with almost no exceptions, kept their military memories to themselves. Remembrance day was a march-past of World War one veterans and the WW2 contingent paid respects but did not participate.
I have wondered on this often. Firstly I think was the idea that WWI with its grisly death tolls could be portrayed as a serious war while WW2, where the command learned much quicker not to waste lives, was not. And, as A.J.P. Taylor pointed out, those who marched past the liberated concentration camps could be forgiven for thinking that the war had been a moral crusade and they had wholly been on the right side.
The stories I was told about the war were almost totally to do with civilian life, air-raids, evacuation, rationing and, indeed, the black market. The war affected everyone to a massive extent and was seen as an enterprise of the nation as a whole.
The war also was probably far better managed at the civilian level that in its predecessor. Ernest Bevin not only organised the labour force well but found a way of removing most of the bitterness around conscientious objectors.
As we know, at the end of the war the electorate rejected Churchill’s Conservatives for Attlee’s Labour; with that was a desire to look forward to a new world rather than (as after WW1) try to resurrect the old one. So my parents were like many who raised their children (lots of them with the baby boom!) in Mr Attlee’s and Mr Churchill’s New Britain conscious of the fact that the war had been won by a collective effort as much as by military heroism.
It is an era in which I am grateful my childhood was spent; we managed without patriotic bellows blowing then and I think we can do so now.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
4 years ago

An anecdotal account of the War by my father may be of interest.
In the 30’s my father was active in the peace movement, particularly with the knowledge of Guernica and living in the likely target city of Birmingham.
He, gradually arrived at the conclusion that Hitler could not be trusted to keep the peace. (e.g. Using force to enter the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and finally Poland).
He therefore joined the Army to help stop Hitler, despite being in a reserved occupation (which meant that he was not subject to conscription).
He was away from home for six years.
He was also of the opinion that the reason for Churchill’s defeat in the election was primarily due to war weariness of the troops, who wanted to come home!
So did he elect to fight for patriotic reasons maybe, although the meaning of patriotism has changed over the years. For national self interest maybe, but to right a wrong caused by the bullying Hitler much more likely.
After the defeat of Hitler, did he wish to start a new war with Russia?
My guess is that after six years away from home he probably just wanted to go home!

Mike Hall
Mike Hall
4 years ago

Many peace activists of the 1930s supported the bombing campaign against Germany. Reasons were mixed but one consistent was the need to smash the production of bombs & aircraft of the enemy to enable them to bomb. So maybe your father’s thinking could be learned from that. A deep resignation that no peace can exist in Europe while Adolf Hitler was in power.

The wider cause. That was the morality of most folks in Britain then in regard to the grim methods needed to win the war.

Julia Wilson
Julia Wilson
4 years ago

I agree with pretty much everything written here and particularly the reference to the Soviet alliance. The further we get from WW2 the less accurately we assess that period of history. I was born in 1970 to older parents (aged 39 and 46) My Mum was an evacuee and my Dad fought in the Far East. The war formed the background to my childhood because so many of my parents’ stories and anecdotes stemmed from their war experiences.

We layer 21st century hindsight on that period of history and mythogise it, and those who participated; not necessarily heroes – just those who had the misfortune to be born at a time which meant it was unavoidable.

Andrew McCoull
Andrew McCoull
4 years ago
Reply to  Julia Wilson

I think there’s a bit of revisionism going on in this essay. When GB entered the war in 1939 many on the left were against it because their hero Stalin was in a pact with Hitler. Were people generally aware of the horrors of the soviet regime at the time?
I place this remark here because, similarly, I was born in 1964 to older parents (38 and 46). My mother lived and worked in Clerkenwell, London through the war, and my father was in the Army, seeing service in Greece and later the Far East.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

A very welcome and insightful article.

naillik48
naillik48
4 years ago

In 20 years time the only thing which will be remembered wil be The Holocaust – for all sorts of reasons.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
4 years ago
Reply to  naillik48

I only hope you’re right and it will be remembered, and for the right reasons. Paradoxically, a lot of people seem to want to persuade us that it didn’t happen so that they can make it happen all over again.

Mike Hall
Mike Hall
4 years ago

Holocaust denial has been reduced to a trickle in the past 20 years. Mainly now just peddled by muslims with a nefarious anti-israel slant or a tiny band of the west’s outsiders. Its been so rebutted even contrarians avoid the topic to escape ridicule. We shouldn’t over play holocaust memory to a threat which is muted. The holocaust has its place in the history. It was not unique. It was not alone the worst thing in history but stands up there with others, that collectively were the worst. Though, perhaps a little more than the others for us not by dint of what happened but because it happened in the modern world.

Mike Hall
Mike Hall
4 years ago
Reply to  naillik48

That would be a disaster for the cause of history. But I say you are wrong. The WW2 history book shelves have never been so full as in the past 20 years. And google and youtube are a huge reservoir of information. The holocaust will be among things remembered along with many other things. What might be true though, is the politicians never missing a trick to use the holocaust to flag their anti-racism credentials, thus more and more memorials which of course will end up making people sick of the subject. They shouldn’t be. But the mystery is why we elect the politicians that we do.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  naillik48

Really? What about the dropping of the two atomic bombs, “Little Boy and Fat Man”?

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
4 years ago

Media on all sides have been guilty of sensationalist cherry-picking of “facts” which suit a particular political narrative. Somewhere along the line the role of the press as a democratic safeguard has been lost, and has transformed into something malign. Or has it always been thus?

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
4 years ago

I like this essay and think it offers some very interesting thoughts on different aspects of the 2nd WW – History is always re written and there are many versions of this war, and the one before it .The views of a General and the views of a Private are inevitably very different.
I think what might be missing from this discussion, or anything wider, is the part that symbol and mythology plays in our lives, and inevitably comes into the 2nd WW, as the author here alludes to-and they are not at all unimportant to human life,and what sense ‘we’ can make of our lives. Perhaps this is where some of the rewriting of the history of the war comes in:
Almost all of that generation (my parents included, both served, are dead ) and the world we live in now is very very far from any of those lives and experiences, hopes and beliefs (incidentally I don’t think either of my parents had any conception of fighting for – diversity or human rights etc!) that is how it is re written and interpreted now often for political reasons that are manipulative, to suit the younger generations now. Human lives then were very different,their thinking and attitudes and behaviours are almost all gone, and yet, it seems many of us are looking desperately for something, for what is missing in our lives(Brexit touched on that longing) something that includes more than ourselves, more than a belief in bigger is better, or more is better.
My father died never having owned a car or had a bank account, he worked all of his life, as did my mother, they did not choose but understood their lives to be something about self responsibility and duty to family community and themselves.
This is not where the world is now.
Is that why ‘we’ now here thoughts/hopes expressed, that after,
Covid 19,t when this is all over – our country might find some better ways to live , find some new values?
I think this is to do with the longing and nostalgia for those of the 2nd WW generations,now almost all gone-they are our link, our connection, to bigger truths, better narratives, better symbols, to hopes that ‘we’ might find a better way to live-and in this they, all of them, are seen as the symbols of these hopes .
It does not matter in this sense that the narratives, or the story, have been to some extent rewritten, if they have, it is I suggest because ‘we’ left behind, are in a desperate search to find other ways to live
Beyond identity or gender/rights narratives which will not sustain any of us.

Frederick B
Frederick B
4 years ago

I was born in 1945 into an army family. My life down to 1961, when my father retired from the forces after 25 years, was therefore spent on army bases in the UK and Germany. When I went out to work my colleagues were mostly men who had been in the forces, a few of them veterans of the First World War. But they had little to say about it – I rather got the impression that for most of them the war had just been an interruption which they were pleased to leave behind.

They didn’t sentimentalise the war, as we do now, I suspect that they would have been puzzled, and a little embarrassed, by the way in which we now celebrate those years. And offended by the motives which we ascribe to them – “equality and diversity”? oh please! They were all patriotic of course, but if asked why they joined up they would have said – as I heard one of them once say – “we didn’t get a choice”.

Liscarkat
Liscarkat
4 years ago

According to the leftist media, many ideas that counter their pronouncements are right-wing “conspiracy theories”. They have rendered the phrase meaningless, just as they have “racist”, “hate”, and other terms.

Mike Hall
Mike Hall
4 years ago

I well written article and a keen observation about the media moving the goal posts. My problem is you write as if detchaced. For the cause of truth and memory we should stop this nonsense of the media ascribing different meanings to the motivations of participants in WW2, not just watch wondering how more distorted the truth becomes in the future.

If you don’t mind, for you wrote a good article, I’d like to counter with the truth about the Red Army. Alas it says an awful lot for our country’s continuous derogatory view of Russians that you write that the Red Army:

“…raped and murdered their way across Eastern Europe in 1944-45, shadowed everywhere by battalions of secret policemen ready to shoot local dissidents, and indeed terrified peasant boys who fled the front line.”

That is an outrageous tarring. Though elements of each of those charges did exist, as they did with the British and American forces but to lesser degree and with the exception of the charge of peasant boys (and may I add city boys and girls) shot by the Russian political commissioners if they deserted (In the west we had more “civilised” court martials and hangings for deserters – lovely!).

That can not stand as a summary of the Red Army in WW2 who basically broke the back of the Wehrmacht. Its impossible to make any realistic calculation about alternative total allied wins over Germany without that singular defeat in the east being the prime factor. It was the pivot of eventual victory. The Sword of Stalingrad, beautifully made by Wilkinson Sword as a gift from King George VI to “the citizens of Stalingrad” (not Joe Stalin as you imply) from the people of Great Britain was an emotional and marvellous tribute to the bravery and resolution of the Red Army. It does great credit to Churchill who initiated this and King George VI, both of who despised murderous bolshevism, that they could overcome themselves to see valour in our shared cause.

I think we all know about the crimes of Stalin. So do modern day Russians, it is why they tore down all his statues post 1991. We can all agree he, his office and the aparatus of the state was an un-comfortable bed fellow. But the State and the people are different things in a totalitarian state. Our people back then focused on the ordinary Russian and the defence of his soil and home which is why everywhere in Britain there was respect for the Red Army and fund raising for Soviets took place by the people’s own local initiative, Indeed Churchill’s message sent to Russia encapsulates this perfectly:

“Future generations will acknowledge their debt to the Red Army as unreservedly as do we who have lived to witness these proud achievements.”

Apparently not. I am sure most of the people of Britain of 1945 would be ashamed of that.

Mike Hall
Mike Hall
4 years ago

I can give some background to that 1994 debacle. I took a call from the Dept of… cuture or heritage, whatever it was called then on xmas eve 1993 asking if our company would like to bid for organising the celebrations of the 50 anniversary of D-Day, with the hint that whoever won the contract was likely to be given the job for the 50th celebration of VE Day the following year. The bids took place on the first working day after xmas, which meant bidding companies had to come in over xmas week to fine tune their pitch. PR Week, the PR and event trade rag, wrote a scathing editorial about incompetence of Whitehall regarding the short period of notification and pitch dates.

In the end another company won the bid though on a pitch we all competitors thought was lame. Later it emerged that the Director of the winning company’s bid was buddies with the head of committee choosing the supplier. School badge, apparently.

When it came to delivery six months later, the focus of the D-Day commeration was a large children tea party (er.. what’s that todo with death & blood on a beach Guv’?) and other fey gimmicks like magicians and circus performers “thanking the troops” of that time. You rightly remember the scandal about the lack of dignity and “happy” tone of the commemoration of a fraught enterprise that took place in the press. It went on for days and as you recall the British Legion and others made complaints. We (the other companies) were all pleased it blew up in that companies face, they were ill equipped to take on that job and I am sure the old boy network backfired on this one.

The VE Day celebrations for 1995 were better balanced using other agents to organise the design and planning.

Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor
4 years ago

A murky area of Britains war time efforts was, of course, the war waged by Bomber Command. My maternal grandfather was a wireless operator and fallback tail-gunner in Wellingtons and Lancasters.
Far from being the cliche of the tight-lipped war veteran rarely talking of his wartime exploits my grandfather answered every question that I, as a morbidly fascinated teenager, asked. I was particularly wide-eyed when he told me tales of having to drag the shot-to-pieces tail gunners out of their position and take their place. He was very matter-of-fact about it all, even volunteering for extra tours because of the increased pay.
An heroic effort, no doubt, to keep getting in that flying tin can knowing that you were going to be shot at but, at the end of the day, he was dropping bombs and killing innocent civilians. As I get older it becomes more difficult to square that circle

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
4 years ago

noun: context; plural noun: contexts
the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

IMO, the inability or unwillingness to use context to form a narrative or moral judgement about WW2 (or any other historical event) causes much of the confusion and revisionism the author mentions.
That’s not surprising since it requires a fair bit of mental energy to abandon current attitudes and transport oneself to that time and place – like seeing the world with nothing but a spare set of socks and undies – you’ll just have to figure it out when you get there.

Liscarkat
Liscarkat
4 years ago

When I grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s, most of the men I encountered in everyday life, between their thirties and sixties, were World War II veterans. Most of the men in their sixties and older had been in the Great War. There was universal respect for veterans of those wars, and we listened with interest to their accounts of wartime experiences. But nobody was called a hero, unless he had actually done something heroic, and those few who had tended to keep it to themselves. There was none of the fawning over veterans we see today; none of the “exaggerated reverence” and treatment like “holy objects”. They were just regular, everyday men who had participated in historic events, but who then got on with their lives. “Veteran” was not their identity.

thomasbcarver
thomasbcarver
4 years ago

I was born a few years after 1945 which meant that, as a child, every adult I knew had been in the war, either in one of the services or on the home front; however, not one of them talked about it. They would answer direct questions, but they wouldn’t elaborate or go on about it and certainly nobody ever wore their medals or put on their old beret, and they really weren’t interested in memorial parades. The war was over and they wanted to move on.
Surprisingly, as time passes we are becoming more obsessed with the two world wars; the annual poppy appeal is now observed by everyone, almost without exception, and the various anniversaries are celebrated with outpourings of sentimentality, mostly by people who were born long after the war’s end.
But what are we celebrating? The defeat of the Nazis yes, but what about the forty years of subjugation that we allowed for Eastern Europe, the enormous debt and the years of austerity.
It’s surely time to stop; a self-confident, grown-up country does not need to go on celebrating its victory after 75 years.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
4 years ago

George Macdonald Fraser’s ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ is worth reading, as a corrective to the “heroes/victims” view of ordinary soldiers and a convincing account of the experience of actual combat (it is also, as you’d expect, highly entertaining).

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

Gooch’s piece was posted on May 8. As the American historian Michael Seiberg noted in his recent history “Potsdam”, Stalin, in a message to Truman, objected to the announcement of the end of the war by the British and the Americans on May 8: “The Soviet Union”Šremained technically at war with Germany, and the three powers had agreed in 1943 they all had to content to the terms of any German surrender.” In some Eastern European countries, not just Russia, the Victory in Europe is celebrated on May 9, the day German forces surrendered to a Soviet general in Berlin, ending German hostilities with all the Allied powers. My wife is Serbian, and Serbia is one of the countries that celebrates May 9, not May 8, as Victory Day.

Pace Niall Gooch, the Second World War in Europe was a fight against barbarism, and that judgement isn’t affected by Stalin’s Soviet Union being part of the Alliance. The great Soviet novelist Vassily Grossman was a war correspondent with the Red Amy and his report “The Hell of Treblinka” was used in evidence at the Nurembeg trials. Grossman’s mother was murdered by the Nazis as a Jew and Grossman would have been if the Germans had won the war. It’s offensive on the 75th anniversary of the victory in Europe to see the Red Army characterized simply as a malevolent force raping and murdering its way across Eastern Europe. Apparently, without any combat against Nazi forces to disrupt their mayhem. The Soviet forces were guilty of war crimes, but they did save Europe from continued Nazi domination and European Jewry from extermination. Gooch seems to be engaging in his own brand of malevolent mythologizing.

Will D. Mann
Will D. Mann
4 years ago

Thinking back to conversations with my parents, uncles and teachers who had served during the war maybe this article has the transformation the wrong way round. There was pride in defeating a dangerous evil, and some regret at the loss and the cost. This generation were determined to ensure democratic institutions prevailed in Europe so that there could be no repetition.
The generation which followed always felt slightly awed by their elders heroic achievements and have bought into the myth of National Exceptionalism, plucky Britain, the Dunkirk spirit etc etc a way of trying to share in their parents generations achievement and compensate for feelings of inferiority.

It’s indicative how the solemnity of Rememberance Sunday commemorating the fallen has been superseded by the triumphalism of Victory in Europe day which was never much celebrated by those who actually served in WW2

Edward Canfor-Dumas
Edward Canfor-Dumas
4 years ago

A very good article and a useful counterpoint to much of the present narrative. An example, too, of how history is continually rewritten from the perspective of present-day sensibilities.

One thing that’s constantly underplayed, for example, is the extent to which the Second World War was about the clash of (would-be) empires: Nazi Germany trying to create a European empire because the most of the world had already been carved up; Mussolini’s Italy trying to create an empire in Africa; the Japanese trying to create an empire in the Far East (The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere); the USA expanding into the Pacific (and earning Japanese enmity as a result); and Britain, of course, defending an empire that was at its greatest geographic extent following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Alanbrooke was the Chief of the *Imperial* General Staff and his diaries reflect the dominant desire – shared by Churchill – of keeping the empire intact.

It seems, however, that we’re not yet ready in the UK to get to grips with this aspect of our past.

donlindsay8
donlindsay8
4 years ago

I was born in 1959 in Ireland and so grew up hearing far less than my peers across the Irish sea about the impact of the second world war. However, I was of course exposed to the movies, TV programmes and comic book stories of the time that highlighted the bravery of the Allied military, the stoicism of the civilian population and the moral imperative of the war. It was a highly idealised and, it must be said, prejudiced, view that hid much of the terrible truth about war.
Then I went to work in Munich in 1979 and was shocked to see how much evidence there still was of the second world war in the form of still-empty bombed sites and in the terrible quality of much of the hurriedly-built post-war housing. An older colleague suffered from a strange personality disorder that made my life quite difficult. When I complained to the HR department I was brusquely, and quite rightly, informed that Dieter’s behaviour was the result of his war experience and that I should respect that. Visiting the Dachau concentration camp was also a visceral experience that has stayed with me my whole life.
Above all, Germans did not put the same veneer on their war memories as did the British and Americans in the movies. It was plainly a ghastly, awful time as, no doubt, it was in Britain, France, Japan and everywhere else.
My primary concern, therefore, with this glorification of the two wars is that it does not communicate enough of the ghastliness and loss inherent in war which, I believe, can only result in unwitting support for some avoidable conflict in the future.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

My late Grandfather, who was an Irish Catholic, fought for Britain in World War 2, and did not return to Ireland thereafter (probably sensible). I’m guessing there were many more who also fought for freedom from a malicious foreign power, rather than being driven by a sense of patriotism. Let’s be honest, anyone outside of Germany who witnessed the frenzied rants of Hitler and his cronies to their obedient Nazi hordes, must have wanted to take up arms!

Arnold Fishman
Arnold Fishman
4 years ago

The west was founded on the ideas of scientific debate and discourse
and experimentation leading to an answer that is backed up by data.
There is no room for censorship in this. If you sit in on any business
brainstorming, the first thing that gets said is “there are no wrong
ideas”. yet our establishment elite want this process to be in the dark,
to keep the unofficial “other voices” quiet. We know the adage qui
bono, to be a true description of the general tendencies of humanity:
“follow the money” follow the greed, follow the path of least resistance
that might unravel malfeasance done to benefit the few. This should be
the role of media but unfortunately seems to be lost. Fortunately for
us, there are many willing to follow the money ” all done by researchers
and the curious which leads to conclusions and theories that may or may
not be correct. The west needs a media that is willing to try and
pierce through the darkness and opacity of the establishment for the
good of the majority of us commoners. As the Bible says, the heart of
man is deceptive and evil and that does not exclude those who are within
the power circle of the establishment who are our wise lords. Trust but
verify should be the operative within all freedom proclaiming nations.

julian.brazier53
julian.brazier53
4 years ago

This is an excellent article. We have rewritten history to say that WW1 was just mindless slaughter brought on by a clash of nationalist egos, while WW2 was a clash between light and darkness. This ignores both the reasons why we had to fight in WW1 and the crucial role patriotism played in our ability to hold on – and with allies – eventually triumph.
Mr Gooch is also right to say that we should stop classifying all service personnel as heroes or victims. As the current Chief of Defence Staff has said, sympathy for the armed forces is at a high but understanding of their role and what it entails is at a low.

politicofigure
politicofigure
4 years ago

The Soviet point is a good one. Overdoing the moral element of the war is prevalent. However, I think defeating the Nazi’s and their ideology of racial genocide should never be underestimated whether it’s for moral reasons or not. I’m also not convinced by the idea that the war is now immortalised in the liberal values of the post-war era i.e the NHS & welfare state. I think what you take from it depends on your own political persuasion. If you’re a pacifist you use it an example of the horrors of human conflict and If you’re more nationalist minded you see it as a defence of national influence and the nation itself.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

I attended secondary school a little before the writer of this article did, between 1990 and 1997. We still had an old boy, by then a centenarian, who was a First World War veteran and one of the last surviving Old Contemptibles (and the only one, at the time, to have been a member of the army before war broke out). He could recount first-hand memories of historic events such as the Christmas truce, and could take you to the war memorial in the assembly hall, look down the list of names, and tell you where one boy hid his sweets, and why another was caned by the chemistry master. Of course, he, like the rest of the veterans of that conflict, has now passed into history.

You may well be right that the Second World War has been “retconned”, but I am much more conscious of the First World War being retconned since the deaths of its last participants. The “muddy futility and tragic poetry” which Mr Gooch describes as a cliche was how almost everyone seemed to see the First World War in the 1990s, when there were still living witnesses to it. Only after all the veterans were dead did we begin to hear more of the revisionist argument that they had fought in a noble cause.

Indeed, it’s odd to cite Niall Ferguson, apparently in support of a more positive view of World War I, without acknowledging his sweeping claim that going to war in 1914 was the biggest error in British history. He thought we should have stood aside and let Germany achieve hegemony in continental Europe; such an outcome, he claims, was one with which “Britain, with her maritime empire intact, could . . . have lived.” The argument is, of course, controversial. But Peter Jackson’s claim that “we did actually win the Great War” is surely true only in the narrow legalistic sense. All the European participants lost the war; the only winner was the United States.

Howard Medwell
Howard Medwell
4 years ago

An intelligent and worthwhile article – a nuanced examination of our “folk memory” of the Second World War will reveal some things that are uncomfortable for a contemporary left-wing perspective, and others that don’t fit a right-wing analysis either. Niall’s mention of the view that the Second World War – presumably coupled with the 1945 General Election – is used as an “origin story” for the NHS, the Welfare State, etc. is particularly interesting in the light of present-day politics.
The “1945 consensus”, which Mrs Thatcher famously abolished in the 1980’s, actually began in 1940, when Churchill appointed Ernest Bevin, the dictatorial General Secretary of the mighty Transport and General Workers’ Union, to be Minister of Labour in his wartime Coalition government.
Bevin’s task was to mobilize a class-conscious and widely resentful and disaffected industrial working class for the purposes of a war economy.
Bevin succeeded, although strikes continued at a higher level than today, and what used to be called “restrictive practices” at a level unimaginable today.
In return, workers expected that post-war governments, unlike pre-war governments, would take responsibility for the maintenance of full employment – which they did, Tory and Labour governments alike (with dire results for industrial relations) until… er… 1979.

Patrick Cosgrove
Patrick Cosgrove
4 years ago

I suspect that a great many people either don’t know or have conveniently forgotten that we didn’t win the war on our own, and they are out there waving the flags for plucky little go-it-alone Britain that can do it again with Brexit and, more recently, Covid-19. Once we’re on WTO terms and/or locked into a lop-sided trade deal with Trump, if that doesn’t teach them a history lesson, maybe Covid-21 or 22 will.

scurs
scurs
4 years ago

So much of this I was nodding along to. I’m 78 and joined the RN in 1959. Many of my instructors and later, members of the same ship’s company, were wartime sailors, some conscripts who had stayed in and others who joined as volunteers. Included were WWII and Korea veterans, and I don’t think that their wartime service was ever mentioned. The change in attitude of the civilian population was probably the most noticeable, as the war receded and current worries came in to play. By the time I left, in 1983 the attitude of ‘civvy street’ to anyone in uniform had changed dramatically. First of all we were discouraged from being in public in uniform because of the likelihood of personal abuse/attack. The attitude of the general public to service personnel, encouraged it has to be said, by some politicians and certainly in the Royal Dockyards by some trade union members, had changed from respect, through tolerance to ignoring.
The future as the writer points out, is going to be very different, where very few of the population, proportionally less of the armed forces have personal knowledge of war, and all that it entails.

benbow01
benbow01
4 years ago

‘… to celebrate him because he fought for “freedom” or “against Fascism” is much more acceptable. Ironically…’

If I may provide an alternative finish to that sentence.

Ironically… how readily the current generations give away freedom and accept the essence of Fascism, empowerment of the State over the individual, central economic planning and control.

I think of course of acquiescence not just in the current panicdemic, but ready acceptance of climate change emergency, what we may eat and drink or what we may carry our shopping in.

Maybe we should go back to King and Country, for the land from which we sprung, since freedom no longer has any value.

William Bell
William Bell
4 years ago

I don’t really understand the purpose or point of this article. It seems to be bemoaning the fact that the veterans of the second world war are dying, which is an inevitability and then claiming that the second world war has somehow become repurposed as a propaganda tool for the liberal elite. Proposing instead that we should remember the battles as a fight to preserve the British Empire, a self-interested anachronism.

The reference to the arch neo-liberal Niall Ferguson, who might just write that justification of racist theory soon, elaborates more clearly the ideas generated by this “think” piece further .

It becomes clear that the author is upset that the second world war is no longer remembered for the last stand of old Albion against the European hegemony rather for the dawn of our current socialistic nightmare.

Latterly, the brave Brexit contingent of Steve Baker (former banker), Jacob Rees-Mogg (investment manager / banker) and Boris Johnson (Telegraph journalist) rescued us from the stultifying grip of Europe and perhaps, maybe, we can be proud to be British again.

Finally, we have control of the reins of our own destiny; we can ride the horse of nostalgia over the cliff of reality and sail into a golden dawn of chaotic decline. At least immigration will be lower. Maybe with the insightful leadership offered by our new government we can again have a new generation of veterans and dead to venerate and mourn for.

ben sheldrake
ben sheldrake
3 years ago

Interesting article, well written but a glaring point missed.
The Second World War wasn’t about cliched areas such as Patriotism, National Socialism or Morality. It was about survival. The Nazis are probably trumped by Communism in terms of numbers murdered but in terms of pinpointed, structured, engineered, industrialised Genocide they were a one off. They crafted an event horizon. They had to be stopped. Hitler and his surrounding sycophants identified groups on a whim as well as nurtured hatred and exterminated them. Not some, meany police officers with student protestors, not bailiffs, not somebody saying something that isn’t ‘right on’, not Tories being nasty or Tommy Robinson. No, this was a highly efficient process of extermination. As close to a true evil as it gets. And in comparison to Europe, Britain did stand alone. If the Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority…well, one doesn’t need to be a strategy guru to work out the response to any post invasion resistance if the Wehrmacht (followed by the real Nazi machinery) had got on our shores, achieved a foothold and overrun the British Isles. We’d have got the same treatment as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Occupied France, Serbia, Hungary, etc, etc. Everything was done on a whim with Hitler’s decision making group. Killing off a population wasn’t a stretch.
For the left leaning amongst us this is particularly tricky as Britain alone meant the Empire. You didn’t just fight the UK, you fought, NZ, Canada, Africa, India, Australia. And they didn’t hesitate, the Mother Country was in the fight of its life and they came. The Empire actually worked. It functioned long enough and effectively enough to hold the line until Russia came up with improved kit and strategy and the Sleeping Giant awoke.
We cant expect those people who lived through such times to be joyous ever after, why would they as they only just survived it. But we can thank them and not flagellate ourselves for recognising their resilience.

Martyn Hole
Martyn Hole
4 years ago

I was wondering, as I was reading this article, whether I was wasting my time and then I saw the reference to Timandra Harkness’s piece from yesterday. Yup, I was wasting my time.

watsongd
watsongd
4 years ago

Perhaps he had modelled the risk but didn’t think to input the possibility of a DT reporter lurking round the corner.
Let’s hope his input into the Covid-19 modelling was more comprehensive.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

Pace Niall Gooch, the Second World War in Europe was a fight against barbarism, and that judgement isn’t affected by Stalin’s Soviet Union being part of the Alliance. The great Soviet novelist Vassily Grossman was a war correspondent with the Red Amy and his report “The Hell of Treblinka” was used in evidence at the Nurembeg trials. Grossman’s mother was murdered by the Nazis as a Jew and Grossman would have been if the Germans had won the war. It’s offensive on the 75th anniversary of the victory in Europe to see the Red Army characterized simply as a malevolent force raping and murdering its way across Eastern Europe. The Soviet forces were guilty of war crimes, but they did preserve Europe from Nazi domination.
As the American historian Michael Seiberg noted in his recent history “Potsdam”, Stalin, in a message to Truman, objected to the announcement of the end of the war by the British and the Americans on May 8: “The Soviet Union”Šremained technically at war with Germany, and the three powers had agreed in 1943 they all had to content to the terms of any German surrender.” In some Eastern European countries, not just Russia, the Victory in Europe is celebrated on May 9, the day German forces surrendered to a Soviet general in Berlin, ending German hostilities with all the Allied powers.

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
4 years ago

Perhaps we should remember NBC took Trump to fame when he was bankrupt, mixed with sleazy businessmen and saved him from disaster. So well the media is responsible for much, not least the slavish way it reports the rants and sociopath behaviour of Trump.

Peter B
Peter B
4 years ago

All or most of the bat virus being studied in Wuhan labs was taken from wild bats.
Leaking from a lab does not imply man made, seems like fake news from ISD 😉

jeremynash147
jeremynash147
4 years ago

An astute perspective. The change has been, and will continue be, assisted by the cultural marxism that has distorted the teaching of history in schools

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
4 years ago

As one example, there now seems no doubt that smokers have fared relatively very well in this pandemic. However, this does not fit in at all with the message that tobacco is bad for you, so it has been branded as “fake news”, One serious effect is that the reasonable possibility that nicotine might be useful in treating the virus is hardly being developed at all

dan daman
dan daman
4 years ago

Do you mean to say Britain’s “national interest” was not a sufficient cause to destroy Hitler? If you say yes, then I’m sure you’re not Jewish.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Pity of War’ is brilliant, as is Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’.
However the present incompetence of Boris ‘Billy Bunter’ Johnson and Dominic’Dumbo’ Cummings have done more damage to this country than the combined efforts of the Kaiser, Adolph, and Harold Wilson combined.
There must be a reckoning………soon!

steve taylor
steve taylor
4 years ago

The Left for many years has been desperately trying, and succeeding in removing the word, “Nazi” and replacing it with “Fascist” from the history of WWII. The reason for this is clear, the former is a construct for “national socialism” and it wouldn’t do at all to tarnish socialism with its reality.

William Bell
William Bell
4 years ago
Reply to  steve taylor

As someone who perhaps considers themselves right wing, do you object to being associated with Nazi Germany, an avowedly authoritarian and nationalist right wing government?

The German Democratic Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea may perhaps be considered a misnomer or a good example of how labelling does not always tell the whole story.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  William Bell

Yes the Germans were so stupid they failed to realize that a Party that called itself ‘National Socialist’ repeatedly and which had global ambitions of conquest, making a pact with the USSR along the way, quite accidentally, was really a conservative ‘right’ movement. Give it a rest.