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 clichéd 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.