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When will we forget the Second World War? The Great Escaper is the last gasp of a creation myth

At ease. (Credit: Pathé/The Great Escaper)


October 5, 2023   5 mins

The Second World War is Great Britain’s great daddy issue. It is with us from infancy, squatting immovably as a formative weight and wound. We either resent its example or strive to match it, coughing up Blitz spirit and slapping on a Churchillian grimace at times of national fracture. It’s a ready excuse for our national convulsions, a psychological flaw to explain away our failures and embarrassments.

However, as Anthony Barnett observed of the War’s second son after Suez, the Falklands, history doesn’t just repeat as tragedy and farce, but also as spectacle, as media event. And if the War (it is still just about a definite “the”) is our national creation myth, it only became so once we started broadcasting it on repeat, sublimating violence and trauma into a televisual parade of trumpets and valour.

The mythologising started straightaway. Churchill’s words urged us into new conceptions of national prowess, his classical inflections designed to flatter us into thinking we were the Athenians and he our Thucydides. Soon his personal sense of moral destiny became a collective triumph, a pageant to be inspiringly viewed from the cheap seats of austerity Britain. And nowhere was the spectacle more spectacular than in the British war film. Enlisting Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Richard Burton, we turned our parents into hero-warriors — better, into Hollywood stars. For the children of the Fifties and Sixties, Daddy’s war could become theirs too. The testament of a previous generation turned entertainment for the next.

However, to judge from the fate and Zimmer frame of Michael Caine in his new (and possibly last) film The Great Escaper, the war film is dying on its feet. And the Second World War is now very much a grandaddy issue, possibly even just an issue for executors, morticians and undertakers. Caine plays Bernie Jordan, a D-Day veteran who absconds from his care home to attend the 70th anniversary of the landings. If it sounds too twee to make up, it is — the real Bernie became an overnight celebrity after his trip in 2014, before his death six months later. Genuinely unbelievable, though, is the fact that this is one of two films that will retell his story to be released this year, with the second inadequately substituting Sir Michael for Pierce Brosnan. The snout of the British culture industry has evidently sniffed out a winner.

The Great Escaper sparely retells Bernie Jordan’s weekend Odyssey, every detail designed to pull delicately on the heartstrings of the national psyche. There’s Bernie’s wartime romance with Irene (the late Glenda Jackson), consummated in flashback after a shuffle at the local swing night, and still strong after 70 years. There’s Bernie’s reconciliation with some pacified Germans in a cafĂ© overlooking Sword beach. “What a waste,” he will cry, in a foreign field lined with white graves. But the film need only prod its audience with clichĂ©s. We are prepped from early-learning to receive them. The wash of waves and Michael Caine, flat-capped, staring out to sea beneath a commemorative D-Day banner, his glassy eyes blinking, his aged mind remembering. This is what a war hero looks like.

But Caine’s presence, as well as the film’s title, places The Great Escaper at odds with a very different lineage of war films, one of pluck and daring. Despite all the redcoats and pith helmets, Caine’s first picture Zulu leant directly on the beleaguered British underdog myth of 1940. And he went on to form part of the Shakespearean ensemble behind Battle of Britain, that epic Airfix commercial of 1969. For the other, still vaguely watchable productions from the time, see The Guns of Navarone, Ice Cold in Alex, The Great Escape itself and obviously Where Eagles Dare. (For a refresher, turn on ITV4 at 4pm this Sunday afternoon, or in fact any Sunday afternoon.)

All memoirs of the Sixties recall the intensity of this saturation. “I saw a film today, oh boy,” John Lennon sang in 1967. “The English Army had just won the war.” Geoff Dyer, born 1959, claims that before he was 15 he had only seen Disney cartoons, Alastair Maclean adaptations and a few other war and action movies. “I didn’t know films were made out of anything else,” remembered Christopher Hitchens. And this was part of a more general mania of cultural reproduction that gripped the supposedly Swinging nation, particularly among the young. Just as the war economy wound down, as actual conscription was coming to an end, culture was rearming. Kids read War Picture Library comics, the national equivalent to Marvel. Every boy was accompanied by a portable, idealised Unknown Soldier — at their peak there were four Action Men for every three boys in the country.

While the stories were not always uncomplicated, you never forget who the villains are, and who will and should eventually triumph. This was a Technicolor Second World War, gun-slinging and cocksure. It was what Britain needed. “We won the war
 or did we?” went the cynical grumble as imperial pink faded from the map and the Union Jack was lowered East of Suez. But only the most reactionary portions of the British Right actually regretted fighting it. We’d lost our status — but we’d gained a cinematic universe to play heroes in, made all the more believable by being roughly justified. Few of these films mentioned the Holocaust or Nuremberg, but they didn’t have to. You knew the German characters were evil before you knew why — and you knew that your country had done something towards stopping them.

But, much like a child growing to see its father in a different light, our perspective on this past has altered. The war-film industry isn’t dead, but it is changed and chastened from those swashbuckling days. The self-confident silliness we once gorged on is gone. Instead, we’re drawn to the conflict’s murkier corners, background actors such as Turing and Oppenheimer who were as much victims of the War as they were its victors. The best war film of the last two decades, Dunkirk, turned the battle into an aesthetic masterpiece, a ticking set-piece of cold realism, with only a petit four of Churchilliana at the end to sweeten the horror. And, when we return to our wartime leader, the best we can do is turn Churchill into Gary Oldman’s pot-bellied pastiche, just at the very moment that his historical reputation needed intelligent defence, not sentimental reinforcement.

The real Bernie Jordan endured the same sentimentalisation, becoming advertising copy for P&O Ferries and a grinning, geriatric front-page sensation (a dehumanising process that The Great Escaper creditably critiques). The ultimate embarrassment, however, history repeating itself as spectacle and farce, was to come in 2020, when a cabin-feverish media seized upon Captain Tom Moore, a veteran of Burma’s “Forgotten Army” who had started walking across his garden to raise money for NHS charities. Tom became the face of a terrifying convulsion of Second World War parodism in British society, proving beyond doubt that it is still our only serviceable memory of national unity.

But how long until that memory fades? Harry Patch, “the last Fighting Tommy” from the war before, died only five years before Jordan’s great escape — and the death of the last D-Day witness, if not the last Second World War veteran, cannot be far off. Tribute to the obsessive qualities of internet historians everywhere, a Wikipedia page lists dozens of “notable” survivors in various states of decay, many in their second century. Jordan may not be the last to be immortalised in film (a Captain Tom biopic is in production), but the sense of leave-taking in The Great Escaper — bittersweetly conveyed by Caine and Jackson — gestures towards the War’s uncertain legacy as it moves irretrievably beyond living memory.

No doubt those generic Churchillian emphases — “tears and sweat”, “the beaches” — will kick about the English language for another century, like those moth-eaten scraps of Tennyson that still retain some anonymous poetic charge. Perhaps they will even be reworked into a khaki Henriad by some distant Shakespeare. But the magic of those grand metonyms — “Overlord”, “Alamein” — is already gone for most people. Soon they will seem as antique as Wellington’s rearguards in the Peninsular Campaign.

Clearly, popular feeling is still swayed by memories of the finest hour, by a faith that we’re capable collectively of doing the right thing. But we see it ever more cynically. When Boris Johnson bustled off to Ukraine to tour bomb sites and inspect sandbags, we all knew whose silhouette he was shrouding himself in. Yet at some point in the future, we won’t recognise it at all. We will see only the transparent present, unmoored from the epic past it once aspired to.


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harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago

re: when will we forget the second world war?
hopefully never. and little twerps shouldn’t write about subjects too big and too important for them to understand. Stick to race, gender and climate change.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
9 months ago
Reply to  harry storm

This!

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

..

Last edited 9 months ago by harry storm
Josh Allan
Josh Allan
9 months ago
Reply to  harry storm

That’s quite harsh. The article is well written, even if I disagree with its premise. Michael Caine is one of the very few actors whose passing – whenever it happens – I will genuinely be sad to see.

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

Yes, it was harsh. And deservedly so, regardless of the quality of the scribbles.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  harry storm

Here is the question, what was it all about and did the right side win?

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago

bigoted idjit alert.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  harry storm

No need to be so hard on yourself

James S.
James S.
9 months ago

Leaving aside questions about how the Allies prosecuted WW2 (especially strategic bombing), do you seriously think that there is any question about the wrong side winning? Would you want to live in a world where N@zi Germany and Imperial Japan (Rape of Nanking, etc.) were the victors??

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 months ago
Reply to  harry storm

belly button lint hair works too

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
9 months ago

Good grief. Be as cynical as you like about the film industry and the media in general but don’t denigrate the vast majority of ordinary people who backed their leaders in the Second World War by resolutely opposing tyranny, very many of them sacrificing their lives in the process. If to remember and to seek to learn from that is just sentimental nonsense then God help us all.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 months ago

Oh how boring. Another critique of the nation’s continued fascination with the war.

I mean no other nations show any interest in this subject do they?!

Aside from the warring Russians and the Ukrainians of course!

Here’s a thought. Maybe a few nations should be a little more WW2 aware. It would help to avoid applauding a former Waffen SS soldier in their own parliament.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
9 months ago

Understand WWI and WWII and you will see why we have been at war in Iraq and elsewhere and are now at war In Ukraine.

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago

Did they know he was in Waffen SS when he was applauded?

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

No because they’re too bloody ignorant to realise that a Ukrainian fighting the Russians in WW2 would be batting for Adolph.

Tom Conroy
Tom Conroy
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

It should have been obvious.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Conroy

I find it astonishing that no one in the Canadian parliament knew. A basic understanding of the region means you aware of that.

It’s made all the more bizarre with the fact Zelensky is Jewish.

It’s a very weird and conflicted part of the world. It would do well for people to do a bit of digging before they make their judgements on that conflict.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
9 months ago

A few months age the WSJ ran an op-ed by Bernard Henri-Levi about embedding himself with a unit of the Azov Battalion, about whose members he was hagiographic. I made what I thought a mild comment about how odd it was to see a Levi glorifying Nazis. (I am Jewish, if that matters to you.)

Ohmygod, the blowback, until the editors deleted my comment a day or two later.

In the recent Canadian contretemps, I noted that neither of Trudeau’s two non-apologies mentioned the Canadian war dead and wounded, or battles like Dieppe and the Atlantic and Normandy or Holland. But plenty of time to mention indigenous and gay people.

THAT is what WW2 is now all about.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Probably not, but if they knew ANYTHING about WW2 they would have known that. their ignorance gives the game away.

In another generation, WW2 will be like Waterloo or Blenheim, or for that matter Agincourt or Armageddon, a word referring to a real event about which we know little but that carries some mythical connotations, which we invoke when convenient to our purpose du jour.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Johnson
Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Mmmm. I don’t think WW2 will ever be forgotten, certainly not in Europe. The holocaust will make sure of that. That act, with its industrial killing of civilians because of race, faith etc will always haunt us. And so it should.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
9 months ago

Yes, in two thousand years the Holocaust will take up the mindshare that the Peloponnesian War does now. A horror from the past that everyone needs to at least know the name of, and that will stand out from most of the others.

Last edited 9 months ago by Laurence Siegel
Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
9 months ago

As a Canadian I can’t believe he could read out the introduction “fought against the Russians” in Parliament without realizing his mistake. It is amazing to me that Speaker of the House is that illiterate about history. Maybe he thought the Ukraine was part of Finland during the war.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Johnson

It’s amazing isn’t it. When I heard about it, I thought surely not. But sure enough, everyone applauded. It’s so bizarre.

We live in genuinely weird times.

I constantly find myself hearing and seeing things that defy belief.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
9 months ago

Most Unherd essays are written by authors who appreciate both sides of the topic. Reading this article felt as if I’d picked up the Guardian.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

Really – I hadn’t noticed, and I read both.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

Fortunately this Guardianista essay is saved by the caption photograph of Sir Michael Caine who actually fought as young National Servicemen in Korean War in 1952.
Serving in an infantry regiment, in this case The Royal Fusiliers, he was very much at “the sharp end” as they used to say.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
9 months ago

I shan’t be watching the new film, but nor will I be “forgetting” WW2.
The twee, saccharine blanket which covers a lot of WW2 films annoys me: it smacks of Hollywood-isation of a period which was anything but glamourous. I’m also irritated by the way Brits keep clinging on to this myth of The Greatest Generation. Not because I want to belittle our parents’/grandparents’ collective endeavour (not at all) – but because successive generations are still (rather desperately) using the opportunity to bask in their glow as a substitute for being courageous themselves. (Even if, in a peaceful society, that means being courageous in a sort of lowly, everyday sort of way.)
The idea that Britain can milk any further moral authority from this now quite distant event is also silly.
But to forget is just as silly. I still think every British schoolkid should be taken to the cemeteries of Normandy and to Omaha, Utah, Sword and Gold beaches. It might not “hit” them quite so immediately as it “hit” me when I went because I knew that my own grandfather (who was around until I was 19) had been there – but no one goes away from those endless fields of gravestones unmoved.
How you remember is what’s important. You need a more refined and less daft “Erinnerungskultur“, or “remembrance culture”.

Last edited 9 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Robbie K
Robbie K
9 months ago

Clearly, popular feeling is still swayed by memories of the finest hour, by a faith that we’re capable collectively of doing the right thing. But we see it ever more cynically.

When the author says ‘we’, what he really means is ‘I’. Could he have written or a more cynical piece?
Is he French? Perhaps the son of Lord Haw Haw. Germany calling.

Matt M
Matt M
9 months ago

I constantly get the sense that these Millennials actually want to be miserable.
Talk about accentuating the negative!

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Agreed – this author complains that films are emotionally powerful, complains that Brits fondly remember successfully holding off a genocidal totalitarian world-conquering regime, complains that we remember and are inspired by the moral exemplars in our own families and communities. It’s the kind of petulance you get from a teenager.
If I were given to pop psychology I would say this author is secretly ashamed that he’s done little worthwhile in his life, and he hates the comparison of those that endured suffering and death to defend hearth and home. This is a theological problem… just what has his life amounted to?

Last edited 9 months ago by Kirk Susong
starkbreath
starkbreath
9 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

I’m with you, he’s a punk.

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
9 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

I think you make a point that is not only applicable to the author but to a generation. When you know you can’t live up to the example of your forebears the logical response is to diminish their achievements and lionize yourself.

The Woodstock generation did exactly that.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

The really curious thing about the cultural significance which WW2 has had in the UK, is why it should come as such a surprise to so many people that the single most important event to happen in Europe in the 20th century attained huge cultural significance.
It would be completely extraordinary if it wasn’t a massive reference point for the people who fought in it, lived through it, or grew up in its shadow. Inevitably for a time afterwards it was one of the predominant touchpoints of shared experience which influenced film etc. But of course there is a kind of half-life to these things. Significance continues for a time then fades as generations age and pass.
My father was born in 1937. He remembers the craters left by German bombers dumping their payloads in the Essex countryside, Land Girls working on the farm where his family lived in a tied cottage, and his uncle coming back wounded from Monte Casino. But his will be the last generation who lived through it. When they are gone we will only have second-hand accounts.

rupert carnegie
rupert carnegie
9 months ago

Well written.

At one level, the article is a statement of the obvious. History recedes with the passage of time – but perhaps slower than the author imagines. Oral historians sometimes suggest a story can survive more or less intact through two retellings. I recall vividly my grandfather telling me in the 1960s of his experiences at Gallipoli and during the Russian Civil War five decades earlier. If I pass them on to a teenager now they could still be in circulation five decades from now or to the 2070s. Collectively, one can see the same persistence in the story of the trenches and slaughter during World War I which still seems to resonate powerfully – even if memories of the Great Escape or the Bridge on the River Kwai are falling by the wayside.

I think, however, that the author’s real target is the attempts of successive Prime Ministers to indulge in rhetoric which flatters our current power and has led to deluded misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Britain is an unusual European country in having experienced neither revolution nor defeat in a major war in the last two centuries. This has undoubtedly allowed us to long retain illusions others have discarded. I am sure that the author is right to suggest that Gen Z has cast off this unnecessary burden.

But at a deeper level I think he misses the point about 1940 in particular. The “bulldog” myth does reflect a reality – that the British have a streak of unreasonable obstinacy deeply embedded in their culture. It still exists as the BREXIT vote demonstrated (I say this as a Remainer). Foreign observers – and even the British establishment – have assumed at various points in the past that this spirit has disappeared. They have been proven wrong each time. It is partly why Britain is one of the oldest and more successful nations. Whatever views Gen Z may hold today, my guess is that they would revert to type in a crisis – just as their great grandfathers discarded the Pacifism and Marxism fashionable in the 1930s. This is not about pursuing post imperialist mirages but about defending our freedoms – and Gen Z ought to respect that as should wannabe authoritarians.

Last edited 9 months ago by rupert carnegie
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago

What a truly rotten pathetic article. Patronising, glib, unpleasant. The movie takes a true story of a brave man of great spirit and tells it gently and thoughtfully for the screen.

Try gentle and thoughtful, Mr Harris. Try to admire what was done by great men and women 80 years ago, and how there are still a few with the same strength of character, including Mr Caine and Ms Jackson.

Max Rottersman
Max Rottersman
9 months ago

The author is a few generations removed from the people, the generations who suffered psychic traumas from the War. At 62, I’m even a bit past it. But I sensed it with older people when I was growing up. The author also doesn’t take into account the depression leading up to the war. That he believe Dunkirk was a good movie makes me laugh. I believe there’s more depth in the old movies that flew over his head–not his fault.
He might watch The Small Black Room by the “Archers.” It’s 1949 and already England’s military is becoming a political money factory.
Some comments here are very harsh. We shouldn’t take out our frustration on him. He’s trying. I hope he researches and writes more on the subject. IMO, his generation is years away, if not already in, WWIII. The more he can prepare them, the better.

Last edited 9 months ago by Max Rottersman
Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
9 months ago

For all the pain and sorrow of the War, there was a dignity and humility in the civilian and military forces that seems all but absent today. The leadership, from Crown to Captain, was thoroughly in tune with their people. This isn’t and wasn’t hyperbole either. People put their lives on the line and succeeded together, as a whole nation. No immature modern narcissistic analysis can take that away from them. Ever.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ben Shipley
Richard Huw Morris
Richard Huw Morris
9 months ago

Oh Powers of Love, if still you lean

Above a world so black with hate,

Where yet-as it has ever been-

The loving heart is desolate,

Look down upon the lad I love,

(My brave lad, tramping through the mire)-

I cannot light his welcoming fire,

Light Thou the stars for him above!

Now nights are dark and mornings dim,

Let him in his long watching know

That I too count the minutes slow

And light the lamp of love for him.

The sight of death, the sleep forlorn,

The old homesickness vast and dumb-

Amid these things, so bravely borne,

Let my long thoughts about him come.

I see him in the weary file;

So young he is, so dear to me,

With ever ready sympathy

And wistful eyes and cheerful smile.

However far he travels on,

Thought follows, like the willow-wren

That flies the stormy seas again

To lands where her delight has gone.

Whatever he may be or do

While absent far beyond my call,

Bring him, the long day’s march being through,

Safe home to me some evenfall!

Mary Webb.

Toby Webster
Toby Webster
9 months ago

Somehow or other I’ve never seen this before. Thank you.

Richard Huw Morris
Richard Huw Morris
9 months ago
Reply to  Toby Webster

Mary Webb Toby. Shropshire novelist and poet. Author of Precious Bane. The poem was written for her brother who were serving on the Western Front during the First World War. I can’t read it without choking up! 🙂

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
9 months ago

I am not sure that we will soon see the wartime struggle against real fascism forgotten while anyone failing to sign up to DEI, Black Lives Matter, and trans ideology is so readily assigned to party of the holocaust and the drive for lebensraum.

The nostalgia for that fight is constantly evoked by the self proclaimed anti-fascists.

Jane McCarthy
Jane McCarthy
9 months ago

It’s worrying that this (Guardian-flavoured) piece, lacking in insight and depth, has been written by an Unherd commissioning editor. Perhaps this signals the future direction for Unherd – although I really hope not. It has been a refreshing place to come for thoughtful, mature and nuanced perspectives.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
9 months ago

Michael Caine has already forgotten not to salute without wearing a hat. However, as time wears on WW2 may be seen even more as part of the whole overturning that occurred in the first half of the 20th century, not just the collapse of empires but the explosive growth in technology partly driven by military uses. And some of that can be traced back to earlier events. Also, it cannot be forgotten as long as it has consequences for the present, like the fragmentation of the past consensus to unite Europe, which is part rebound and part consequence of the Cold War division and its subsequent (probably inevitable) collapse. At a personal level, many people alive today have been affected by what happened to kin one and two generations back. Historians will doubtless argue for ever about details and interpretations, but there seems more benefit from understanding than forgetting history.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
9 months ago

WWII is a reminder that nations are at their most powerful when united (except for the King’s Nazi brother and the rich who sailed across the Atlantic). This is an unacceptable truth for those who wish to destroy this and every nation by dividing our society.
Britain should be proud of its record in WWII. While the Soviet Union allied itself to the Nazis and many in the US thought of doing the same, Britain was never in doubt that the world needed saving from Nazism.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
9 months ago

Rather than “forget” WW II, I read this article to say that we must learn WW II as history, not as myth (probably, once again, the title was concocted by a sub-editor who did not bother to read the piece).
The need to understand actual history was made obvious just recently, when the Canadian parliament gave a standing ovation to a member of the murderous SS, celebrating the fact that he had been fighting an ally of Canada in WW II.
Maybe if we understand history better, we’ll have fewer spurious references to “Munich”.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago

WWII was perhaps the single greatest conflict in world history, and given the current trends of automation and the threat of nuclear annihilation, quite possible the greatest there ever will be. It was a pivotal moment in world history whose effects are still unquestionably present today, and will linger far into the future. It will not be forgotten anytime soon. Rather, as it fades from living memory, it will take on an even more mythic quality, especially as most of the civilizations that participated fall into decline. It will become a lost golden age to look to with reverence and awe, and a way to draw some vicarious national pride from the past when there is little in the present world worthy of it. Even for those that retain great power status, such as the US and Russia, it will probably remain a part of the culture for a long time to come.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Jolly
David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Perhaps we hang onto the Second World War so strongly because we have so little else to give us a sense of national unity. And if we are losing interest, it is because we are ceasing even to care. I’ve said it before, but for many English people “England” is just the last line of their address (Scotland is a bit different). They feel little sense of identity with the other people they just happen to share this patch of land with.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
9 months ago

Pointless. One can write an essay exactly as dismal as this one on any subject one chooses. Oh, when will we forget the Covid? Oh, when will we forget 9/11? The author doesn’t really say anything about WWII, only about his sense of superior ennui.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ray Andrews
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago

I think you’ll find, Nicholas, that Brosnan is being substituted for Caine, not the other way around.
And Dunkirk is a terrible film.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. Dunkirk is awful. But it is Christopher Nolan, so it must be the work of genius right?!

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago

Agreed. I don’t remember it much, probably because it was so bad, but I do remember that it seemed to miss the point and was boring.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago

My Father’s ship sailed past Dunkirk but because of the value of the cargo they were not allowed to take soldiers from the beach. The cargo, Chromite was more important than soldiers lives. A friend of Dad’s was at Dunkirk, he was a gunnery officer, his ship was bombed and he was blown onto a steel deck, injured and as the ship sank, swum to another. By the time the ship left Dunkirk his gun crew between them had two eyes, ears, arms and legs working, they were cripples but kept firing the gun until the end. Dad said when he listened to Churchill’s Beaches speech , he though ” Not a step back ! ” . Churchill did inspire people to figth. My Father was an officer at eighteen, leading men in battle in control of a gun.
During a documentary on Enigma when it came to breaking the Naval Codes on The Battle of the Atlantic he said ” I was there , we were losing a ship an hour, I could hear the May Day signal on the radio “. He said some of the worst aspects was coming into New York, the lights were on and we were silhouetted against the night sky for five or more hours. The U Boats were waiting.
The World At War – A Matilha – U-boats no AtlĂąntico 1939 – 1944 – YouTube
World War II: Operation Pedestal-Malta (Full Documentary) – YouTube
The Malta Convoys meant continuous attack from German and Italian airforces and navies. My Father served from February 1940 to the end in August 1945, he said it was miracle he survived. Mum said he coped mentally because he became indifferent to death. Dad said one needed to spend sufficient time in combat to develop a cocoon and if one left before it was developed, then one had problems. The worst aspect on convoys was sailing through sailors in the water from sunken ships, killing one’s own colleagues. Dad said ” The Cruel Sea ” was a reasonable film on the Battle of the Atlantic.
Captain Edward Kennedy RN and the crew of HMS Rawalpindi took on two 11 inch pocket battleships to save the convoy and did not stop even when asked to surrender.
HMS Rawalpindi – Wikipedia
Britain and The British Empire can look at WW2 without fear or shame, who else can ?
Courage and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, honesty and lies, competence and incompetence, hubris, nemesis do not change. Crecy inspired those at Poitiers, who inspired those at Agincourt who inspired those who fought the Armada who inspired Marlborough who inspired those under Nelson and Wellington who inspired those in WW1 and WW2 . In Britain’s Armed Forces, deeds of past generations inspire future ones.
Stickin’ It To ‘Em – The Last of the Great Bayonet Charges – MilitaryHistoryNow.com

Stewart Trotter
Stewart Trotter
9 months ago

Britain entered the war to save Poland – with which it had a treaty. But Poland at the time was one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe. Germany had entered into a pact with Russia – and Joseph Kennedy – the American Ambassador to London – thought Britain was committing suicide – which it very nearly did. Chips Channon is excellent on the madness of this action – as is Peter Hitchens. It was never simply a struggle betweeen good and evil as the movies present it. And we got away with it either through luck or Divine Intervention!

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago

It was as close to a battle between good and evil as we’ll ever get in a war. And it was certainly a battle against evil, unless you believe that running around conquering neighbouring countries and exterminating populations for no good reason also has its good points, in which case…..

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
9 months ago

We won’t forget. But there will come those who will never need remember.

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
9 months ago

Why has my comment disappeared? It was courteous, and on the subject.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Roger Sponge

It’s been expunged

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Any idea why? Has cancel culture come to Unherd?!

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Roger Sponge

None. Just playing on words. Sponge, expunged. My comments sometimes seem to go into a kind of limbo then reappear.

Mr Eccles
Mr Eccles
9 months ago

This platform started so well

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 months ago

If you cant learn from the past where can you learn from? Or are young people now endowed with a perfect sense of compassion and they don’t need to learn lessons.
One of the guys I have coached with, his aunt escaped from an old folks home in Creston BC. She jumped off a second story balcony because the Russians were coming for her. Her parents were thrown in jail during the holodomor and when they got out, of ~8 of their 11 children had died of starvation. So escaping when you are 95 seems to be something that you shouldn’t forget. She thumbed a ride to Yahk, where they found her and everyone got, ” I made it to Yahk and back” teeshirts. Still has meaning for me.
To provide some background to WW2 you may not have know you should read Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler. It provides insight into Churchill that I dont think you appreciate.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Someone said the spirit of France was broken at Verdun. My Mother who lived in France from 1947 said the French never fully recovered from the Revolution and execution of the King. What happened was a schism between Catholic Conservativs and Atheistic Marxist/Socialists. There was also the trauma of the defeat in the Franco Prussian War.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

I think they had enough of being a martial country. Unfortunately they were a martial country for a reason.

Jerry Baverstock
Jerry Baverstock
9 months ago

What a horribly patronising, snide and self satisfied article this is. Clearly the writer shows his bias in every sentence and is probably very pleased with his school essay. D-. Needs to do much better.

Last edited 9 months ago by Jerry Baverstock
Stephen Gosling
Stephen Gosling
5 months ago

World War 2 and Britain. No Apologies are required. British Post War Films were respectful and a confirmation of the centrality of the sacrifices made in a moral cause.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

The First World War is almost forgotten which entails we need a Third to forget about the Second. We could have that in the Ukraine and line up North Atlantic troops against the BRICS.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

As the baby boomer son of parents who fought in the war(dad – Navy, mum -Waaf) I always think it odd how we seem to make more of the war as time goes on. I remember in the 50s and 60s far less fuss was made about it. Certainly my mum and dad didn’t go on about it at all. They just wanted to get on with their lives. It was a forward looking society. There were fewer poppies about then than now – if I remember rightly. My knowledge of the war came from Captain Hurricane cartoons. But as time has gone on and the baby boomers have replaced the war generation as the OAPs, I think a lot of us have unconsciously kidded ourselves that somehow we were part of the war generation. But our idea of the war is a kind of absurd cartoon version where we endlessly go on about how special we are. This is partly because we realise that things have gone downhill since the war, and we have a inferiority complex to our parents – who indeed were heroic. But we are not our parents. Because they actually fought they had nothing to prove. We still feel we have. It’s rather sad. It’s was that attitude which, in part at least, led to the nonsense of Brexit.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Butler
nigel roberts
nigel roberts
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Methinks the nonsense is in your prose.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Britain was exceptional, from May 1940 to June 1941 we were the only nation fighting the Nazis. Britain was the first to defeat the Nazis in the air, Battle of Britain and on land, second battle of EL Alamein. Britain proved the Nazi war machine was not invincible. The invasion of Crete in 1941 caused the German invasion of the Balkans and Greece which delyed the invasion of USSR by six weeks. The early early winter of 1941 meant the Nazis did not take Mosow.
Rommel fighting in North Africa until after October 1942 meant the Nazis did not have the resources to take the Caucasus oilfields and the River Volga. If the Nazis could have blocked the Volga it would have meant the USSR starved of food and raw materials. The Nazi war machine relied much on expensive synthetic petrol. The oil supplies of the Caucasus would have solved the Nazis major supply problem.
As soon as the USSR was attacked, Britain supplied them via the Russian Convoys, PQ 17 being the worst hit.
A convoy zigs zags to avoid U -Boats: all ships move in unison. Consequently a ship cannot alter course to avoid sailors in the water so it has to pass through them; either they are drowned or chopped up in the propellers. Britain was prepared to kill her own people to supply the USSR; name another country who has been prepared to make these sacrifices so others might live?
Stalin said ” Britain bought time, the Americans bought materials and the Soviet paid in blood “. Time is a commodity one cannot buy.
If the French had destroyed all their vehicles in 1940 , there would have been far fewer for the Nazis to to use to invade the USSR. If the French Navy and all her colonies had supported the Allies, the period of 1940 to 1942 would have been much easier. It was Vichy pilot who alerted the Nazis that the Malta Convoy – Operation Pedestal was sailing past Gibralter. The attacks by E Boats from Vichy Tunisia on The Operation Pedestal ships resulted in many being sunk. If Malta had surrendered in summer 1942 we would have lost the second battle of El Alamein.The Vichy French allowing Japan to invade French Indo Cina enabled them to pass through Thailand and take Malaya and Singapore very easily. Noor Inayat Khan GC was betrayed to the Gestapo because a French woman was jealous of her beauty. There is no official French history of WW2, why?
If Sweden had not sold iron ore to the Nazis they would have made far fewer munitions and weapons. By 1945 Sweden was very wealthy. The Netherlands had the highest per capita number of volunteers for the SS of any country and the lowest percentage of the Jewish Population survived. Anna Frank and her family were betrayed.
In 1946 , Britain reduced the bread ration to feed Germany.
Britain was exceptional and many do not want to remember as it shows up their lack of resistance to the Nazis.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

It’s about time someone wrote this article. You can’t in one breath claim disassociation with your ancestors’ slavery connections and in the next, credit for their role and in beating the n*zis. Hopefully with the passing of the boomers we may might see the end of Dad’s Army on permanent loop and the (frankly) ridiculous notion of English exceptionalism. It’s holding us back.

Terry M
Terry M
9 months ago

English exceptionalism, like our American version, provides universal heroic ideals against which to measure ourselves. We need to be reminded of these ideals – now more than ever, given the MSM’s obsession with race, gender, and class.

Last edited 9 months ago by Terry M
Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

Yes – but this is not the same as kidding ourselves that we’re special just because our parents were. Heroism is not genetic.
We would behave with modesty if we really were trying to live up to heroic ideals – not the flag-waving buffons we’ve become. (Boris Johnson is the perfect example) So, so sad.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

not the flag-waving buffons we’ve become.

I’m wondering where you live. I don’t see any of this. Most of the flag wavers have died of old age. Indeed, if you put the flag up in your garden you’d be suspected of racism.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I see it in The Tory party. A party that think its fine to incorporate our national flag in their emblem, as if Tories are especially patriotic! (Having destroyed the country in the last 13 years) An utter disgrace. I have always loved this country because it just didn’t do the crude flag waving patriotism of the US. My mum and dad both fought in the war. Wonderful patriotic people but they wouldn’t have been seen dead waving flags – it’s just not done. (Just like Brits don’t go on about their religious beliefs in a loud mouthed way – as they do in the US) But we seem more and more to ape the US. Glad my mum and dad aren’t alive to see the state this country has come to.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
9 months ago

Why should you care about a cataclysm, when the cataclysm wasn’t all about you?

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

I’ve upvoted you for making a good point, though the English as a whole were not involved in the slave trade, nor did they really profit from it. Many at the time lived lives of real (if free) misery.

Also we did play a key role in suppressing the slave trade.

Still, point well made, in spite of all the down votes.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago

The constant fetishisation of the Second World War generation increasingly grates, as the more distant it becomes the more determined some people on the right wing of politics are to elevate both World Wars into a badge of identity. The way they bang on about spitfires or poppies is a sort of shorthand for not just what they are in favour of, (Brexit and everything remaining just as it was in 1965) but also what they are against (Europe, multi-national institutions, immigration).
It’s not a good look.

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I am European.
I am not against Europe.
I am against journey EU (Fourth Reich) was taking us on.
Wanting country future decided by elected politicians and not by Brussels Commission is perfectly reasonable viewpoint.
It has nothing to do with “everything remaining as it was in 1965”.

Richard Huw Morris
Richard Huw Morris
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The poem by Mary Webb in my post above… would you describe the meaning and my feelings for the poem ‘right wing’?

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Indeed, the nerve of “banging on” about poppies.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago

Uh oh! Thoughtful analysis – this is not going to go over well with the Captain Mannerings and Corporal Jones’ who typically comment at Unherd!
Can’t wait to see the spluttering outrage from Little England!

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
9 months ago

My second wife was German. She thought we were obsessed with the war in this country.
For similar reasons to my rejection of the concept of reparations, she was opposed to being held accountable for the past. I didn’t colonise anybody, and she didn’t fight in a war against us. I am not responsible for any resulting ‘privilege’ I may enjoy, and she was not responsible for the economic and political superiority that the Marshall Plan gifted Germany.

harry storm
harry storm
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

and who says she was?

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
9 months ago
Reply to  harry storm

She was. I witnessed it. I had comments directed at me too.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

‘We’ received the largest single tranche of Marshall Aid and squandered it on the Welfare State amongst other things.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
9 months ago

It’s a bit messier than that, though. We had to pay far more in wartime loans from the US than we got in the Marshall Plan (only finishing in the 2000s). Germany had a lot of its assets seized, but it was all settled in the 80s.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

We also had the very generous Stafford-Cripps loan, plus Herbert Hoover had suspended our debt repayments for the enormous debts incurred from 1914-18.*

(Which have yet to be paid off!)

Rob N
Rob N
9 months ago

Which debts are still outstanding? Thought the War Bonds were fully cleared and none now left.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
9 months ago

When a bond matures it is paid off, unless it has been defaulted on. The fact that there is new debt, or that the currency is worth less than it was when the bond was issued, does not affect the fact that the bond was paid off.

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
9 months ago

Excellent points.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
9 months ago

Prof S Ambrose is worth listening to. We paid far more than we received and we gave the USA all our top secrets in the Tizard Mission and helped to complete the Atom Bomb. Tizard Mission included all information on nuclear fission, jet engine , latest radar and cracking Enigma . The USA allowed us to bankrupt ourselves by 1942. The USA forced us to sell all overseas assets which included owning the American toolmaking industry and about 20% of the Stock Exchange
At end of WW2 our scientist were not allowed to take their note books home so had to design our A and H bombs from memory.
World at War Last Episode with Stephen Ambrose – YouTube

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

… plus Roosevelt had Britain turn over plum colonial assets such as Cable & Wireless’ Caribbean business to American interests

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Loans taken out during the war were interest free. Loans after the war were two percent and the repayment schedule was at the convenience of the borrower.

Try going to Barclays and asking for those terms.

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Your comment about Marshall Plan is incorrect.
Britain received much more than Germany.
But Britain spend money on social policies of Attlee government and on maintaining military presence around the globe.
Germany spent it on rebuilding their economy.
Britain did what electorate, overwhelmingly, voted for.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

We’ve just been through this in Charles’ reply.
I’m not sure how many Brits voted for our subsequent military adventures, though. In my lifetime, the public has been pretty keen on reducing military spending and not getting involved in the affairs of others on the coattails of the US.

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

It’s true your wife wasn’t responsible for Germany’s past. But the unchosen burden for post WW2 Germans is that their country broke its borders three times in 70 years. They are victims of their country’s past.
All countries have made war. They’ve stolen land, burnt homes, churches and universities, raped, tortured, enslaved and pillaged.
But WW2 Germany went further. On a calculated, deliberate, industrial scale, they enslaved, tortured, murdered countless millions for no other reason than they existed.
Reunited Germany is barely 30 years old. It’s born of two utterly vile regimes, one which only toppled in 1989.
It’s not that people haven’t forgiven Germany. Rather it’s amazing they have forgiven so much.

Last edited 9 months ago by Roger Sponge
Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
9 months ago
Reply to  Roger Sponge

The BRD (West Germany) was not a continuation of the Nazi regime. But you knew that.