Sunday 31 August 2008

Don’t Mention the War (Still)

Its summer and the British and the Germans are at war. The big guns are their respective tabloid newspapers. The opening salvos are puns on Huns in the Sun newspaper answered by pokes at British bums in the German paper Bild. The message is clear – the two nations are still at war, though today the battle ground is claiming the prime deck chair positions by the hotel pool.

It’s true; Basil Fawlty is alive and well and still unsuccessfully trying not to mentioning the war. It is truly astounding how often the subject of the second world war comes up in England, in the media, in conversation, or with physical reminders in the landscape, it could have been just a few years ago instead of over 50. As a recent immigrant it is impressed upon me how the trauma of the war is still keenly felt today.

In November every single presenter on British TV, and I do mean every single one, has a plastic poppy pinned to their lapel, it seems to be a rule that if you are on TV in a factual position (like a news presenter, or a politician, as opposed to a character in a drama who are allowed occasionally to get away with a naked lapel) then you must wear one or you will not be allowed on screen until December 1st.

With the war in Iraq there is renewed public respect for soldiers and the charity that supports them, but for most people wearing The Poppy means they are not forgetting long dead soldiers from long past wars. On the first of November people stick on their plastic poppy with a pride that borders on mania and those who do not sport one at all times feel ashamed and scuttle past the Poppy police at the entrance to the supermarket shaking their charity coin collectors menacingly at them.

It is curious to witness this behaviour – it is every every English person’s duty to wear The Poppy. Just as it is every Christian’s penance to carry the cross (perhaps embossed with diamonds on a chain around the neck). Both symbols say: We will remember Him/Them. Both are powerful symbols indeed.

In Manchester the IRA bomb that obliterated the central shopping district in the late 1990s should, you would think, warrant frequent mention, but it doesn’t. It transformed the city centre, and it could be argued did the city a lot of good as it is now a gleaming Mecca for shoppers who appreciate the large scale open spaces, connected walkways and shiny new buildings. This bomb was preceded by a warning and no loss of life resulted, so would seem that the impact of the bomb was economic rather than tragic in the long term. It could also be argued that it was a local event, Birmingham has its own IRA bomb, for example, not to mention those in Northern Ireland, so it had only a local impact, but the impact is not felt much today at all, it is not mentioned in conversation and there are no annual days of rememberance.

The London bombings of July 2005 although more recent has also had a diminished impact; the loss of life was devastating, and although the bombs specifically targeted the capital the whole country felt the shock keenly, but the feelings stirred by these acts of terrorism are very different to the collective reaction to World War 2. It is probably too early to judge the long term unsettling effects of the London bombs; it is far too raw and with the war in Iraq still going on, it is still an open sore. But despite how these bombs were only recent, and despite how they were on British soil, the bombs have not impacted on the British consciousness the way the world wars half a century ago have done.

Perhaps time is the key. Everyone has had time to think about World War 2, they have thought and thought and thought about it. The diggers of the Great War have all passed away, but many veterans of the Second War are still alive, some still remembering the effects of the first war as well as the second and able to tell their grandchildren about it and record their memoirs in the different forms of media. There are ample opportunities to investigate one aspect or another, including all the bits that were forgotten the first time around, the people who contributed in quieter days or the secrets that were only just allowed to come out after a 50 year ban. The second world war is at an almost ‘golden’ age in its assessment and importance to people’s everyday lives here, in a way I don’t think it is in Australia or America.

Germany, however, and Japan too are still very much thinking about the consequences of the war and dealing with it in their different ways. Japan has the old guard of revisionists and nationalists deeply influencing conservative politics, particularly with symbolic visits to the Yasakuni shrine. Japan is also still contending with the deep, deep wound of the atomic bomb, when so much of the world sees nuclear power as benign and nuclear weapons as something vaguely associated with the shrouded countries of Iran or North Korea. (Now that Russia and China have become economic powerhouses and now that the price of oil has gone through the roof the baby boomer anti-nuclear hippies of the world are like the rest of us more interested in energy and wealth than ideology.)

In Germany the topic of the war is carefully avoided with strangers. The emotions, memory and guilt are so complicated that casual reference is frowned upon; it is too difficult a subject to chat about with foreigners. The importance of the war and its impact is felt there physically, dramatically in the reconstruction of their cities out of rubble.

As ‘losers’, Japan and Germany the war led to long term introspection (though, curiously Italy is not really mentioned so much in English media, the axis is more of an axel when it comes to the popular imagination).

But England seems to have a similar obsession with the war even though they were ‘winners’. Britain seems to be hung up on it like Japan and Germany and in a different way to the other Allies. (Perhaps it has as big an impact in France where they had to deal with the fall out from occupation as well with the sorting of the reviled collaborators from the pride of the Resistance. Or perhaps they moved on and had a good meal and a bottle of wine. Not knowing French, I couldn’t judge.)

I know that here in Britain the war is mentioned often, sometimes casually, tauntingly to Germans and Italians in football games, on TV by comedians, or mumbled under breaths by the hotel pool. Other times it is considered in depth in countless books in countless ways. Sometimes the British are proud of their victory, sometimes they are deeply conflicted by it. There is a complication to the feelings it arouses that it doesn’t seem to have in the hearts and minds of America. America is tortured by Vietnam, not by World War 2.

Last year I read a biography of the Mitford Girls. I had never heard of them before I picked it up, but now I hear them mentioned all over the place, particularly one of the Mitford Girls – Unity – who was bizarrely enamoured with Hitler and recently rumoured to have carried his love child. This was aired on TV as a scandal, because imagine – Hitler’s child could be living here amongst us! The child would be middle-aged by now, but to the English the thought is delicious. Just imagine – Hitler’s child! It has the impact a holy visitation would have in the religious deep south of America (and yes, I know the analogy is sacrilegious). Hitler is a figure of fascination; he is almost mythic to the British, but not of course in a good way.

The English remember the rationing of the post-war period to this day, they feel some annoyance that the Americans lived such lives of abundance post war while they had bananas rationed for a decade. I was at a tennis club quiz the other week and one of the questions asked what was rationed until 1953 (I think that was it – I will surely be corrected if it is wrong!) and the answer was sweets – although most people at the quiz smacked their foreheads because they wrote bananas instead. The point being that rationing is a concept even the children at the quiz knew about.

Indeed, my boyfriend’s niece was in the school play entitled ‘Will Santa be shot down?’ I asked if it was a comedy, and she shook her head, ‘No!’ she said, ‘It is about World War Two and a little boy who was frightened Santa would be shot down by German airplane fire’. Which I thought was pretty heavy for a child’s Christmas play in 2007.

Every child born in a new century here knows about the bombing campaign of the World War 2 German fighters (just as presumably every German child knows about the Allies bombing their towns). Indeed the effects of the air raids can be seen even in my street today. The house we live in is not in keeping with its neighbours, it was built in the 1950s in contrast to the Edwardian semis opposite because a fat bomb landed right here sometime during the war. It is this palpable physical evidence that drives home the impact of the unforgotten war; it is was so much more immediate here than the experience of Australians or Americans (and I don’t think the Pearl Harbour or Darwin bombings really come close despite the American movie of the former).

World War Two meant an end of an era to the British – the end of Empire, the end of being the biggest of the major players on the world stage, it meant misery for many, suffering, it meant pride in overcoming the odds, and it was Britain’s finest hour - which does have a final ring about it.

Perhaps in a few years these sentiments will have changed irrevocably for Britain. The change was in the air with the 50 year anniversary of the war’s end, and the new millennium with new obsessions with new computers and terrorists to worry about. But more likely it won’t. The War is still with us and will be for a while longer yet.

My boyfriend, would happily argue for hours that it was WW1 that was the key war, not the second, saying it was the one that ended Empire, the one that saw the end of innocence when so many were slaughtered in the trenches, the one that set the agenda for both modern Europe and modern America. He also says that the origins of the war is complex and fascinating and that the second war that followed on its heels is just boring by comparison with its easy reduction to Us versus the nasty Nazis.

I would argue that it is this good versus evil comparison which makes the war so fresh in people’s minds, Hitler as the Devil on Earth is comprehensible in a way that the messy Vietnam War or the where-exactly-is-it Falklands War for the modern sensibility, not to mention the current Afganistan/Iraq debacle. For America WW2 was a defining moment when it became the leader of the western world, so Indiana Jones fights Nazis in the 1980s and a whole new generation of kids can cheer for the good guys in the movies they way they couldn’t in the scarier Vietnam films of the 70s. Those kids have grown up and have kids of their own who are all carefully learning about the world wars of half a century ago in history classes in school.

It is understandable why the Americans would want to Save Private Ryan again and again, but what about the British, didn’t the aftermath of the war when the baton passed to America mean that they had dropped their own? Post war it was pretty miserable here, so why does everyone want to remember it all the time? Was it in fact the last great hurrah of Empire? Or is there something in the British psyche which revels in the desperation, privation, exhaustion and broken pieces of the post war era? Britain hugely enjoyed the swinging sixties, but it was the 40s that people here remember with pride and nostalgia. The trauma has not healed, every November the Poppies are pinned to lapels and the wound ripped open again.


At 31 August 2008 at 07:31 , Blogger Unknown said...



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