We are living in tumultuous times, patiently enduring the greatest global crisis most of us will ever live through. We’ve had fear, depression and apathy but I never thought I’d see almost 2,000 die of a new virus in a single day in the UK, with barely an eyebrow raised. We clapped for the brave nurses and doctors; hundreds of whom have been taken by the very virus they fought. Then, on 20th September last year, came a Spitfire tribute. A World War II fighter plane, associated primarily with the Battle of Britain flew around the UK with ‘Thank U NHS” painted on its underside. The Belfast Telegraph deemed it ‘a fitting tribute’ to NHS staff. I could not help myself asking, ‘Is it?’
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy watching a Spitfire as much as any man of my age and generation but how is a weapon of war a fitting tribute to a caring profession and people who have died of an infectious disease? The answer is obvious, the Second World War has become the reference point for every crisis the UK had gone through since 1945. During the pandemic, the Blitz and Dunkirk ‘spirits’ have been frequently invoked with the implicit message being, maintain the same cheery defiance as people did then and everything will be alright.
The clichés, and they are clichés, demonstrate what a hold the Second World War has on the British imagination. And it is not just Covid, the whole wearisome and exhausting debate over Brexit brought out endless false parallels with the war. The EU was compared with the Third Reich, with Britain once again painted as the valiant underdog fighting continental tyranny. The Daily Mail, ironically once an avid fan of Hitler, even went so far to refer to the 75th anniversary of VE Day last year as ‘Victory over Europe Day’ (my emphasis), once again implicitly comparing the EU with Nazi Germany. Why does no other country obsess about a war that ended seventy-five years ago so much?
For comparison, the war is commemorated chiefly by its three major victors, the United States, Russia (the largest component of the Soviet Union), and the United Kingdom. The US has been busy trying to run the world since 1945 and being a hyperpower is more than enough to occupy American minds without continually recalling Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge. The Russians can be justifiably proud of the USSR’s staggering 24 million dead, but despite the annual victory parade in Red Square, it is doubtful if the war defines the national psyche as it does in England. Leaving Russia and a handful of neutrals aside, the UK was the only country in Europe not to experience invasion and defeat and that made its war experience very different from continental Europe’s.
The UK mainly regards the war as a struggle against Nazi Germany but for three years out of the six it lasted, the main military effort was against Italy and Britain’s biggest defeat was inflicted by Japan. Finland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria all fought for various reasons on the German side although changed allegiances as the tide turned in the Allies favour. Elements of modern Ukraine, Lithuania and Croatia were also actively pro-German. Regardless of side, almost every country in Europe endured invasion and defeat and after that, occupation, starvation, ethnic cleansing, collaboration and in some cases, civil war. These are not things people care to dwell on. In much of Europe, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.
Britain’s war was broad enough and threatening enough to give its population a shared experience of hardship and danger but not bad enough for the country as a whole to be traumatised. Everyone experienced rationing and blackouts, every major urban centre was bombed but in comparison to the First World War and many continental neighbours, Britain got off lightly. To support my point, at the time of writing, Coronavirus has now killed 126,000 people in the UK in just over a year, a figure almost twice as large as the 67,000 British civilians killed in the war.
The undoubted wickedness of the main adversaries and a year (June 1940 to June 1941) where Britain’s struggle could be rightly seen as a David versus Goliath mismatch, has created an enduring and attractive narrative. When Churchill described the summer of 1940 as Britain’s ‘finest hour’ he was right, it was, the country’s very existence was under threat and it passed the test. Nothing has come close since. The post-war years have been ones of almost continuous decline where Britain has shed almost all of its empire and struggled to define its place in the world. With no recognised national mission to replace it, the legend of the war, part fact, part fiction, has now formed much of the British national identity.
Great Britain, as opposed to England, only came into being as state with the first act of Union in 1707 and from then until 1940 the British story was the creation of the world’s greatest empire. The wealth of the country was based upon trade which in turn, depended upon slavery and exploitation of other lands. To its credit, once Britain abandoned slavery in its colonies, whereupon, with the zeal of the convert, it laboured to expunge it elsewhere. Like all modern empires, the British Empire was based on notions of racial superiority and ultimately maintained by force. Can anyone truly be proud of Lord Palmerstone’s gunships bombarding Chinese cities to force the sale of opium? An exercise it prevailed upon not once but twice.
Britain has two major historical narratives, the empire and the world wars. No country looks upon itself badly and Germany must be given credit for the frank and painful confession of its past. Britain on the other hand has largely turned a blind eye to its imperial history; little of it is taught in schools which is strange as the empire was the national mission for most of the UK’s existence. Given a choice between the dubious history of Empire where Britain is the villain in other people’s stories, and its role in defeating one of the evilest regimes the world has ever known, the British public has, not surprisingly, chosen the latter.
- https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/viewpoint/spitfire-a-fitting-tribute-to-those-brave-nhs-staff-39538097.html ↑
- https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/victory-over-europe-how-ve-day-has-been-subverted-false-patriots-joyce-mcmillan-2846683 ↑
- https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war ↑
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties#Total_deaths_by_country ↑
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam