Has Britain Learned the Wrong Lessons from World War 2?

British soldier on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
British soldier on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
British soldiers on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day (public domain)

Britain was forever changed by the Second World War, though not as much as some countries like the defeated, annihilated Germany and Japan, nor the new superpowers that emerged from World War 2; a devastated Russia with its millions upon millions of dead or the United States which became an economic powerhouse and turned the 20th century into an American one.

Perhaps uniquely though Britain is still significantly culturally and politically influenced by WW2. Seventy-five years after its end, Britain’s victory in WW2 is cited frequently in the press on a range of different subjects and many Britons, born decades after WW2 ended, have a worldview based on a particular interpretation of WW2 and feel a personal connection to it.

The view of Britain’s role in WW2 has changed over time and along with it an outlook on Britain and the world today as a consequence of that changed understanding. This involves various elements. The reality of an international alliance defeating tyranny and fascism has been replaced with a belief that Britain alone was largely responsible for defeating Germany, with the help of some unique British trait that ensured victory.

The idea of what British society was like during WW2 has changed over time as well. A national effort that involved all elements of a people with divergent views as well as differing political and economic interests, has been replaced with an increasingly mythical view of Britain.

The creation in Britain of a more progressive society after WW2 has been airbrushed from history. To some extent the defeat of fascism as a political ideology has been downplayed in favour of a nationalistic contest. WW2 and Britain’s role in it is now political fodder in the pursuit of a partisan, reactionary agenda.

I want to be careful here. Some time ago I observed a twitter argument between those who thought Russia had made the greater sacrifice or contribution to winning WW2 and those who thought Britain had. It was ludicrousness to see keyboard warriors evaluating the exact worth of the lost lives of actual warriors and civilians 75 years on.

Nothing here is about the actual WW2 generation, the ‘Greatest Generation’, that lived and died during WW2 but rather about those that came after, and how their views have become increasingly distorted from reality.

A media along with a now-influential strand of political thought, originally on the fringes of the political Right but now mainstream in the Conservative Party, has not only influenced mass opinion, but it has also then reinforced that mass opinion with an increasingly powerful political and societal outlook based on it.

Part of the appeal of Brexit for some was that if Britain had won WW2 on its own, it didn’t need to be part of the European Union. The tragedy is that the EU (originally the European Economic Community) was created as a result of WW2, to help rebuild a shattered continent and work to ensure there would never be war again in Europe.

In what Churchill called the ‘Darkest Hour’, Britain, and its Empire including Africans, Australians, Canadians, Indians, and many others, fought alone for a year. It was a remarkable time, and it was courageous to stand alone against Hitler. But many of the greatest admirers of the British Empire in Britain seem to reduce the role of that Empire’s role in fighting during WW2. Soldiers came from every part of the Empire, including Africa and 2.5 million Muslim and Hindu soldiers from the British Raj (modern-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh). Hong Kong and Singapore suffered under occupation by Japan. The view that has emerged of WW2 has become increasingly insular and, frankly, more white.

Victory over fascism was a truly international effort, perhaps the greatest example of it in history. Britain was indispensable to victory over the Nazis, but so too was Russia and the United States. Many other countries sacrificed greatly as well, including enduring the horrors of occupation.

In particular, the enormous contribution of Russia and the Red Army has been sidelined. Ernest Hemmingway said of the Red Army, “Anyone who loves freedom owes such a debt to the Red Army that it can never be repaid.” The number of dead is staggering, up to 27 million Russians died in WW2. On the other side of the world, up to 20 million Chinese died.

Some hold the view that Britain’s victory was inevitable, as a result of some form of British exceptionalism, a superior national trait, and a trait that was passed on to their descendants. A thankfulness and pride of what a previous generation did in WW2 has become something else; a claim on that glory, as though the grand-children, even great-grandchildren, somehow took part in the fighting and sacrifice.

VE Day celebration
VE Day celebration
Celebrations on VE Day on the Strand (public domain)

Britain’s victory was not inevitable, it took ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Along with the lives of soldiers and civilians, it took tremendous ingenuity and bravery. An entire society was transformed into a war economy complete with rationing and the draft. WW2 virtually bankrupted the country and held the economy back for decades. All a price worth paying of course, but what a high price. Today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic right-wing columnists opine that staying at home is too high a price to pay to protect them and their fellow citizens.

Now when Britain faces a problem, many expect victory to be ours as of right. If anything this ignores the actions of those who fought in WW2 both at home and abroad. They didn’t just wait for victory to arrive, it was a tremendous national effort with many giving all that they had for it.

The reaction of some in Britain to COVID-19 is that our victory is already ensured. We will simply win because that’s what we do. Every sinew of national energy was used in WW2. It’s a dishonour to those that came before us to cheapen their sacrifice.

Luck too played a part. No one can not look at the Dunkirk miracle and not be unsettled at how close the world came to darkness. The lesson of this, and of the failure of appeasement, should be that we should never, ever come so close to defeat that we need to rely on luck for victory. We cannot take democracy for granted. Imminent disaster must always be anticipated and the greatest of efforts be taken to prevent it.

A myth has emerged of what Britain was like during WW2. During the coronavirus crisis, some said that Boris Johnson and the government shouldn’t be challenged or criticised; ‘Where would we have been in WW2 if we had done that?’ was asked. People did challenge the government in WW2 — Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had to resign as France was falling, paving the way for Churchill to take over. People challenged Churchill too — that’s what happens in a democracy. Britain was not some chorus of one, united in how the war should be fought.

There’s a view that in WW2 everyone knew their place and doffed their caps to their political superiors. However, Britain was not united on many things including what should come after victory. The working class including millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen, demanded a permanent break to the desperate poverty of the 1930s and before. A Labour government was elected in a landslide victory in 1945 that not only brought about the NHS but also transformed education and created a welfare state. A great swath of industry was taken into public ownership for the public good. This consensus lasted for 35 years until the neoliberalism of the 1980s.

Nor was it just a victory of country. While Germany and Japan were defeated, it was fascism that was eradicated. Modern western democracy, with its many faults, triumphed (though many peoples around the world were and still are denied that democracy by the United States and others). For 50 years, the resurgence of fascism was unthinkable. It no longer is today.

We saw where fascism led to; the worst atrocities in human history. ‘Never again’ was what people said and still say today. Someone said we will know if we learnt from WW2 after the WW2 generation are no more. We are starting to find out.

Our national view of World War 2 of solemn remembrance of those that fought in it, has become more a celebration, a kind of bizarre historical reenactment involving such things as people dressed as spitfires or covering the most random objects in poppies. An increasingly distorted view of Britain’s role in WW2 and its legacy has become propaganda for reactionary, conservative policies. Perhaps the political left is to blame for not talking about WW2 or at least challenging their opponents increasingly shameful appropriation of it.

We should not only be thankful to the WW2 generation, but we should also see their example as inspiration for the future, for creating the kind of world that we want to live in. If they could overcome the challenges that they faced and sacrificed so much, what excuse do we have for sacrificing so little or not even trying? The greatest generation made the world better for those that came after. No future generation will say that of ours.

Psychology, politics, history, and moments of realisation and despair. There are attempts at humour.

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