‘Two World Wars and one World Cup.’ That’s what English soccer fans used to chant – still do, perhaps – from the terraces when we played Germany. Yes, it’s pathetic; as is the part that the Second World War continues to play in our national self-image, judging by the books, films, and TV dramas and documentaries (watch the Yesterday or History channels any day) we’re still reading and seeing more than seventy years after the conflict came to an end. It also highlights how little ‘we’ have ‘won’ since that date. ‘Pathetic’ seems about the right word.
And yet… Isn’t it just a little comforting that it’s Britain’s part in the Second World War we generally celebrate, rather than the First, or any of our imperial victories? Imperial campaigns are embarrassing now. They are seen as wars of aggression. As is, in part, the First World War: which is currently being commemorated during this centenary period (2014-18) mainly in terms of its perceived pointlessness, and the suffering it entailed. There’s no ‘jingoism’ there.
World War II, however, was different. It was clearly a defensive war: in defence first of all of Poland, long before Britain herself was directly threatened; and then of ‘civilization’, no less, against the Nazi menace. Britain was feared to be next on Hitler’s list after Poland and France, but there was no absolute certainty of that. The Empire was in little danger: Hitler had promised that Britain could keep that so long as he was left alone to rule continental Europe. That is, if you could trust him; a big ‘if’, granted, but a slight opening for the significant number of British Right-wingers who would have preferred to continue appeasing him. Never mind Britain’s diplomatic mistakes before the war, and some of her actions during it (like Dresden); on the whole World War II was a ‘good’ war from Britain’s point of view. It also involved huge sacrifices: of human lives, treasure, and ultimately – as the appeasers saw clearly, but Churchill couldn’t – her Empire.
It was also a democratic war. It was the British democracy, represented mainly by the Labour Party, that ousted the appeasing Chamberlain and replaced him with Churchill. It was the ordinary people who withstood the saturation bombing by the Luftwaffe of London, Coventry, Hull and other cities in 1940-41 with what has always been celebrated in retrospect – and probably exaggerated – as uncommon fortitude, bravery and good humour. (I wrote an LRB piece on this a few years ago: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/bernard-porter/were-not-jittery). And it was the ‘little people’, some in their ‘little boats’, who rescued almost the entire British Army from the beaches of Dunkerque in May-June 1940, in order to enable them to re-arm and resume the fight against the Nazi menace.
If the ‘Dunkirk’ retreat hadn’t been successful, together with the ‘Battle of Britain’ for the skies (1940), the whole war might have been lost: America not trusted Britain enough to intervene on her side, and neutral countries like Sweden – whose ‘neutrality’ was dodgy in any case – gone over to the Germans. I hope my Swedish friends, with whom I’ll be seeing the film of Dunkirk this evening, will, despite their proud pacifism, and their mocking of us poor pathetic Brits for our Second World War nostalgia, realise that Dunkirk was instrumental in saving them from Fascism, as well as us.
(By the way: I’ve just realised I must have been conceived during the Dunkirk evacuation – born 5 February 1941. I don’t imagine the film will have room for that. But it may give me a special feeling for it.)