The Darkest Hour

I’m sure the German Ambassador in London is right to upbraid us Brits, yet again, for our World War II obsessions. Peter Ammon sees this as one of the factors lying behind Brexit, reminding our nationalists of another period when Britain bravely ‘stood alone’ in the face of German domination. (See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/29/german-ambassador-peter-ammon-second-world-war-image-of-britain-has-fed-euroscepticism.) Of course this is wrong in all kinds of ways; not least in neglecting to take account of the Germans’ huge national change of heart since 1945, reflected in numerous official apologies and memorials to the Nazis’ victims, and in Germany’s present-day liberalism, which in many respects has overtaken ours. (Liberalism and toleration used to be two of the prime factors which distinguished us from them. No longer.) I’m sickened too by the persistence of old ‘Boche’ stereotypes in Britain today, as I was a few years ago – before Germany started winning World Cups herself – by the ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ chant that was heard around Wembley Stadium when the teams played together. It’s pathetic; and if it has fuelled the Ukippers, dangerous too.

On the other hand, the Second World War was a crucial event in Britain’s history, as well as in Germany’s of course, and in a lot of other countries’ – even Sweden’s, though she managed to duck out of it. (I’m sorry, but I do get fed up with Swedish friends’ proclaiming their nation’s avoidance of war for 200 years as a virtue.) For those of us who remember it, or its aftermath, it is bound to have left a permanent mark which it’s difficult to shake off emotionally, even if we can reason ourselves free of it. I was four years old when it ended. I remember being carried into air-raid shelters when the German bombers came over – headed for Hornchurch aerodrome, one of the Battle of Britain airfields – and being reassured by my mother: ‘don’t worry, dear, it’s only thunder’. I also think I remember seeing a German parachutist silhouetted against the moon as he leapt from his burning plane; very vividly, this, though I obviously couldn’t have seen it, because although it happened, I was being born at that very moment. (And feet-first. I was a ‘breach’ birth. Eyes came out last.) I was very conscious as a boy of the stark ruination all around me – ‘bomb-sites’ – especially as we travelled into London, and which remained for years afterwards; and of the privation and rationing that lasted for longer. (No sweets.) I was brought up with the image of Churchill as our saviour, though he disclaimed the title himself: ‘the British people were the lion. I only gave him his roar’; and of good brave King George VI, refusing to flee abroad, but instead staying in London while the bombs fell, and – as it happened – the spitting image of my father, whom I loved. The King’s stammer helped: I had a bad one too. I was exhilarated by the knowledge that this was a ‘good’, ‘defensive’ war that ‘we’ had won, and against something unutterably evil: the more so when those pictures of the liberated death camps appeared. So I’m afraid I can’t erase the War from my memory. Or my admiration for Churchill, despite his enormous failings before 1940 (Tonypandy, India), and his sanctioning Britain’s own terrifying (indeed, strictly speaking terrorist) Blitzkrieg at the end of the War, when it was probably unnecessary. Yes, he was an imperialist, a racist, and probably loved war too much for comfort – too much for his own comfort, as it happens; but he was right about Hitler, a generous personality, and his ‘roar’ was essential to the morale of the nation he led; after, of course, it – the nation – had put him into power.

One of the strengths of Darkest Hour, which we saw last night, was that it made this plain. Though it is the Conservative Party that seems to have taken most of the credit afterwards for winning the War, simply because Churchill was a Tory, the film was right to emphasize the fact that he wouldn’t have been put in that position if it hadn’t been for the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which insisted he replace Chamberlain when most of the Tory bigwigs – like Halifax, the most likely alternative – were still hankering for a compromise settlement with Hitler. (Some of them quite liked him.) The War cabinet was a genuine coalition, containing Labour and Liberal politicians as well as Tories. And it was supported by the ‘people’. The film’s way of making this point, by staging a conversation between Churchill and ‘ordinary’ folk on an Underground train, has been much criticised on the grounds that it didn’t actually happen; but in essence it was accurate: Churchill had other and more reliable means of testing the morale of the country, recently documented in Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang’s Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour May-September (see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/bernard-porter/were-not-jittery). Of course this is all a bit much for some to accept, especially cynics and the upper classes; and books have been written to try to show that not all the proles were as loyal and principled as this (the most balanced is the one reviewed here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n10/bernard-porter/iniquity-in-romford). But in general it’s fair, I think, to describe World War II as a People’s war, much more so than World War I (or than the Iraq War, for that matter, or any of Britain’s imperial wars – perhaps the Falklands episode comes closest): a point re-emphasised by the shots in the film – and of course in the other recent WW2 film Dunkirk – of all those ‘little boats’ sailing out from Kent and Sussex to rescue the entrapped British and Allied armies on the French coast.

So I confess I emoted during Darkest Hour. But not in the way some Brexiteers do, if the German Ambassador is right. The moral I draw from the 1940s is not that we’re best ‘on our own’ – we didn’t after all ‘win’ the war on our own – but that anyone – any nation – can become as bad as Germany became then. We may be seeing that now, even among the victors of 1945.

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