Thursday, September 3, 2009

WWII and nationalism

The anniversary of the start of the Second World War has been fairly extensively covered in the media and in the Brussels blogosphere. You can see some examples here, here, and here.

As I get older and wiser, I am increasingly struck by the way states use history, and the history of war in particular. To put my remarks into context, I'll start with what seem to me to be factual observations about WWII. Some can be applied to war in general:

1. War was/is declared by governments and not by popular votes.
2. Most countries involved in the Second World War experienced a degree of internal societal division about it, ranging from which side to fight on, to what form of political organisation to create to cope with the new reality.
3. Individual men and women have radically different personal circumstances and make personal choices for accordingly radically different reasons.

In this context, it is striking to see how many nationalists from the victorious countries (UK, Russia, and USA in particular) are seeking to use the anniversary to promote an image of their countries that distorts reality. Equally, commentators from "victim" countries such as Poland or France, seem to be promoting interpretations that emphasise the injustice of what was done to them and the sufferings that their people endured. Commentators from "losing" countries, such as Germany, it seems to me, have a health and objective approach to the role of the state in the war and the sufferings endured by "victim" countries ("we feel bad about it"), but are rarely seen to discuss the sufferings of their own people. While it is good form for a Pole to bemoan the sufferings of his people at the hands of the Nazis, it is not such good form for a German to bemoan the sufferings of his people at the hands of the RAF or the Red Army. Note that I am talikng here about civilian populations.

The result is more than a passing atmosphere of triumphalism in the victor countries every 5 or 10 years, a passing atmosphere of the culture of victimhood among occupied or persecuted populations, and a passing atmosphere of humble introspection among the Germans and Japanese in particular. It is in fact a fundamental divide in how war is viewed in our countries.

In France, they tend to talk about the suffering experienced, but gloss over the political leadership that founded Vichy France and the crimes of the collaborators. In Poland, they talk about the terrible destruction of the country and mind-boggling loss of life, but try not to discuss the fact that millions of Poles fought for the Soviets and for the Germans as well as for the Allies.

As someone with a background primarily rooted in the victor countries, I can remember being taught and believing that "thousands and thousands of our countrymen died so that we could have a free country", or "died for democracy", or "sacrificed their lives for us" or "died on the battlefields in defence of our allies", etc. Every Memorial Day in the U.S. and Day in the UK full of speeches about national heroes. They glorify "our brave soldiers", and by implication, "our great nation". No one asks why individual men actually fought. Many many thousands undoubtedly fought for money. Many fought because they wanted a good fight. Many fought because their mates were fighting. Many fought because they were afraid of the Germans or the Japanese. Many fought for the British Empire. Many fought against their will. Many fought because they had nothing better to do. Most of them probably had some sense that they were fighting for their families and their communities, and in maney cases even some sense that they were fighting "for their country". I'll wager that nothing but a tiny minority consciously fought "for democracy". Indeed, we entered the war because of an existential threat, and not because we already had a blueprint for a democratic post-war Europe. We didn't. And yet here we are, 70 years later, effectively hijacking these peoples' lives for political ends. We are de-humanising war.

Only the Germans publicly take responsibility for the massacre of Europe's Jewry, for the terrible crimes of the SA, SS, Gestapo, the Wehrmacht, and other arms of the state, as well as thousands of individuals. No conquering war heroes in German schoolbooks - only warnings about the horrors of war. There is no introspection in British or American schools to speak of about the crimes committed by "our boys". Crimes? What crimes? They were liberators!

The fact is that WWII, like any war, was a horrible, individual human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. People died, were made homeless, witnessed the stuff of nightmares. And those people had to live or die with their choices. The choices were forced on them by states. And yet in many cases, those same states have the audacity to claim the right to interpret and advertise those individual tragedies as part of a national narrative without the consent of the individuals concerned.

I have lost count of the number of times hat I have heard Brits express suspicions that the EU is really a clever way for the Germans to take over again. The reality is that the threat to peace in Europe comes from those countries who have sold a distorted version of their history to their people for political benfit, but at an enormous social price. It certainly does not come from Germany.

Germany has managed to re-discover a cultural and political identity that does not need the glorification of the state through long-dead war heroes who can't express their views. Germany has grown up in a way that most other European countries (and te USA) have not. And for that, Germany and the Germans deserve our special thanks and respect.

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