The German ambassador in London has a point: we Britons are consumed by the Second World War.
Peter Ammon, about to finish his stint as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, believes that behind the Brexit vote was a nostalgic image of a beleaguered but gallant Britain standing alone against the Nazis. “Well, it is a nice story, but does not solve the problems of today,” he said in a newspaper interview. “I spoke to many of the Brexiteers, and many of them said they wanted to preserve a British identity, and this was being lost in a thick soup of other identities.”
Herr Ammon kindly refrained from saying, “For you, ze war iss not over”. Even if he had, I would have agreed with him.
We are lost in a thick soup alright, but this has less to do with the dread of losing identity – whatever ‘identity’ is supposed to mean – than with muddled thinking. This we apply to a broad range of issues, most of them inadequately explained – by politicians on both sides of the argument – with either an inadequate grasp of the issues or an inability to explain them in plain English, and in many cases both. The result is a hardening of attitudes, both for and against the European Union, which have little to do with truth and everything to do with sentimentality, such as nostalgia for times past.
Bemused voters favouring Brexit have turned to some chimerical notion of national pride, seizing on the Second World War as a handy example of a nation sufficiently capable, strong-willed and courageous to survive in a world without friends. That analogy has many faults, but in this debate a more thoughtful analysis of history seems to be missing from the agenda.
Visiting American friends of mine have often commented on how much WW2 – as they like to call it – features in our television programming and in the press. Of course, they tend to think that they won the war single-handed. But even that fails to explain why British television viewers revisit with stupefying regularity documentaries about the storming of the Normandy beaches on D-Day, the destruction of those Ruhr dams, the sinking of the Bismarck and the Graf Spee, and the escapes from Colditz and Stalag Luft IV. And along with our triumphs we even celebrate our tragedies, the so-called ‘honourable defeats’, such as Dunkirk – always described as ‘the Miracle of Dunkirk’ – and the failed attack on the bridge at Arnhem.
Surf through the regular television channels and you are bound to find listed, in any given week, one or more of the following: The Battle of Britain, The Dam Busters, The Great Escape, Sink the Bismark!, The Colditz Story, Dunkirk (a new version came out last year) and A Bridge Too Far … to name but a few. These films and as endless documentaries purporting to tell us ‘what really happened’, show up on our screens so often that they have moved beyond the status of popular entertainments into the realm of required viewing – lest we forget, and all that.
Few Europeans I know, or have known, have ever taken such an interest in the period. Ask a Brit why not and quick as a flash he will tell you, “Well, they wouldn’t, would they? Either they were the ones who started it, or the ones who packed it in and left us in the lurch”.
If there is self-evidently an element of truth in that explanation, it still fails to address the question why the Brits are still so much more consumed by The War than anyone else. (The Poles may be an exception, for understandable reasons.)
The answer, it seems to me, is obvious. The period in question was the last time Great Britain was actually great. Even that point is arguable, and there are plenty of revisionist historians to argue it. But since those far-off valiant days – Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’, in Churchill’s famous phrase – when we gave our all (literally) in the cause of defeating Fascism, it seems to have been downhill all the way. The Royal Navy no longer commands the oceans (it can barely defend our home shores, by all accounts). The once mighty Empire has been dismantled with indecent haste (if mostly with decent intent). The British enterprises that once fed the military-industrial complex that allowed Britain to dominate world trade have long since disappeared. The British economy and its currency between them always seem to be on the brink of something awful, rarely on the verge of something wonderful.
After a century of splendid excess – usually at someone else’s expense, it must be said – Britain is a country nursing one almighty spiritual hangover.
I agree with Herr Ammon’s instruction: “Get over it”. I’m sure he was also thinking, without daring to say so, that we would be better off if, like the Germans, we went back to work and took it seriously.
Quite right, too, I say. And in doing so, we shall need all the friends we can find. I would start with some old acquaintances, all twenty-seven of them, across the English Channel.
That would represent the real Great Escape.
By the way, I read somewhere that more Frenchmen, and more Poles, escaped from Colditz than Brits. Why didn’t they make the film? Just asking.