Thursday, 17 September 2009

Don't mention the war

Please don't go on about it. I know it's 70 years ago today that Polish resistance collapsed, but I don't recall quite this level of media coverage on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of war - and surely the 75th anniversary, in 2014, would be more appropriate.

Adrian Hamilton, in the Independent of 3rd September, gives an objective survey. "The history channels continue to be skewed to the era, with documentaries endlessly repeating the pictures from the archives, the reminiscences of the participants and the views of the armchair strategists. To the despair of, I suspect, most women, and most of the young, the Second World War lives on with a glow that almost no other historic occasion holds. Why so? It is partly that, for all the revisionist history, the Second World War has gone down as the 'good war'"

But, he points out, only the Russians celebrate the period with the fervency of the Anglo-Saxons. "For the losers, the occupied as well as the Axis, the Nazi era is still one they would rather forget. And who can blame them? There is little to be gained, even if there is much to be learnt, by trawling over a bitter and humiliating past."

It is not as if Britain's feats of arms were unique and superior. "A whole generation of historians," Hamilton writes, "has served to reinforce the point - accepted by veterans but ignored by the popular narratives - that platoon by platoon, equipment for equipment, the Germans were much better fighters than we were."

We sneer at the Americans for claiming many of the technical advances actually made by Europeans during World War II (cracking the Enigma cipher, digital electronic computers and radar for instance), but we cannot deny that mainland Europe would not have been liberated without that massive war machine. We would not even have been in the position to do so if Hitler had not had to fight the Russians. And let us not forget the sacrifices made by Australians, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders and other citizens of what was then still the Empire.

The current orgy of self-congratulation distracts from the shortcomings in manning (except in Whitehall!) and equipment of today's armed forces. I suggest that it is thus dangerous as well as annoying.


Anonymous said...

Hitler's big mistake was to have a war on two fronts, both in the East and the West.

We had a very lucky escape at Dunkirk, rumours of deals between Churchill and Hitler with a view to joining forces against Russia, 300,000 troops off the beach in a little over a week.....

Churchill did well to disable the majority of the French fleet in Oran, a few days after the evacuation was over, certainly stopping the Germans having more control in the Med and the North Atlantic.

But the important lesson that hasn't been learnt, you don't fight a War on Two Fronts, like in Western Europe and Russia, or Iran and Afganistan!

landyjon said...

Agreed, the 75th anniversary would be a more appropriate point at which to contemplate the folly of war and remember the sacrifice of those who served - but how many of the survivors would be present to see their efforts commemorated?

Regarding the (contentious) point of the superiority of Axis troops, tactics and equipment over those of the Allies, it may be true that in detail there was often superiority; however, Axis strategy and the inability to effectively deploy equipment to best effect stymied the best efforts of the commanders on the ground. Thank God.

It was Hitler's own megalomania that defeated the Axis - had he pressed on across the Channel in 1940 he might (only might, mind you) have taken Britain out of the war. What is certain is that he would not have invaded Russia when he did, and ultimately it was Russia - or General Winter, at any rate - that defeated the Nazis.