The Second World War Is Our Past, Not Our Present

Milkman blitz.jpg
Photo Credit: Reddit

I was only a young boy when Winston Churchill was voted “The Greatest Briton” of all history by an adoring public, and at the time it seemed perfectly natural. Even today, over five decades since his death, he towers over this nation, dominating our collective psychological landscape for one simple ‘reason’: he led us to victory during the Second World War.

Never mind his appalling overseeing of the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War that left 46,000 Allied soldiers dead, his (egregious) brutality and racism whilst conducting colonial affairs that led one peer to claim “Winston only thinks about the colour of their skin” or his support for the forced sterilisation of swathes of the British public. All that mattered to average participant in the vote was the Second World War.

If there is one thing that is fused to the British cultural landscape like burnt rice to the bottom of a saucepan, it is the Second World War.  There is no “Don’t Mention The War!” in our vocabulary of common reference points; it’s all Dad’s Army and Keep Calm And Carry On instead. When German exchange students visited my school- we were about 15/16 years old at the time- they were asked if they “had ever heard of a Spitfire” and people shouted “Heil Hitler” at them before running down the corridor in an act of cowardice nearly as embarrassing as the previous deed. The refrain “Two World Wars and One World Cup” is recognisable to us all.

If I haven’t laboured the point enough, I invite you to occasionally look at the comment sections to online newspaper articles. The further right-wing the better. There will be someone talking about the War in some way, clamouring that our forefathers didn’t charge onto the beaches of Normandy only for ‘po-faced liberal civil servants’ to tell us that we can no longer sell Gollywogs or some other highly contentious melange of bollocks and bullshit like that. Frustratingly, I cannot find the article amongst dozens about the terrible flooding in the North of England and Scotland this winter in which a woman decided that their conditions were akin to those during those long 6 years of conflict. Expect more of the same with the upcoming referendum on EU membership (an organisation by which we proud and courageous Britons are inextricably tied to those formerly aggressive Krauts and pathetically yellow-bellied French, of course).

The legacy of the Second World War amongst the British people is remarkable and yet rarely scrutinised. It is both sad and odd that we revel in a conflict that claimed the lives of 55 million people, witnessed the most heinous act of systematic genocide in history and claims the unenviable prize of the only war in which nuclear weapons have been actually used. We, in our sanitised stupor, seem incapable of coming to terms with the fact that, whilst many a brave Londoner did huddle on the platform of Piccadilly Circus, so many others were pulverised or incinerated in their own homes. Nor was everyone gallant and patriotic: criminals thrived in the chaos of the Blitz and the Blackout was a perfect environment for attempted sexual assault. It is safe to say that none but the most bellicose or questionable would want for us to return to a time like that, and, were such a dreadful episode to happen now, then we wouldn’t suddenly all be cheerily donning tin hats and gas mask boxes, ready for another round of being the ‘plucky underdog’.

Nonetheless, so many of us, especially those who never saw a day before 1945, believe that our victory (which definitely had more to do with the US, USSR and the heroic efforts of all occupied nations) marks the political, cultural and moral zenith of our nation’s history. Our ‘Finest Hour’. Aside from the xenophobia and awful politicisation of the sacrifice of so many lives towards often irrelevant and trivial political ends that this opinion has caused, our persistent gaze to those heady days when windows were criss-crossed with sticky tape and place names painted over has helped manufacture a narrative of decline from the moment peace was declared. We don’t celebrate nearly enough the abolition of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Equal Pay Act or creation of the welfare state, because these events happened as people grew soft, fat and corrupted- not at all like back in 1940 when men were men, everyone spoke English and people took responsibility for their actions. And, as a result, institutions that objectively are of much greater benefit to our national livelihood, such as the NHS, are under threat whilst the rose-tinted memories of slaughter and hardship remain sacrosanct.

No one is saying that we should be ashamed of the Second World War, or that there were not thousands of acts of courage, humanity and kindness as the world was engulfed by terror and bloodshed. However, it is time that we seriously review whether those 6 years are really the watershed moment of the British nation and its people, the moment that we showed the best of who we are as a nation. War should define neither our global outlook nor our notions of identity to the extent that it currently does, especially when it is patent how insular and arrogant the perspectives that it informs often can be. There are plenty of khaki uniforms and decommissioned rifles in museums across the country and, whilst we may regard them with venerable respect and thanksgiving for the dedication of many who once owned them, it is in a museum and not the baggage of our everyday national consciousness that they belong.

The Utter Nonsense of the “Royal Family Nazi Salute” Story

Credit to The Sun for both the photo and the non-story
Credit to The Sun for both the photo and the non-story

It is not uncommon for me to encourage the dismissal of something which The Sun publishes, given my conformity to the mainstream centre-left view of the Murdoch press. More rare is it for me to plea that an article from The Guardian, my newspaper of choice, be ignored. However, in the circumstance of The Sun’s exclusive report on footage from 1933 capturing members of the Royal Family, including our current monarch, giving the Nazi salute, and Peter Preston’s subsequent adulation for the publication in The Guardian, I implore that we ignore the lot. The whole story.

If the press has a questionable record for reporting on the present, then how much dubious is its ability to report on the past. Flashy tabloid headlines, blown-up pictures and responses written in the heat of the moment do not amount to the kind of academic caution with which history, especially history of such consequence as this, must be treated. Therefore, allow me to do what many a journalist and editor appear to have neglected in introducing a little bit of context of which most GCSE history students are probably aware.

Europe in 1933- the year when the footage was shot- was not beholden to the fears that it was less than a decade later on. The greatest threat to the stability of the continent did not come from Germany, which had been beaten in submission by the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, all eyes were on the Soviet Union, the revolution of which had desposed the British Royal Family’s relatives 16 years beforehand. Great Britain had supported the losing royalist “White” faction in the subsequent civil war. Elsewhere in Europe, especially in France and Germany, Communist uprisings had disrupted civil order and threatened to overturn governments. General strikes, backed by Communist parties, broke out in Belgium, Sweden, Germany and, infamously in 1926, Great Britain.

In this climate of fear, it is no surprise that the election in Germany of a staunchly anti-Communist leader, whose Chancellorship was propped up by more mainstream conservatives, was of little concern to many British people, especially those in the establishment. This perhaps goes some way to explain the notoriously close relationship between Edward VIII and the Nazi regime during the first half of the 1930s and beyond. Germany became viewed as the great bulwark that would defend Western Europe and its remaining ancient social hierarchies from Communism in the East.

Assuming that a context must be applied to the actions of the Royal Family, then it is only that of anti-Communist relief. Instead, the press, and its readers, have readily plunged headfirst in the intoxicating waters of prolepsis. People look at the salute and associate it with war-mongering, state terror propped up by racialism, the Blitz and the gas chambers. All of these were at the time unbeknowst the entire world, evils yet to be played out let alone revealed. The entire fuss caused by this footage smacks of bad history and bad journalism that is more intent on creating a story than analysing one and finding out that it has no weight or importance to it.

Say what you like about the Royal Family. But if you are to judge them unfavourably, judge them on their expenses during a time of economic hardship for millions, their undue interference in the affairs of a liberal democratic state or their embodiment of a national Church to which barely any of the population now adheres. Do not be lazy about the matter by, in reality, charging them with feeling relief at a blow against the Communist project and the inability to predict the future.

What Is To Become of the Nation State?

Nation States II

In the forthcoming months, an awful lot of people will be discussing the UK, its parliament and its laws. The tenure of the present administration is coming to an end, and soon enough there will be a new (although not necessarily different) government making legislation on behalf of us, the British people. At this time, when the direction of this country and the policies that will guide it that way becomes the paramount topic, it is interesting to ponder just what the nature of the nation states of the world in the 21st Century is and, therefore, what the object of the government within it and the laws they make should be.

When nation states first came into being, what defined their boundaries and made them functional may have been factors as diverse as economics, logistics, culture, religious beliefs, geography, conquests or language, but what actually legitimised them as ‘states’ was that everyone living within those borders recognised a body of authority and the laws it passed. The degree to which each polity could acknowledge a political ruler who was situated within it and the independence with which that ruler could legislate and mete out justice determined the polity’s ‘statehood’. Hence the tensions across Europe once the Papacy began to acquire temporal power, or the fact that, through the system of vassalage, England could be a nation state but be ruled by an individual who became the notional subordinate of the King of France once he crossed The Channel into a territory like the Duchy of Normandy.

Furthermore, the other, practical building blocks of a nation state- for example, the economy, the judiciary, defence- could all be viably controlled by laws within those nations. Despite the obvious presence of international trade throughout history, economies in history have generally been localised enough to be viable without cross-border cooperation or reliance on the economic condition of other polities. Even with the judicial pretensions of the Papacy during the High Middle Ages and beyond (which generated a messy and confusing struggle between national and super-national governments as opposed to the concession of power from the former to the latter), monarchs were still viewed and viewed themselves as the supreme temporal judge, the highest bench, of their realm. International military alliances were formed between nation states, but these were nearly always predicated on the betterment of the individual powers involved. Furthermore, international armies were an aspiration of some but not a reality: even the Crusades had a deeply nationalistic element. To broadly sum up what has historically made a nation state, it is a polity whose government is the supreme executive, judiciary and legislature, and whose government has the power to- and feels able to- viably legislate on and control all aspects of the state which make it functional.

When we look at our nations today, we realise that this model no longer applies. The UK participates in a trading bloc and trading groups which determine its economic policy, as well as that of the other nation states within it. Governments are reluctant to embark on radical fiscal or monetary policies for fear of ‘upsetting the markets’ or causing ‘wealth flights’ in which the rich look to settle elsewhere where tax rates are more favourable. Whether some on the right-wing fringes fulminate against it, we defer legal decisions to courts which are superior to our own national ones, to the judges who sit in Strasbourg of The Hague, and our leaders acknowledge their judgements as lawful. We subscribe to internationally-recognised rules for war, with accepted sanctions if they are not followed, as well as contribute, along with many other nation states, to global military forces and multilateral permanent alliances that have essentially internationalised elements of the armed forces. Our government heeds the legislation of the European Union when debating our laws in Parliament and, even were a Brexit to occur, I doubt our leaders would pass anything that contravened or contradicted the liberal Western orthodoxies of abstract ideas such as freedom of expression and the right to education lest nations around us then forsook or turned against us. Overall, the building blocks which I mentioned have both outgrown the nation state itself- especially the global economy- and rendered national governments less and less powerful. This is not something to be lamented: it’s the inevitable result of a globalised world with globalised economies and ideas that then break down borders and result in international values reified as international laws. In actual fact, it makes the ultimate sense for legislation on something like the fiscal and monetary policy of the UK, which is a mere part of a structure which intrinsically covers pretty much the entire globe now, to be determined on an appropriately global level by global representatives. Thomas Piketty was proposing something similar with his idea of a global wealth tax. People scoff at it as impractical, but that is only because people still cling onto an antiquated and redundant idea of the power of the nation state residing with in.

So if nation states, individually, are powerless and would be better governed by super-national bodies, what validates them as nation states now? The answer is their individual cultures, idiosyncrasies, customs, rituals, languages and history. The UK is essentially a cultural and historical unit. If someone were to draw up a nation state today on the grounds of economic, judicial, military, legislative, and logistical functionality, they probably would take no notice of a slim strip of sea between a big continental mass and an island, nor would they separate the top of Ireland from the rest of it. Take aspects like culture, language and history into account, and they just might.

So perhaps, with the functional aspect of the nation state eroding (both theoretically and practically) along with any notion of national political and economic sovereignty amongst an increasingly internationally-focused youth, perhaps the national governments of today will be the regional cultural guardians of tomorrow. I will certainly still be voting for a party to legislate for Britain in this upcoming general election, but whether my grandchildren shall be doing the same seems increasingly unlikely.

What If Fiery Dragons Were Seen Flying Over Northumbria?

“In this year (AD 793) fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky.”– The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In the years AD 793/4, terror and violence struck the Northumbrian coast around the monasteries of Jarrow and Lindisfarne. Raiders from the North Sea landed and, although they may not have been as rapacious as conventional history asserts, they almost certainly stripped the local area of its resources and riches, setting the tone for a further two and a half centuries of Viking intervention on English soil.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the months preceding these attacks as ones of ominous portents and anticipatory fear, including the sights of dragons flashing across the sky, an event which the Chronicle takes rather seriously. There are several explanations for as to why gigantic airborne reptiles were witnessed during that fateful year: perhaps such omens were part of a broader literary convention or local folk lore at the time that aimed to daemonise the Vikings by association, or possibly flame-coloured clouds at sunset were misinterpreted as plumes emitting from the nostrils of flying beasts. Maybe the writer in question completely made it all up without any reason other than because it sounded interesting. Or, maybe, just maybe, someone, or multiple people, did sea a dragon a short while before the harrowing of Jarrow and Lindisfarne.

Fear not: I’m not suggesting that dragons actually exist, or existed during the 8th century and have since become extinct. What I am suggesting though is that the reports were born of the vivid hallucinations of people who truly believed that they had seen this phenomenon. After all, the 8th Century was a time when the supernatural world was believed to be intertwined with the corporeal one, when myths were as good as history, when the whole societal psyche was influenced generation after generation with stories about angels and saints and goblins and daemons to an extent which we in our post-Enlightenment, rationalist milieu probably find it difficult to comprehend. The heavenly was seen as just as rational and immanent as the terrestrial and was taught as such.

Once these ideas were firmly implanted in the minds of the individual, both the literati writing history and the illiterati who formed the majority of people witnessing it happen around them, who knows how they could have manifested themselves? Food preservation was a lot poorer than it is today, and when certain types of grain, rye and other cereals go moldy, they produce a hallucinogen not unlike LSD in its effects. Extreme darkness, the kind which would have been experienced every night in a world without widespread and effective lighting, can cause the mind to create images out of the shadows. Stress, and let’s not forget that earlier times were probably far more stressful on a daily basis as people struggled for survival against wars led by capricious leaders, disease and famine, can result in hallucinations. As can certain diseases such as Meningitis. As can some mental health conditions, which certainly would not have been understood to the level that we do today, and therefore were probably never really considered. Any one of these or any combination of these factors could have led to the reification of the concepts everyone believed to be notionally true in front of their very eyes.

The reason that I raise this particular case of dragons over Northumbria is that is exemplifies a fault of many historians, especially students. When we study texts and imagine the past world, we do so through our own, modern-day, academic lens. To take another example, when we think of a Mediaeval town, we think of artefacts such as buildings and clothing or documented customs such as religious processions. At a push, we may be able to hear a few words of provincial Middle English or the thickly-accented chant of a Silesian canon. What we rarely do is conceive the world we are imagining through the eyes of someone who had been brought up in that culture, who was undergoing the everyday strains and strife they and their contemporaries were experiencing. We do not feel jealousy, or fear or happiness. We certainly do not, if we can at all, put ourselves in the place of someone who might be suffering from a particular disease or had inadvertently consumed a hallucinogen but is still compelled to go about their daily business for reasons of economic necessity or scientific ignorance. Neither can we rewrite our mindset to incorporate all of the beliefs, suppositions and truisms of a mind born into a certain historical period.

Additionally, just because all of our research may point to people believing in a certain principle, outlook or superstition, this does not mean that everyone ever documented or documenting from that era did. Individual idiosyncrasies are rarely appreciated, as are personal qualities and traits which may deviate from what scholarship has concluded as the “norm”. All in all- because of who we are and the way we treat history as a subject- we fail abjectly to comprehend the past at all if we do not seriously re-calibrate our mindset to better fit that of the people who dwelt within it, and even then we barely understand any of what we see.

So maybe dragons did fly over Northumbria in AD 793. Maybe an anchor did descend from the sky over Tilbury around AD 1211. Maybe all manner of events we have considered to be simple literary devices were events which their witnesses were fully convinced happened. Maybe we just are not able to fully comprehend these events for what they were perceived to be, and therefore (potentially more importantly) the effects they had on ordinary lives, until we study them with an outlook utterly detached from that of our current epoch.