When you’ve worked in the history department of a book shop you learn a couple of things. Firstly, the UK’s love and near obsession with all things WW2 is insatiable. Secondly, books on every aspect of the conflict will sell by the bucket load and there is an entire industry that depends on new Second World War, and particularly Churchill, literature being churned out year in and year out. There is little new information left, only new opinions and interpretations.
Online discussion portals nearly always make parallels and spurious links to the war whenever anyone discusses contemporary politics and international affairs. Uncensored streams of commentary, particularly on television, give life to the so-called Godwin’s Law: the longer a conversation goes on it’s a matter of time before someone mentions the Nazis and Hitler and it usually concludes the debate.
Mainstream newspapers make exactly the same indulgence in a gratingly populist manner masquerading as academic investigation and reporting. Harsh words, but not without context. The last few weeks have seen an obscene obsession with Hitler’s penis, testicle(s) and widespread reporting on his alleged scatalogical obsession (The Metro, The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph to name but a few). Beyond the schoolboy sniggering, what is the point of airing discussions like this? Articles in papers cannot give enough space to a full evaluation of the validity of their sources so the conclusion must be that theirs is the worst kind of politicised jingoism that tries to nudge, rather than point the reader, to relating the story to a modern European context.
Whether or not the allegations are true is beside the point, but there is a curious pattern of puerile Adolf Hitler stories emerging at a time when the UK is wrestling with its collective understanding of what Europe is culturally, why we’re in it politically and if we want to continue to be associated with either.
If there is an adolescent game going on designed to figuratively emasculate Hitler in the hopes the British public remember the victories of the Second World War, it would be nothing new. Much like the literary industry that has built up around a conflict which ended 70 years ago, Britain’s collective consciousness has never forgotten and continues to imprint on new generations a sense of gloriousness about the whole thing like no other war does.
It’s not difficult. Island brinkmanship and a country on the verge of defeat by a superior foe is a familiar story in British history. Yet the Second World War, even if the tactics can be debated, will always boil down to a good versus evil conflict. The story is further aided by the titanic struggle between an aged, eccentrically British and deeply human war leader versus a maniacal parody of power in a duel that still resonates even to today.
It’s allowed to survive in memory because the world around us is made in the image of what, for better and for ill, the decisions of WW2 left us with. That Europe’s inception owes its antecedents to this conflict is merely one resonance from a war which continues to touch on every aspect of our life from industry to politics. It is more acutely obvious in Britain both because of our archipelago isolation but also because the sense of a moral right has remained, something that few other European countries can claim.
Where the mistake is made is that onlookers think that our conceited sense of purpose in the world comes from the mastery and legacy of empire. They’re wrong. Most Britons have little memory, little understanding and little respect for an imperial institution that they find hard to imagine. Our weltanschauung on Europe is actually rooted in an innate, cultural memory of being unequivocally on the right side of history in the 1940s. No other event has so definitively or unambiguously superseded that fact. It’s held up by endless television and film and books and infinite anecdotage of heroism and bravery in the face of defying odds.
Subconsciously, the British will always believe that Europe owes us one and that they’ve always been ungrateful.
This is neither a defence of Hitler or any attempt to diminish or tarnish the sacrifice and memory of the millions who died at his hand and those who died stopping him. Europe was saved and our finest hour remains just that. What is a disgrace, and what is a horror, is letting historical snippets stab at the politics of today like a piece of old broken of glass.
So when we think of Europe, let’s remember that the challenge which faces us now are not mere bilateral negotiations and a choice to stay or go, it’s whether we can overcome, if we’re willing to overcome, the gamble that our future can be propped up on the memory of the past and not the realities of the present.