It’s D-day’s 60th anniversary this weekend, with the German Chancellor participating for the first time. This means post-war acrimony is finally over he says. There’s no doubting that the war is buried deep in the British psyche, but there aren’t as many lessons to learn as some pretend. All too frequently dead heroes’ names are taken in vain to support the most reactionary arguments; arguments unable to stand up for themselves. You know who I mean.
Pre-war Britain, while no worse than the US or continental Europe at the time, was a dreary place. There was no NHS, the old and destitute went to Public Assistance Institutions (Workhouses), the mentally ill were simply locked away. A great many British soldiers left homes without electricity or indoor plumbing. Culturally too, it was a different world with little television or radio, no pop music, no foreign holidays (except for the very rich) and a far simpler, blander diet. The idea that someone killed in the war and then magically summoned to today would find our schools or hospitals wanting is preposterous. And so is the idea that they had a coherent set of ideals for 21st century Britain to live by, as 21st century Britain is a place beyond their comprehension.
Nor were Britain’s war aims as high minded as we like to pretend. Europe was dominated by a vicious dictatorship, not that Britain was that concerned by the odd ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’ [Chamberlain]. Britain acted only when its own interests and independence were threatened. It’s Britain’s independence our soldiers fought for – nothing more – and they are no less heroic for that. Their sacrifice teaches us that war is an evil thing, not to be embarked upon lightly. But the horrors of Nazism teach us that it’s an evil we must be prepared to occasionally face. To claim anything more in their name is an insult of the highest order. And if the German Chancellor’s right, maybe we can start worrying about the kind of Europe we want for today, rather than argue over the kind of Europe the long dead would have wanted, but will never enjoy.