Was the Second World War Britain's finest hour?

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The Second World War was a monstrous planet-wide catastrophe – on which the British tend to look back through Union Jack-tinted spectacles. And yet, says Adrian Hamilton, there was honour among the horror, and deeds of nobililty and courage as well as atrocious cruelty

It is hard to acknowledge the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War without ambivalence. There have been so many celebrations already – 20 years, 25, 50, 60 – and each one has presaged a steady six-year stream of anniversaries of individual battles and events: Dunkirk, Dieppe, D-Day, Normandy, Arnhem, the Rhine, the Burmese campaign, all made by film as much as by recollection. Maybe by the 75th anniversary it will all start to fade. By then, most of the veterans will have passed away. The historians will have settled – to their satisfaction, at least – the great debates about Chamberlain's judgement, Eisenhower's generalship, Russia's part, the rightness of the atomic bomb. It will be time to turn down the volume.

But there is no sign of that happening just yet. The books continue to pour out. 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". It involved the whole population and if truth be known, for many it was the defining experience of their lives – freedom for women, the taste of adventure and victory for men. The First World War finally left a sour taste in the mouth, the sense of an end to innocence and the betrayal of youth by the old, of the future by the past. Not so with the Second World War, which was blessed with an almost never-ending supply of footage to please the television channels, documentation to excite the historian and personal reminiscence to meet the demands of journalism.

Yet that was not true for all involved. For those who fought in the frontline, and particularly (like my father) in the brutal campaign of Normandy in 1944 or the still under-appreciated Asian campaigns, battle was a bloody business, not to be glorified. It was noticeable that the ranks of those protesting against the invasion of Iraq were full of men and women who had experienced 1939-45 and who had little but contempt for young politicians like Tony Blair with his facile regret at not being there when it happened.

Nor has the war been celebrated by all as enthusiastically as here. 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. Only the Russians celebrate the period with the fervour of the Anglo-Saxons, and there the history is overlain by the whole contentious story of how they made peace with Hitler at the beginning and how they occupied Central Europe at the end.

Does that make the British as naïvely and boyishly obsessed with our military past as our Continental neighbours suggest? Most other nations tend now to look upon our devotion to the Second World War with a resigned despair, fearing that it is not just a foible but a positive obstacle to our ever entering the modern European world. And they are, regrettably, right on this. For most of Europe, the lesson of the war was the need to end for ever the national rivalries and militarism that had wrecked a continent in successive wars. The First World War may have been called the "War to End Wars" but it was the Second World War that actually achieved that. What good, then, to harp on about the sins committed, the compromises made and the collaboration undertaken?

The Continent has had its histories. The official German history of the war now being undertaken has a reputation of being an outstanding work of detailed and objective research. There have been books and programmes chipping away at the myths of resistance in occupied France and elsewhere. No one, least of all the Germans, can have been left in any doubt about the monstrous deeds committed by their forces and in their name. Even the East European countries – Hungary, Poland, the Czechs – have been made aware of their complicity in genocide. But, other than the (justified) sense of victimhood of the Poles, Finns and Baltic states, there has been little overarching national history of this period – and little desire for it. It is the postwar era, even the tragic parts of Sovietisation, that has mattered.

This is not the case in Britain, where our sense of self has been provided by the war itself. Yet even that has altered over time. A whole generation of historians has served to reinforce the point – accepted by veterans but ignored by the popular narratives – that, platoon for platoon, equipment for equipment, the Germans were much better fighters than we were. Their ability to bounce back from setbacks and hold their discipline even in the worst of times impressed nearly all who actually engaged with them – and, unfortunately, helped prolong the war in Europe by at least a year.

Modern historians have also established pretty clearly that, by the end of the war, Britain was acting pretty much as the junior partner of the Anglo-American alliance. Our contribution to the Allied victory was great in the first two years, simply by resisting Hitler, until he committed virtual self-immolation by invading Russia and the Japanese brought in the Americas by attacking Pearl Harbour. There can be few now who doubt that it was Russia rather than the Americans and British who made the decisive contribution to defeating Hitler.

Even in British terms, it is arguable that the First World War was far more important in its consequences than the Second. That war bled a whole generation, exhausted the economy and set in motion the forces for self-determination that were to bring empire to an end. The Second World War confirmed all those trends. Britain emerged in 1945 with an Empire collapsing around it, a heavily-indebted finance and a clear position as a minor partner in the decision of post-war Europe. The war's achievement, and Churchill's great contribution, was, it might be argued, to disguise those facts with a brief flash of military success and moral rectitude.

That flash is growing dimmer. The glory of war has now been undermined by the messy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have damaged both the reputation of the British Army for superiority in battle and our moral standing in fighting in foreign fields. The Credit Crunch has equally undermined the belief in the superiority of Anglo-Saxon finance. Being America's junior partner no longer seems as effective or as important as it did back in 1944-5.

But none of that is cause for despair or denigration. What the Second World War exposed more than any other war was the total inhumanity of man to man when power is driven by leaders and systems with no corrective within. Stalin and Hitler stand as history's greatest monsters. They posed questions of complicity and barbarism which, fortunately, we in Britain were not asked to answer.

Our part, and that of the soldiers from the dominions and colonies who served with us, was a largely honourable one. As we look back on the war 70 years after its outbreak, we can continue to take pride in that.

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