An old war, a new awareness: As veterans fade away, their fight is at last recognised as the decisive struggle it really was

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WE HAVE had Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Alamein and now we have the Great Escape and the Holocaust. Soon there will be D-day, the liberation of Paris and, next year, V E Day, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and V J Day. The terrible, tragic and heroic events of the Second World War are being relived with the benefit of exactly 50 years of hindsight.

It is, of course, no more than an accident of the calendar that we happen to be living through these half-century anniversaries. We do not have to see them as any more than the routine, reflex marking of passing time. And the blanket coverage of old soldiers' stories combined with the detailed re-creations of the atmosphere and experiences of the time may be seen as little more than symptoms of our compulsive nostalgia and our queasy fascination with the superhuman contingencies of total war.

But, this time round, there is something different. The Second World War is in the process of acquiring a new significance, a new meaning. Just as its veterans are growing old and dying, the war they fought has at last come to be recognised as the decisive struggle it really was. In some strange way the years 1939 to 1945 now seem closer to us than ever before.

This is a new development because the generations born in the 10 or 20 years after the war have always tended to regard the whole affair as impossibly remote and alien. It was a war that became the stuff of history textbooks almost before it had stopped being headlines. It was an instant antique; its tin hats, shell casings and Spitfires became at once the memorabilia of a more primitive age in the midst of the technological optimism of the Fifties.

'. . . the light of peace,' wrote the historian Correlli Barnett, 'began to glow strangely on the familiar Britain of sirens, tin hats, battledress and sandbags, stirrup-pumps and air-raid shelters. It transmuted at a touch all such apparatus of recent survival into historical relics . . .'

Overwhelmingly, the war was seen as the end of a long, bloody phase of history. Never again, it was assumed, could Europe be a theatre of warring nation states. Either there would be a quick and decisively catastrophic nuclear war or the democracies would survive indefinitely in uneasy peace. Certainly conventional wars would continue, but they would be fought by Cold War surrogates in distant places. Or, as in Korea or Vietnam, they would involve Western armies in remote rather than domestic strategic conflicts. Europe itself could only have peace or nuclear winter.

This strategic hiatus was also cultural. For those born before the war the anxieties and prejudices of the Thirties and Forties survived. But younger people tended to find them wrong-headed. Margaret Thatcher's mistrust of a united Germany, rooted in her memories of the Thirties, was seen by many as embarrassingly atavistic, a war cry. How could such things be said about our fellow good, rich Europeans of today? They were just like us.

This was a deep divide, a real generation gap, yet it was hidden because the old, finding their memories increasingly meaningless, tended to fall silent. I was once trying to buy something from a garden centre in Kent. Suddenly the air was filled with an unfamiliar, throbbing roar. A Hurricane and a Lancaster were flying low overhead, on their way to some air display. I watched them pass over with an excited, schoolboyish interest and then looked at the old man with whom I had been discussing flagstones. His eyes were filled with tears. 'They saved us, you know,' he said, 'they saved us.' He had become so used to the privacy of these ageing memories and images of salvation that he did not really expect anybody of my age to understand.

For the seller of flagstones the aircraft were decisive, personal images. But for me and for all the post- war generations the details of what actually happened in Second World War had become blurred and exotic. The memories of parents or the material of documentaries and films evoked something eccentric and irrelevant. It had been a curiously specialised conflict, a one-off. Vicious dictatorships had arisen in Europe and the Far East, convulsed the world and were defeated. What lessons could be learnt? Only the truisms that Fascism is a Bad Thing and that modern technology puts civilian populations in the front line. In addition, the Bomb appeared to render inconsequential all the strategic, political or economic foundations of the conflict.

The whole business could be seen as the last, desperate parade of an outdated international order of medium-sized nation states. As A J P Taylor liked to point out, Churchill and Hitler were very old-fashioned figures, fond of the rhetoric of 'imperialism and bugles', still living out the confrontations of the 1890s.

For post-war British generations this distancing of the conflict has been particularly acute. Germany and Japan both rose from the ashes to outstrip us economically, a development that has always allowed the sceptical to give an ironic twist to the assertion that we 'won'. Furthermore, the decisive intervention of the Americans was used to show that, in reality, our role was more of a passive waiting for salvation than an active, victorious effort. Once the black-and-white war films with their rousing music had been made, the glorious, stand-alone rhetoric of the Forties became, in the Sixties and Seventies, extraordinarily embarrassing. And, of course, in the Nineties the Dambusters became a lager advert on television in which the clever German guard caught the bouncing bombs.

Slowly, however, the Second World War has become a more intimate, more relevant affair. One reason for this is that the experience of conventional war has become more familiar. The Falklands, the Gulf war and Bosnia have all felt more real and more immediate than any of the other postwar conflicts. These are not the post-colonial mopping-up operations of Malaya or Aden, they are something new. As each of these confrontations has moved successively closer to home, the old conviction that Europe was at least safe from conventional war has weakened and, with Bosnia, become wholly unrealistic.

Over the past five years, moreover, this has been accompanied by the end of the Cold War. The Cold War had seemed to guarantee Europe as the one nuclear-or-nothing battleground. It had also concealed conflicts remaining unresolved since 1945 - Communism, it transpired, had been an effective mechanism for suppressing fissiparous nationalist resentments. With the wild and conflicting voices in the old Soviet Union and the manic nationalism of the Serbs, it began to look as though Churchill and Hitler were not quite so old-fashioned after all. Meanwhile, the racist stirrings of the far right in Germany seem to signal that the dark heart of Europe might still be beating.

In Britain all these changing perceptions have been combined with the problem of Europe. There can be no doubt that our position as the least Europhile EU nation is sustained by the memory of the Second World War. Britain's Francophobe loathing of Jacques Delors, the fear of a united Germany and the contempt for Italian corruption are underpinned by the sense that, only 50 years ago, these countries all succumbed to primitive, bloody dictatorship. Only we held out, our democratic continuity unbroken. And when columnists demand that we get up off our knees before the IRA or Malaysia, they do so inspired by the clear memory that, in 1945, we were the one great European nation that had refused to kneel.

Carling Black Label kept up with these developments. Its advertising campaign moved on from the Dambusters - its smart German outwitting twittish English flyers - to the ad with the Union Jack towel hurled across the pool on to the sun lounger - in other words, smart, square- jawed Brit now outwits fat, squawking German holidaymakers. This worked better because all the characters fitted the Second World War stereotypes. German guards are not supposed to be smart - it said so in all those black and white films.

So, both in terms of the micropolitics of our self-esteem and the macropolitics of a new diversity of national conflicts, the Second World War, 50 years on, seems more real, more present in our imaginations than at any time in the last 50 years. It can be seen as the prelude to this era rather than the coda to the last.

For the post-war generations this change may come as a surprise. For many of them the war had been so thoroughly written off that it had become little more than a style, a campish mix of homely Brits and strutting Germans with all the attendant imagery of dogfights over Kent and the Blitz. The war was a dated, superseded mythology. But now such a view can increasingly be seen as a myth in itself and a new orthodoxy is taking hold. For the truth is that, as D-day and all those other 50th anniversaries approach, the Second World War is being resurrected with far more complex overtones than ever before.