Leading Article: Memories tinged with respect for the enemy

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The Independent Online
THERE were several separate wars going on between 1939 and 1945. One was a relatively clean, if deadly, war conducted on land, at sea and in the air between the Allies and the Germans. Another was the unspeakable slaughter, civilian and military, of the war on the Eastern front and, worse still, in the Nazi's own death camps. A third war, one whose poison lingered on, was waged in Western Europe between the German occupiers, supported by collaborators, and resistance movements. A fourth, almost as ruthless as that on the Eastern front, took place against the Japanese in the Far East.

The raising of the German U-boat off the Danish island of Anholt is a reminder of the first and perhaps least ghastly of those four wars: one in which the fighting men on both sides respected one another and by and large played by the rules. The thousands of Allied victims of the U-boats naturally felt otherwise, as did the civilian victims of bombing on both sides.

This week's meeting on Anholt of the Allied crew of the Liberator bomber that sank the submarine, and the crew of the U-boat itself, was symbolic of that mutual respect between combatants. It was just the latest in a long line of encounters between veterans of opposing sides of the war at sea, on land and in the air: in this case, between aviators and submariners whose wartime expectation of life would have been shorter than most. In the same way, German and British survivors of the slaughter in the trenches in the First World War felt bonded by their terrible experiences. When the war was over, many felt they had more in common with their recent enemies than with their own civilian compatriots, who could not appreciate what they had been through.

The Germans had a word for it: Grabenfreundschaft (trench friendship). Its bonds were renewed in 1935 by the British Legion in a visit to Hitler, who had earned two Iron Crosses acting as his regiment's runner in France. The Prince of Wales made a speech when the delegation embarked on this mission of peace and friendship.

Remote though the First World War now seems, interest in the second remains relatively strong. The raising of the U-boat has struck a chord in this country, where such epic struggles as the Battle of Britain, the desert war against Rommel, the sinking of the Bismarck and escapes from (relatively humanely run) German prisoner-of-war camps are still remembered with a certain manly and proud nostalgia.

Such feelings are utterly alien, even disgusting, to those who think of wartime Germany primarily as the country that carried out the most appalling programme of genocide in human history. They are linked to Britain's emergence among the victors, and give the British a radically different perspective on the entire Second World War. In so far as it glamorised this country's experience of a time of unparalleled suffering, it was not altogether healthy. With an ever-growing proportion of the population lacking any first-hand experience of what war is really like, it could become an ever more distorting mirror on the past.