Yes.

Just to get that part out of the way.

Apologies upfront for the misleading title but if you responded as I would have to a similar headline then you’ve demonstrated my point beautifully. As we remember WWII let’s ask ourselves why is Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party the go-to for every lunatic 12-year-old with a laptop and a You Tube account? The final resort when we attempt to make someone we disagree with seem like the bad guy? Why do we consider Hitler to be the ultimate evil? He killed a paltry 17 million people (6 million of whom were Jews). In comparison, Joseph Stalin managed to kill an estimated 23 million while Mao Zedong achieved up to 73 million deaths. But then it’s not about the figures, it’s about the intention, right? Hitler’s attempted crusade of extermination was racially motivated. No doubt that is an atrocious idea. On that level it makes sense that he is so universally reviled.

What doesn’t make sense is why we remember him over other monsters of history. Is it because Ismail Enver Pasha’s measly 2.5 million didn’t spark the same righteous indignation? Pasha’s genocide of the Armenian people was so horrendous that the word genocide was coined to describe it. He effectively invented genocide (in a kind of horrible poetry the term was coined in 1943 by a Polish-Jewish legal scholar by the name of Raphael Lemkin). This genocide consisted of 1.2 million Armenians in 1915, 350 thousand Greek Pontians and 480 thousand Anatolian Greeks from 1916-1922, and 500 thousand Assyrians between 1915-20. Why have you never heard of him? Or rather, why have so few people heard of him? The answer isn’t complicated. I believe it comes down to this: we weren’t the ones to stop him.

When I say ‘we’ I refer to our collective identity as the British, or perhaps more broadly as the West. We didn’t defeat Pasha so he isn’t labelled as the purest, darkest shade of evil in the same way Hitler is. We might go back to numbers and say that Hitler killed more people but then we are back to asking why Mao isn’t the epitome of evil?

Paul Gilroy’s After Empire tries to reconcile modern Britain, the Britain of WWII. The Britain that seems as though it will endure throughout eternity as paragon. This is a kind of longing for the days when things were more straightforward: when good was good and bad was bad. The righteous Allies crushed the evil Axis, or so the story goes. The story that, as Gilroy puts it, is now merely part of myth or fantasy in the mind of the average Brit. Inevitably though as new secrets leak, we find that memory tarnished. As the cracking of the enigma code demonstrated, sometimes we must choose not between good and evil, but between the lesser of two evils. Back then it was to let innocent people die in order to keep an advantage in the war. In the case of the Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, it was ostensibly the fear that the Nazis would get their hands on French naval power, the second greatest in Europe at the time.

Overcoming the evil of the Nazi Party is the last true triumph of Britain as a superpower. At every turn the government tears out the foundations from beneath us. We can put up with the destruction of our most important institutions for the sake of austerity, even that most sacred of all, the NHS. We just need to rally like we did back then, back in the good old days when every Brit was a hero for taking the hit to help keep the country afloat.

The difference now however, is that it isn’t war that is dragging us into the briny depths but our own government. In July last year David Cameron even used the memory of WWII to threaten Putin’s Russia[1]. That is because the way we remember WWII reminds us that we are the best. We are the world’s peacekeeping force; the Justice League with bowler hats and monocles. Maybe the US thinks it is too, but it’s really us. Obviously.

But is it ‘us’? Is there even an ‘us’ at all? On the anniversary of D-Day last year there were only 1 million surviving WWII veterans[2] which means (in case you hadn’t worked it out already) there will be a day when not a single person who lived during WWII is still around. That will be a sad day indeed but it won’t have any direct impact on our current armed forces or our current government. Why? Because we don’t have any 88-year-olds in government. The oldest MP in government in the UK is the 84-year-old Sir Peter Tapsell who himself planned to step down at the 2015 election[3] (and also happens to look amazing for his age, but that is beside the point). Sir Tapsell was only four at the beginning of WWII. We aren’t the same Britain that existed in 1945, nor are we the same Britain that existed in 1955, 1965, or 2005. The idea that countries are some homogeneous mass that acts as a hive mind throughout history is one of the most dangerous beliefs you didn’t know you had – and a hard one to shake at that.

It is this mentality which leads us to forget that the German people are individuals with lives and consciousness, and not their WWII counterparts. The same can be said of the Iraqi people, or the Afghani people, or perhaps worst of all is to forget that the Palestinian people are made up of individuals just like you or me. It is this mindset that leads to bombing raids, gas attacks, chemical weapons, the slave trade, and, without exception, every other violation of human rights that has ever been perpetrated.

So remember that we are not our grandfathers and grandmothers of WWII; nor are we the ones who stopped the Nazi regime any more than we are the people that died in the Great Fire of London. If we wish to avoid being manipulated and coerced into awful things like so many others before us, we must remember one thing. Just one thing above everything, above every law and precept and principle of man or God: We are, and will forever be, individuals.

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2699792/Failure-stand-Putin-threaten-Britain-s-economy-says-Osborne-warning-Russia-holds-key-MH17-crash-site.html

[2] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/06/on-d-day-anniversary-only-1-million-world-war-ii-veterans-still-alive/

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/03/21/sir-peter-tapsell-standing-down_n_5006026.html