Gisela Stuart to Boris Johnson, channels John Cleese: “Don’t mention the war!” pic.twitter.com/rmbM172TJT
— Sean Clare (@Sean__Clare) 18 January 2017
Few politicians in Westminster or Berlin have an equally good understanding of both British and German culture. Gisela Stuart is an exception (David McAllister, the German-born former Prime Minister of Lower Saxony might well be another, though I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him). Her response to the Foreign Secretary’s comments about President Hollande “administering punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie” is as a result rather more level-headed and understanding than, say, Guy Verhofstadt, who called them “abhorrent”.
Stuart’s Basil Fawlty-inspired advice – “Don’t mention the war” – is evidently correct, given how upsetting others involved in the EU negotiations find it. But why is it that so man British politicians and voters find it hard to button their lip about it?
The common explanation is that we can’t get stop harking back to our “finest hour”, that it was the last time Britain was ever truly great and so we prefer to live in the past, harping on about the achievements of others long ago. It’s certainly true that the image of Britain standing alone as the last bastion of civilisation against fascism retains a powerful resonance, even now most of the participants in the war are long gone.
The famous Low cartoon, “Very well, alone” remains one of the most evocative images in the British psyche.
That’s bolstered by a longer narrative, populated by events that are more distant and less often-cited, but which nonetheless hang together as a story. Britain stood in a similar way against the Kaiser, and Napoleon, each time with eventual success despite huge cost. If World War Two has a power in our culture, it’s backed by 150 years of playing a similar role before Dunkirk and the Blitz ever occurred. Throw in the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury or even Agincourt (or at least Shakespeare’s later portrayal of it), and you’re talking an image of ourselves that has been developed over at least half a millennium. That’s deeper, and stronger, than just harking back to the last time we won something, a much more powerful self-mythos than simply singing along with Baddiel and Skinner’s Three Lions memories of the 1966 World Cup.
But what Stuart seems to get – and what Verhofstadt doesn’t – is that comments like Johnson’s are only partially about the war that actually happened. Yes, the reference is rooted in real history, but it’s coloured more by the references and morality tales of war films than by the memoirs and histories of the real events. The Foreign Secretary himself cited “the manner of some World War Two movie”.
The associations of those who weren’t alive, or were children, at the time the war was fought are hugely influenced by cinematic portrayals of it. That was, at least in part, the whole point of the war film industry in Britain. It was born while the war was still being fought, as an arm of the propaganda effort. Classics like Powell and Pressburger’s 1942 film One of Our Aircraft is Missing make no attempt to hide their message (in that instance, a paean to the suffering and solidarity of occupied Holland). Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942) presents a society bound together by a shared struggle, while The Way Ahead (1944) communicated the message of men from all social backgrounds finding a family through military training some 60 years before Band of Brothers first aired (incidentally, its closing scene of soldiers advancing through smoke directly inspired the credits of Dad’s Army and is movingly if inadvertently echoed in Blackadder Goes Forth).
That communications campaign continued once the war was over. Powell and Pressburger provide another example in their wonderful A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which the soul of a deceased character appeals to the massed ranks of the Allied dead to recognise the fellow-feeling and shared values of the West. The film is a great work of art, but it was also one of the building blocks of the transatlantic alliance that became NATO.
Once that industry was established, and the audience’s demand for it was clearly set to continue in peacetime, the format and the tone lived on even after the Ministry of Information funding and direction came to an end. Film-makers were working with the same palette that had been established under very different circumstances, cinema-goers were accustomed to recognisable themes (how many of us have honestly never said “ve have vays of making you talk”?) and the formula was a hit.
The search for stories meant those six famous years were scoured for every hook on which to hang a production. Some films exerted themselves to be as faithful to the historical record as possible, becoming effectively cinematic documentaries like The Longest Day. Others drew on memoirs and real events, but indulged in a reasonable degree of artistic licence – The Cockleshell Heroes, Dambusters, The Great Escape, Reach for the Sky, Carve Her Name With Pride and Ill Met by Moonlight spring to mind. As time went by, new ‘true stories’ became harder to find, so novelists and scriptwriters innovated with fictional accounts like Alastair Maclean’s The Guns of Navarone and Bridge Over The River Kwai. Eventually, it became a setting for comedy, too – Dad’s Army inspired some annoyance among some veterans of the Home Guard when it first aired, but others like my grandfather felt it was quite generous if anything, but by the time ‘Allo ‘Allo parodied Secret Army there was no question that the topic was an appropriate target.
There’s nothing wrong with setting fiction in real historical events, obviously. But the number and popularity of war films means that many of us have an instinctive shared view of World War Two which is as much – or more – about the silver screen than history. It’s a stage on which questions of identity, fellowship, bravery, cowardice and cruelty are played out like medieval morality plays. Quentin Tarantino indulged and parodied the trend in Inglourious Basterds, in which an stereotypical rag-tag band of cigar-chewing, Nazi-loathing, swaggering misfits not only take on the Third Reich but shoot Hitler literally to pieces in 1944. It didn’t matter to Tarantino that this is obviously ahistorical – that was the point, he was playing in the sandpit of popular imagination and archetype rather than recounting real events.
As Boris Johnson is discovering, not every country has this relationship with memories of World War Two. While for us the camp commandant, issuing punishment beatings to POWs who try to escape, is a comic-book villain to conjure with lightly (even though some of our grandfathers encountered the real thing), for the bulk of European nations the image is rather less amusing. For those who were occupied, the idea they are being compared with those they suffered under is outrageous. For many Germans, the concept is even more troubling than we might at first imagine – layered on top of painful self-scrutiny about the Nazis are the new meanings that allegations of fascism acquired in the Cold War. From 1945-1990 the term “fascist” was routinely flung by the East against the West – the Berlin Wall’s official name was the “Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier”, and terrorists like the Baader-Meinhof gang justified their attacks on the basis that West Germany was a fascist state led by unreconstructed former Nazis. It isn’t hard to see why a Johnson quip which flows straight past a British audience sticks in the craw of many of our neighbours.
These misunderstandings happen between different cultures – particularly cultures that played drastically different roles in the events concerned – but are extremely difficult to explain or reconcile. Where Europeans offended by Johnson’s comments don’t understand the vastly different folk memory of the war in Britain, we are prone to fail to consider how our often jovial mythos about the time might be seen from other perspectives. As Gisela Stuart advises, we’d do best not to bring it up at all.