Could it be that even the British have become weary of commemorating the World Wars? Or was the lack of fanfare around the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War earlier this month down to having a selective national memory? Do we only like to remember the bits where we emerge as clear heroes, victors or victims?
To my surprise, nothing, or very little, happened in this country on 3rd September 2019. Yet, at 11.15am on that day in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a somber broadcast to the nation made from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street, announced with regret that his efforts to ensure peace had failed and that “this country is at war with Germany.” The ensuing conflict lasted six years and cost around 50 million lives.
For Poland this anniversary was obviously a huge deal. Germany’s invasion was the catalyst for Britain’s and France’s declaration of war and few places suffered the same level of death and destruction between 1939 and 1945. It lost about a fifth – that’s six million – of its population including the vast majority of its three million Jewish citizens. Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the Luftwaffe, was the chosen location for forty world leaders and representatives of other countries to gather together for a dawn ceremony on Sunday 1st September at 4am (2am GMT). Polish President Andrzej Duda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, US Vice President Mike Pence were all present. (President Trump cancelled citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian as his reason for basically spending the day on the golf course.) President Putin wasn’t invited. But, why wasn’t our Prime Minister there? I think we sent our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to a subsequent ceremony in Warsaw but…?
Surely a bit more than just a nod to our role in the unfolding of the most momentous episode in modern history would have been appropriate? Maybe a moment where we press pause on all justifications and humbly reflect on the regrettable escalation of the horrors that our declaration of war unleashed? Or a clearly stated renewed commitment to peace in Europe? Or an informed and respectful acknowledgment of the far greater losses suffered by so many other nations? I recently asked friends how many people they thought died in WW2. “Seven million Soviets? Two million Germans? Two million British?” they guessed. “Actually we have no idea,” they admitted. And they didn’t. Most British people don’t. It was between 20 and 27 million Soviets, 7 million Germans and 450,000 British… that’s including Crown Colonies.
To be fair, Boris Johnson, in a videoed speech that circulated on Twitter, praised the “dogged and unconquerable resistance” Poland displayed during the Second World War and how it “never succumbed to tyranny…” But he also couldn’t help slipping in a quick pat on the UK’s back for standing with Poland “in times of triumph and tragedy.” Hmmmh, you just have to listen to Neil Macgregor’s excellent series on Radio 4 “As others see us” to realise that this is not quite how Poland sees things. Part of their otherwise generally positive national memory of us is of ‘betrayal’, not once but three times! (This relates to the Katyn massacre, ignoring the plight of Polish Jews and Britain’s role at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when it was decided that Poland would be given to the Soviets.
British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, just rolled out the same old tired stuff about Britain going to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”. (Defending ones values and friends is how all sides justify conflict, however small or large.) He added, “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice. The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.” Aaaagh, they just can’t help themselves, these men! It is always all about us. Our heroism, our sacrifice, our justified defence. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to engage with Polish history? The imbalance between what we know about others and what others know about us is embarrassing. Our narrative that “We went to war for Poland” is, for example, in Polish minds “We declared war for Poland” because the much hoped for military support didn’t actually follow. We really need to start embracing a wider-angled view of history! (This podcast is a great start)
For me it was once again the German contribution that lit a way forward for us all. Speaking with typical unreserved apologetic candour, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described how “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fueled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate… My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people – among them millions of Polish citizens – their lives. This war was a German crime… I, along with [Merkel], want to tell all Poles today that we will not forget. We will not forget the wounds that Germans inflicted on Poland. We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.” He then went on, with a bowed head and speaking in both German and Polish, to ask for Polish forgiveness. “I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”
Wow! I know, this is not new. Germany has been publicly apologising for years, starting back in 1970 with Willy Brandt’s silent ‘Kniefall‘. Nevertheless, can we just pause and reflect a moment. The president of a powerful country holding up his hands in surrender and basically saying: “What we did was shit. We were shits. There are no words to describe just how shit we were and nothing can ever change that.” Just imagine how difficult that is to do. And how different the world would be if more people did that. The power of apology. The power of asking for forgiveness. (Whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness on behalf of another / others is debatable as Bernard Schlink does so well in his book ‘Guilt about the past’. But still…)
I’m glad that in a return speech, President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his presence at the painful anniversary before continuing to rightly denounce Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland as “an act of barbarity” and list other massacres and atrocities on Polish soil. He also drew attention to the genocide and mass murder continuing around the world today, and underlined the importance of international alliances like NATO and the European Union. (The question of further compensation was also raised later on… but you can read a fuller summary of the speeches here.) The pain still lingering between these countries that were so utterly destroyed on so many levels is visceral. As is the will for lasting reconciliation.
As much as I am frustrated and disappointed by our on-going and often unimaginative, inward-looking and lop-sided to the point of ignorant rhetoric on the World Wars, I am also optimistic. Younger generations are asking awkward questions that force a re-evaluation of the dusty, airbrushed pictures of our ‘glorious’ Empire. And the answers they are finding are uncomfortable. Maybe when we stop hiding our misdeeds behind the undisputedly ghastly deeds of the Nazis and the Holocaust and finally acknowledge our own national shadow, when we admit that the whole British Empire was based on the genocide of indigenous people and a forcing of our values on others, maybe then we can be genuinely better in the present and the future.