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Reflections upon the future of commemorating Britain's war dead

If you asked me how many people from the UK died during World War Two I would have guessed it was 2 million. So I was surprised to learn that of the 55 million that perished in the conflict the number of Britons was 480,000. This does not compare with the  Soviet Union that lost 20m or Japan  2 million. This is not to denigrate us as we fought the longest war of all , bankrupted ourselves in the process. At least we had the moral authority to be the only European power at the negotiating tables of Yalta and Potsdam to carve up Europe afterwards.


Like many of my generation I was educated to see a world map coloured pink to show the Commonwealth and it came as something of a shock when an American friend of the family who was a larger than life billionaire called Arnie explained to me that because of the war Britain had a veneer as a world power till Eisenhower came off the golf course to derail Suez in 1956 and then resumed his round. It took many years and Mrs Thatcher to recover our self respect in circumstances that still divide opinion as to her policies and legacy.


It was an odd consequence of World War Two as to how Society did or did not alter. The Commonwealth countries that contributed so much to the war effort to save the world from Nazism not unnaturally expected freedom in their own country; the black American might have expected a more racially tolerant south but did not find it and till the 60s and the Civil rights movement there was still appalling segregation; the Spanish republican that fought in North Africa might not have expected Franco to remain in power till 1975; the poor Pole saw one form of totalitarianism replaced by another Germany was expected by Stalin to pay $20 m in reparation and its economic machine repaired to effect this . It did not take too long for the German economic miracle to overtake a UK that made the decision that even though it was bust to fund a welfare state and the National Heath. France examined itself cutting the hair off the female population that collaborated , rather a large number as the Resistance has been generously numbered at 250,000 and de Gaulle had been sentenced to death as a traitor.


Churchill was voted out in 1945 , over 10000 voting for an Independent in his constituency of Chelmsford. It was a fascinating election whose results were not announced for some 3 weeks to gather in the overseas vote. The effect of the Daily Mirror under Hugh Cudlipp , the breakdown of class divide in the war effort, the branding of the Conservatives as the appeasement party, the image of Churchill as a war but not peace time Minister, the domestic work of Herbert Morrison as war time Home Secretary , the vain hope of a new Jerusalem all contributed to the labour land slide and Clem Attlee as PM . The British Empire was soon to disintegrate. The United States largely unaffected domestically except its economy boomed came out the best . It was not long before fear and loathing of Communism replaced that of Nazism as Churchill spoke of the Iron Curtain in his famous speech at Fulton Missouri . In one sense and I am not defending the brutality of Stalin and his regime you cannot blame a country that lost 20 million for seeking buffers of security in the eastern bloc. Would the map have Europe changed if the second front was opened up earlier? I think so.


The Japanese suffered horrific casualties in the bombing of Tokyo ,Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The rationale for this was the Japanese were too proud to surrender and the Americans would have suffered significant casualties in overcoming them. All over Europe there was a displacement of people that we would find unimaginable these days. The full horror of the concentration camps was revealed and sympathy for the suffering and slaughter of 6 million Jews led to the foundation of Israel. There were noble but ultimately futile attempts to set up institutions to lead to a more peaceful , ordered world society.One such was the United Nations. Another was the Nuremberg Tribunal. Stalin believed in a summary execution of the German High staff as many as 50,000, Roosevelt thought he was joking and said 49000 would be enough. Churchill left the room and retuned to say he would never sanction such a thing. The Nuremberg tribunal was therefore convened in 18 months with a code of law that the Russians, Americans , British and French constituted should have have endured to determine the excesses of waging an aggressive war never survived the breakdown of the allies. It was the first time that the politicians were held to account and despite the fears it would establish Germans as martyrs was a colossal judicial achievement . Goering whose personalty dominated the proceedings committed suicide whilst Speer the only one to admit to collective responsibility and in my view the cleverest Nazi avoided the rope . He died in London .


Remembrance day has lost some of its force as the number of veterans dwindles. You have to be in the late 80s to have fought . By chance I was watching that fine documentary World at War made in 1971 for the launch of Channel  4 and reached the remembrance episode . It is different in tone and content from the previous ones as it adopts an air of reflection on what actually 55m died for. An American historian observed if it saved the world from Nazism, Italian fascism and Japanese Imperialism it was worth it. Most would agree


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About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts


  1. Avatar photo National Rust Newsdesk // November 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm //

    I would refer also to Eire and Italy in this post war survey. Eire remained neutral but German. Uboat s remained off the coast at Cork to wreak havoc on convoys. Germany had a Legation in Dublin with a visitors book. President De Valera in it wished Adolf Hitler a Happy Birthday. In 1945.
    Italy was effectively in state of civil war after the death of Mussolini in 1943. There was much poverty afterwards and questions have been asked about the Mafia assistance to the American landings in Sicily. The Vatican ‘s role both during the war and assisting Nazi fugitives afterwards reflected badly on the Catholic Church

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