This is going to be a rant, so buckle up.
I went to school in England, from primary school all the way to higher education. I was taught British history the British way. I had no reason to question anything I was taught. Outside of school I thoroughly absorbed the British point of view concerning their place in the world. However, I have an unusual perspective because after growing up in England, I moved abroad and reflected on my experiences. I have since concluded that children in Britain are taught a naive, incomplete and context-free version of their country’s history. British children are exposed to a deep-seated conviction that Britain has been on the right side of history. Always.
This is a particularly topical problem, because like any other country, Britain’s national identity is deeply informed by its history. And now we find Britain in an unholy political mess and in the act of committing an epic act of self-harm because of it.
This is necessarily a highly subjective of what I initially learned about British history and the British world-view and how that was revised (corrected?). It was revised because I settled down in Germany and began to read more about history.
By the way, I don’t pretend to be a historian so you will not find finely-balanced arguments here. This is a rant, after all.
The Second World War
World War 2 is a good place to start, because it plays a major part in Britain’s collective subconsciousness. I’d say it’s probably the main contributor to the “right side of history” thinking.
In my experience there is a distinct difference in the emotional baggage attached to WW2 compared to WW1. WW1 evokes mostly negative emotions: trauma, needless loss, immense suffering. WW2 has many positive emotions attached: victory, grit, heroism, triumph over adversity. Yet the rest of Europe stands before WW2 and sees an abyss of suffering, atrocity and destruction. Britain does not. Why this discrepancy?
Some reasons that occur to me are: In WW1 it was much harder to identify the morally superior side. WW1 was a bar fight which European nations stumbled into with no idea what lay in store. In WW2 the villain was easy to identify. WW1 cost the British twice as many lives as WW2.
I think another reason is that Britain believes things about WW2 which are inaccurate or just plain wrong and that there are big gaps in the narrative. Let’s take a look.
Before I continue I’ll briefly take off my ranting cap and state the following: Firstly: the defeat of Nazi Germany was an unambiguously good thing. Secondly: the people of Britain made gigantic sacrifices and went to superhuman lengths to realise that defeat. Thirdly: as a third-rate armchair theoriser I will never ever ever ever grasp the visceral experience of war or genocide. Unless it happens to me.
Britain did not win the war
Saying Britain won the war is like saying Ringo Starr had a hit with Hey Jude. Britain did win the war – but as a team effort. The elephant in the room is that the lion’s share of the fighting and dying was done by Soviet Russia.
The USSR lost a staggering 24 million people in the struggle against Nazi Germany whilst Britain lost less than half a million. There is a misconception in Britain and the USA that WW2 happened mostly on the Western Front. It didn’t. The largest theatre of war by a very large margin was the Eastern Front, where Nazi Germany battled Soviet Russia. The Eastern Front by itself would have been the largest war in history, larger than World War 1.
In a nutshell: The USSR did the heavy lifting when it came to winning the war, not Britain, not the USA.
Let’s talk about the Eastern Front.
The Eastern Front
Growing up in England I knew almost nothing about the Eastern Front. Reading Anthony Beevor’s Book on Stalingrad was the first time it grabbed my attention.
Of course the Eastern Front was much more than just the Battle of Stalingrad. It was an unrelentingly awful hell-hole that stretched for thousands of kilometres and swallowed millions of lives under horrific circumstances. By comparison, the landings in Normandy were a distraction for the Germans. Between 60%-80% of German military losses were on the eastern front.
The hatred and fear of the enemy on both sides was pronounced. The fighting was brutal and the treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was atrocious. There were also a staggering number of civilian casualties in this conflict – including the “Holocaust by bullet”.
Despite all of this, Russian-German relations on the non-political level are largely untainted by WW2. Why do the British still have a chip on their shoulder about WW2 when the Russians don’t? It’s a mystery to me.
Victory in Europe was not a triumph of Good over Evil
There is no doubt that Britain was good and that Nazi Germany was evil. But Britain and the Allies defeated evil by letting evil join its ranks. And then that evil swallowed half of Europe.
We’re talking about the USSR again, and it was definitely evil. Under Stalin the USSR committed some staggering crimes against humanity. To name only one, read about the Ukrainian Genocide.
To say that Europe was liberated in 1945 is naive. Yes, Europe was liberated from the Nazis but immediately after half of the continent was occupied by an equally terrifying totalitarian state and became communist (to get an inkling of how awful the communist occupation was, go and see the 2006 Film “The Lives of Others”). Ask a Pole, a Bulgarian, or a Hungarian whether the second world war had a happy end and you’ll get a clear no.
Britain’s Colonial History
Looking back on my English schooling it boggles my mind that I was taught NOTHING about Britain’s colonial History. Zero. Nada. Not a piffle.
I left school not knowing that the country of Pakistan came into existence as a direct result of British colonial rule. I also had no idea how much of a god-awful mess the so-called Partition of India was:
“As the partition on religious lines ripped the subcontinent apart. Partition changed millions of lives, and the shape of the world, forever. No one knows exactly how many were beaten, mutilated, tortured or raped in communal violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The death toll has been estimated at 200,000 to two million. Between 10 million and 20 million people were displaced.” NY Times 2017
Many parties share the blame for this debacle, but a good case can be made for laying most of it on Imperial Britain’s doorstep.
Another massive gap in my historical knowledge concerns the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. It was all over the news when I was still in school. But had school furnished me with the background for what I was seeing on TV? Thats a big fat nope. It was Wikipedia that filled in the gaps: China ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1841 as a result of the First Opium War which pitched Imperial Britain again China. In a nutshell Britain destabilised China by smuggling opium into the county on a massive scale, and used military force when China tried to put a stop to it. Charming!
I’m not judging Britain for her actions. Im asking why was I not taught the history that matters?
The list of Imperial Britain’s crimes is long and varied and I’m not going to go through it in detail. Some lowlights worth mentioning are:
- The Amritsar massacre (between 379 and 1,000 protesters dead in 10 minutes)
- Concentration camps during the Boer war (28 000 dead)
- The Mau Mau uprising (between 20 000 and 100 000 dead)
- Various famines in India (Between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation)
Im not even going to mention the slave trade or Ireland. Again, I’m not asking for Britain to apologise, although that might also be an idea worth considering. I’m asking: why do British kids leave school without knowing any of this?
I do remember learning about the Black Hole of Calcutta, so it seems that some British-Indian history was covered. It was an atrocity on the Indian side that resulted in the death of 143 british prisoners of war. But why that episode and nothing else? Who were the people in the GCSE history curriculum committee who decided that the Black Hole of Calcutta should be in whilst everything else was out? They were either imperialists or imbeciles, there can be no other explanation.
British Remembrance Culture
The way that Britain deals with its military war dead is illuminating. The British are big on remembrance and they do it extremely well, of course they do. Britain excels when it comes to tradition, pomp, circumstance pulling the heart-strings, putting on a show. But again, I see gaps and omissions and the bone-headed refusal to acknowledge a wider context. British Remembrance Culture is a shining pinnacle of “right side of history” thinking.
The remembrance poppy is a perfect metaphor for Britains problems with its own history. It all started with good intentions. As you know the poppy is an artificial flower that has been used since 1921 to commemorate military personnel who have died in war. The tradition was inspired in part by the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields”. If you look at the website of the Royal British Legion you’ll be informed that the poppy is a symbol of remembrance and hope. The site says: It is not a symbol of death or a sign of support of war. Yet on the very same page you can read “In Flanders Fields” and its call for the living to continue the conflict. Talk about a conflicted symbol. Nonetheless, I do believe the tradition was started in good faith, but with each year it “seems to become less about paying tribute to the fallen and more a litmus test for a particular sort of nauseating pub bore nationalism” The Independent
Heroism and war
Another jarring anachronism is the fact that war and heroism are so intertwined in anglo-saxon culture. The recent 75th Anniversary of D-Day are a good example of this. The US and UK media coverage leaned heavily on the hero angle. The narrative usually goes something like this: young soldiers risked and willingly gave their lives for the cause of freedom in Europe and are heroes because of it. Let’s call this the “hero narrative”.
I propose an alternative narrative: D-Day involved one bunch of poor bastards, young kids swept up in political circumstances utterly beyond their control, killing another bunch of poor bastards. Let’s call this the “horror narrative”.
What if our aim is to do everything we can to reduce the likelihood of future war? Surely that is our aim, no? I firmly believe that a narrative of horror reduces the chance of war, whilst a narrative of heroism does the opposite. I’ll concede that once you have a war, talk of heroism may possibly have some utility, but before we get there, lets try everything – everything!– to prevent it.
A celebrated event in WW2 were the “Dam Buster” Raids, a gold-plated example of war-time heroism - mainly due to the eponymous 1950s film. The WW2 Dam Buster Raids killed 1400 people, many of them Russian Prisoners of war. That doesn’t make the achievements of the pilots any less remarkable or impressive. Their experience was harrowing and the success of their mission was hard-fought and deserved, but their heroism caused death on a massive scale.
Isn’t it time to concede that heroism in war is not something to aspire to? Heroism means people died. In war that may be necessary, but it shouldn’t be celebrated. I’m not saying that we should forget, quite the opposite! What I’m saying is don’t celebrate the deaths of human beings. I really think it is that simple.
By the way, speaking of heros, 65 years ago, Alan Turing (41) killed himself. He had played a pivotal role in WWII by cracking German enigma codes, thus saving millions of lives. In thanks the British state chemically castrated him for being gay. Now they put him on a bank note, but I wonder how many people know the truth about his tragic end.
Can I be proud of my country?
Should you be proud of your country’s history? Should the British, the French, the Germans, the Japanese be proud of their country’s history?
How about being proud of the fact that you were born on the 9th March? That you were born at noon? That you were born in a leap year? It doesn’t make sense to be proud of those things, because you had no part in them.
Be proud if you were part or will be part of a struggle. Be proud if you experience persecution, inequality, discrimination. Be even more proud if you take a stand to fix these problems. But don’t be proud of the particular bit of rock that you were born on, because you had nothing to do with it.
But what if I want to be proud of my country, because I feel a strong sense of national identity?
OK, fine. But then own your country’s history. Own all of it. Don’t hold aloft the gold nuggets whilst pushing a mound of poo under the carpet. Don’t hold aloft the gold nuggets and not even be aware that you’re standing in a mound of poo. Also, take a close look at the gold nuggets and ensure that they are actually not just gold-plated poo.
Britain is part of a continent that is drenched in blood. In fact, it’s the most blood-drenched continent of all. That is not something to be proud of at all. Most of that blood was shed because some people were so very proud of the particular bit of rock they were born on.
How can we prevent more bloodshed? Here are some ideas (none of them my own):
- Examine and tell the truth, however uncomfortable it may be. Don’t believe in a fairy tale.
- Immerse yourself in the horror of war, not the glory, for that too is a fairy tale.
- Bind countries together with economic treaties.
Actually, we already did that last thing. It’s the European Union and it has been a fantastic success: everyone is richer and we’ve had 70 years of peace. Isn’t that what really matters?