Last Thursday (3rd September) was the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, a conflict that killed 60 million men, women and children, ravaged the face of much of the world, precipitated the downfall of Europe as the centre of world gravity, and which was, to a large extent, caused by the explosion of competing nationalist fervour throughout the world. To commemorate, I bought myself a jumper in Union Jack colours.
It does seem that, like denim and trade unions, nationalism is back in fashion. In the now seemingly halcyon days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, western commentators lined up hubristically to announce the “end of history”, and hence the obsolescence of nationalism. This was not entirely new; people have, after all, being trying to do so since Woodrow Wilson.
Now, though, it appears that the 90s is more likely to be regarded as a breather, a caesura in world power competition, rather than the harbinger of collectively-secure world, or even an extended period of uni-polar Pax Americana.
The rise of China and the other BRIC nations as economic powers, and the re-emergence of Russia under, or perhaps astride, Vladimir Putin after its hibernation (sorry) from weltpolitik, let alone the proliferation of trans or supra-national actors such as Islamic fundamentalists, suggests not only that whatever progress has been made towards acceptance of liberal market democracy as politically normative will not be unchallenged, and, more simply, that nationalism is by no means a spent force.
This leads to my second observation, which is that there was scant commemoration of this momentous day 70 years ago, aside from good old Lord Bragg’s offering which informed us that, amongst his perhaps greater crimes, Hitler denied Dorothy Taylor an Olympic gold medal (an accolade that was probably always going to elude Unity Mitford, having failed in her attampt to shoot herself in the head from close range on hearing the news of the outbreak of war).
With the deaths of the last remaining servicemen from the First World War, are we losing our societal memory of these two seminal conflicts, and is that an ominous development for future peace?
Men and women, who had lived through the horrors of the Great War, openly wept when Neville Chamberlain informed them of the outbreak of another one not 20 years later, but this institutional memory did not prevent the war; indeed, it may have even contributed to it, in providing the fertilizer for the policy of appeasement.
Besides, one lesson from history is that politicians almost invariably draw the wrong lessons from history.
This is not always true; any fool could now tell you that after 2 famously failed attempts, invading Russia in winter is not a good idea (Russia’s record in 20th Century wars is like Germany’s in major football tournaments – however incompetent they seem at the start, they will almost invariably win). Conversely, however, many ill-advised belligerent policies, from Vietnam to Iraq, have been justified by invoking the spectre of Munich.
Indeed, it is worth recalling that Winston Churchill, lauded for his prescient opposition to Hitler and fervent opposition to appeasement, spent the other half of the 1930s fighting a doomed, but rhetorically splendid rearguard action against self-government in India and that “seditious… fakir” Gandhi.
Putin’s (taking time out from topless fishing) recent assessment of the causes of “the Great Patriotic War” is illustrative more of current world politics than of the history of the 1930s. Although he has clearly consulted his GCSE bytesize notes on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, his attempts to use the spineless response to Hitler from the Western powers as an excuse for the policy of Stalin, a man who surely in all good conscience should be ranked up there with Herr Hitler himself, in dividing up Poland, is the sound of a man who wants to put his country back on the map (or at least ban the sales of post-1989 maps in Eastern Europe).
His justification amounts to “Because X, Y and Z refused to ally with A, A was forced to join B and kill Z.” Hmmm.
The events of 1939 – 1945 were terrible for the vast majority of the world. This suffering should not be forgotten, but politicians should be careful about what morals are drawn from this, and any, part of history, and for what purpose. In any event, it seems unhelpful for Europe to engage in another round of “you started it”.