Saturday, March 10, 2012

"the British as a nation had no great opinion of the French": evolving sensibilities in World War II histories

Trying to write history with a touch of humor or irony as well as analytical rigor can be a tall order: all the more so, in the case of deadly serious topics such as war and mass death. Here is one such attempt by Peter Calvocoressi.

As he notes in the second edition of his history of the Second World War, attitudes change, and scholarly needs and perspectives along with them. He is eminently qualified to do so, for not only was he a historian: he was also involved in British intelligence work at Bletchley Park during the war. (Indeed, the analysis in the first edition of his book was hampered by the fact that he still could not legally reveal that the Allies had broken the German "Ultra" codes.)
The first readers of this book were prompted, I surmise, mainly by wonder. They wanted to know how and why this terrible war, which they had experienced and survived, had come about; and how it ran its course, with what shifts and turns, what inventions, skills and pieces of luck. This curiosity was allied with the simple convictions of right and wrong which had ruled during the war; wartime loyalties persisted for a time in post-war exhilaration and relief, equally unquestioning, providing their own scale of values. A later generation has other needs. The curiosity is still there, but an audience further removed from the intensities of war is more critical. It takes less for granted and sees no reason not to query particular reputations or general strategies, ours as much as theirs. War leaders, military and civilian, are subjected to the beady eye of posthumous inquest, which is sometimes justified by the resulting verdicts although it may in some cases smell of a distasteful iconoclasm. Strategies which, during the war, were judged purely in terms of their war-winning efficacy are reviewed and censured in moral terms which the warriors themselves would have dismissed as a luxury rightly banished from the calculation of their wartime exigencies.

Total War: The Causes and Courses of the Second World War. Volume I: The Western Hemisphere, second revised edition (NY: Pantheon, 1989), xvii-xviii
Here, then, is part of his characterization of the mood and stance of Great Britain in the early months of World War II:
While prognostications of an unimaginable rain of death proved ill founded, the British found themselves spectators in a phoney, unnatural and yet humiliating war: no help was given to the Poles, no help reached the Finns, whose gallantry was at least equal to that of the Poles and more effective; Norway, a much respected country, was occupied by the Germans under the British nose. When the campaign in the west opened, the bombing of Rotterdam revived the German reputation for Hunnish atrocities in the First World War. France collapsed--a shock but in a sense also a release, since the British as a nation had no great opinion of the French and were as happy to fight, if need be, without a French ally as with one. Whereas Munich and the occupation of Prague and the growing evidence of Nazi barbarity had braced the younger generation for a fight, the bombing of Rotterdam stirred an older stratum of anti-German patriotism which, inclined also to be contemptuous of France, was undismayed at the prospect of single combat. And old and young were equally fortified by the retreat from Dunkirk which with a glorious perversity they regarded as a victory. (426-27)
Long before "The Simpsons" popularized the characterization of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," the British held their erstwhile allies in disdain, and this obvious fact is nowadays discussed frankly in the history books. At the same time, as Calvocoressi gently but firmly points out, the behavior of the British prior to the German invasion was less than glorious, and he cannot help noting the desperation behind the need to make a silk purse from the sow's ear of the Dunkirk débâcle. (He could have added that even that perverse victory was made possible in part by the French soldiers who were ordered to remain behind to secure the evacuation, and paid for their devotion with death or imprisonment.) Almost no one comes off without a blemish here, and that's precisely the point—or part of it. The larger point is that, despite everything, in the end, the nation came together and the job got done.

He goes on to note why this was the case. In essence: there was a broad consensus of purpose behind both the war effort and government, as such. Most intriguingly, among the factors that he identifies: British society was not necessarily fair—in fact, not at all by our standards, or even the rather lower standards of the day—but it was stable because it benefited from a pragmatic consensus:
Although socially stratified to an extraordinary degree, this society was ideologically more coherent than most in Europe, less distraught by fascist or communist fissures, readier to respond unitedly to the generous humanity, the aristocratic chauvinism and the courage of a Winston Churchill. Furthermore, Britain was a singularly law-abiding, government-conscious and well-governed country. It was well governed not in the sense that the government was good for the people as a whole, but in the sense that the government worked well within the limits set for it by the people who did the governing. Great Britain between the wars was not an agreeable place to live in. It was crowded with misery and injustice: estimates of the underfed in the worst years in the thirties go as high as twenty million. Little was done by government to help this large section of the nation and much of what was done was silly, for the governors were for the most part men of limited awareness and only moderate intelligence. Yet the temper of Great Britain did not become revolutionary. Rather did it become resigned in the face of chronic unemployment, killing poverty and the obscene slums which were among the most frightful places in which Europeans had ever been expected to live; and one of the main reasons for this resignation may be found in the fact that Great Britain had strong government. Strong government does not in this case mean repressive government but a government which never looked like breaking down or running down and which remained fully competent to perform its allotted tasks and preserve the formal framework of a nation's life. Although government was bad in the sense that it was inadequate in conception and performance, it worked. It accepted a deplorably narrow view of its functions, but this view was traditional and excited little rebellion (except for the intellectual kind) with the result that the machinery of government did not become discredited. (427)
Another fine, dense paragraph: analytical yet opinionated, informative, yet marked by wit. I wish my students could write like this.

It sounds dreadfully familiar in some ways (at least the part about limited awareness and intelligence). Today we are (so one hopes) no longer willing to "become resigned" and accept that stability at that price. Still, as we tear ourselves apart in the current presidential campaign (which will presumably get only nastier after the Republicans select a candidate), it's worth noting the importance of a consensus on the legitimacy of government, even as we strive for a society characterized by greater equality and fairness.

1 comment:

the sad red earth said...

Excellent post, Jim, and, indeed, good writing and compelling insights from Calvocoressi. Makes me want to read the book, so you've done that job. But if your students could write like that it wouldn't be work.