He Mentioned the War, but We Don't Think He Got Away with It; Jason Beattie on the Claim We Are Obsessed with That Little Business between 1939 and 1945

The Birmingham Post (England), February 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

He Mentioned the War, but We Don't Think He Got Away with It; Jason Beattie on the Claim We Are Obsessed with That Little Business between 1939 and 1945


The German Culture Minister (which presumably is not a contradictory title) has goosestepped into a diplomatic row by claiming the British are obsessed with the war.

Mr Michael Naumann has complained that we have made the Second World War the country's "spiritual core."

It is not clear how broad Naumann's cultural references are but it would appear he has a poor understanding of Britain.

Unlike our Teutonic cousins, the British are probably the least militaristic people in Europe, with a natural antipathy for bombast and parade-ground swagger.

Our culture is riddled with references to combat, but, in almost all cases, we celebrate defeat rather than victory.

The most famous war poem in the English language is about 600 uniformed cavalry men charging gloriously to their death.

Even when we do pay homage to a military victory as in Southey's The Battle of Blenheim it is done with humour and irony.

The central motif of this poem is a child playing with a skull - not your usual image of military glory - and the chorus line is weighed with sarcasm:

"But what good came of it at last?"

Quoth little Peterkin.

"Why that I cannot tell," said he

"But 'twas a famous victory."

Nor is our distaste for warlike grandiosity confined to poetry. We may have produced a number of war films but the most jingoistic of these (In Which We Serve, for instance) were made during the War to boost morale.

The most recent war films, of which there have been precious few, have concentrated on our defeats rather than our glories; Bridge on the River Kwai and A Bridge Too Far.

It is the Americans who have preferred to produce sabre-rattling epics where the Stars and Stripes gives the Bosche a good thrashing.

Britain, on the other hand, has taken a more realistic approach to military engagement which appreciates that combat has a human cost.

If anything we place more emphasis on the horrors of war than the glory. Most pupils can recite the litany of First World War battles where thousands of lives were lost - Ypres, Mons, Gallipoli, The Somme and Passchendaele - but not the crucial battles over the Germans which sealed victory for the Allies.

Moreover, our distaste for war has passed over to peace time. We are one of the few countries in the world were members of the armed services do not wear their uniform in the street.

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