It’s inevitable and natural that we think about our own kith and kin before foreigners, and I think it’s all but inevitable that we overestimate our participation in any large-scale international enterprise – and overestimate how much others esteem, admire and even know about what we’ve done (or not done). This is all the more the case in an enterprise that is seen as a) good and b) successful.
World War 11 fits these criteria. What follows is not an exhaustive examination of the facts, but some anecdotal impressions with a sprinkling of fact.
Certainly when I was growing up in the UK the phrase “we won the war” was not controversial. And I don’t think it would be controversial today. I remember yelling “we won the war in 1964” at my nursery school (such a satisfying rhyme) – only to be informed that it was 1962. It’s not the first time I’ve been slightly off about the war. I’m also obviously old enough to remember endlessly playing battle games with “Airfix” men – plastic soldiers – always Germans against English – and, via my older brother, ceaselessly reading black and white war comics in which German pilots were always crying out “Teufel – Englander!!” as they were shot down. Such was my moral universe.
The thing is, the phrase “we won the war” – as far as I can guess – is also not controversial today in either the US or Russia. And while of course this doesn’t strictly mean that no one else participated, it does have a tendency to play up the role of one’s own country at the expense of others.
The more I read about the war, the more fascinated I am. And then there are chance meetings. Last year I talked with a well-educated Russian guy about the war. Having read some accounts by Max Hastings, the British historian, I’d become aware – according to Hastings – that the Russian perspective on the Great Patriotic War, as they call it, is that the Western front was a side-show to the main event of the war – the enormous battles between the Germans and Russians. Hastings writes the Russians have some reason to support this view- their losses were colossal – around 26 million or even more – and some of the battles, involving millions of soldiers, were the largest in history. Sure enough, my Russian interlocutor assured me that Russians, generally speaking, think they were responsible for about 80% of the fighting and the winning of the war. He told me that he was surprised and interested on visiting the UK to hear about something called the “Battle of Britain.”
So to the UK. We of course couldn’t possibly have won the war on our own (supposing that that claim has been made seriously…): the German military were far more powerful than the British – at least at the beginning of hostilities. Hastings writes also that generally speaking the British army performed abysmally during the war – suffered defeat after defeat and only came up to a barely satisfactory level by the end of the conflict. He does say though the RAF and the navy performed with distinction. The other thing that is not always remembered is how close the British came to parlaying with Hitler – ie negotiating a truce after the fall of France. It was one of Churchill’s signal achievements that he persuaded the cabinet not to do this – but it was a close run thing, and could have gone the other way. Churchill himself was a mixture of inspiring brilliance and an overly gung-ho loose cannon who also made some serious military blunders.
Did the Americans win the war? Undoubtedly they were the major force in the Pacific war against the Japanese – but the British and others also fought campaigns against the Japanese. The US industrial might was a major factor in winning the war in the West too, but their losses compared to the Russians, for example, were puny and their involvement much more short-lived. The US didn’t join in the war for the first two years – since most of the American public were (understandably) opposed to joining in the European war.
And then there was a remark by a well-educated UNICEF colleague years ago, after I must have irritated her.
“You should be grateful that we saved your neck in the war,” she growled at me. A fair response would be: yes, the US did sell destroyers and some ships to the UK in the first years of the war, in return for large amounts of money and control of some naval bases – and this was undoubtedly useful. However, it’s perfectly clear that if Nazi Germany had succeeded in invading the UK in 1940 the US would not have intervened. (The US didn’t join until after Pearl Harbor, Dec. 1941). We were saved by a number of things: the English Channel, our navy and air force – and the fact that Hitler eventually turned his attention to the USSR. So we preserved ourselves through our own efforts (yep that “Battle of Britain” thing, which was the air war over the Channel – in which we managed to hold off the Germans sufficiently so that an invasion wasn’t practical – and we also had the largest navy in the world which also made it more difficult) and a fair bit of luck. And after the disastrous series of defeats and withdrawals at the beginning of the war, the UK’s military was in a complete shambles – so there really was a fair bit of luck.
But then again – you come to D-Day – and popular representations of it – as in the US movie Saving Private Ryan. From that film you wouldn’t have the slightest inkling that 50% of the troops that landed that day in France were not American – the other 50% being mostly British with Canadians and others.
But another sobering thing for me – I read recently that 2.5 million Indian soldiers served overseas in the war – 2.5 million!! – and was I really aware of that? No. I wasn’t really even aware that Canadians had helped out our air force until some time ago. Oh convenient ignorance! More than one million Indians served in the First World War as well (more than the US, one Indian writer wrote recently).
But back to my Russian friend – he told me that the annual celebration of victory in the Great Patriotic War is overwhelming and somewhat overblown – and he ruefully acknowledged my prod that – as I expected – the fact that Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler for the first two years of the war is quietly glossed over. Plus the fact that the Soviets began the war by invading Poland from the East, in coordination with Germany, which invaded Poland from the West.
So who did win the war? Well I guess a bunch of different countries – many of which I haven’t even mentioned – some of them were called the United Nations – the forerunner group to the current organization – the group of allies that formed during hostilities.
But I’ve learned I need to be a bit careful about my own country’s myths.
Extract from Max Hastings:
But the principal reality of subsequent military operations would be that Russians did most of the dying necessary to undo Nazism, while the Western powers advanced at their own measured pace towards a long-delayed confrontation with the Wehrmacht. For many years after 1945, the democracies found it gratifying to perceive the Second World War in Europe as a struggle for survival between themselves and Nazi tyranny. Yet the military outcome of the contest was overwhelmingly decided by the forces of Soviet tyranny, rather than by Anglo-American armies. Perversely, this reality was better understood by contemporary Americans and British than it has been by many of their descendants.
Hastings, Max (2010-04-17). Winston’s War (p. 146). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
A relevant passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace:
“He asked him to tell them how and where he got his wound. This pleased Rostov and he began talking about it, and as he went on became more and more animated. He told them of his Schon Grabern affair, just as those who have taken part in a battle generally do describe it, that is, as they would like it to have been, as they have heard it described by others, and as sounds well, but not at all as it really was. Rostov was a truthful young man and would on no account have told a deliberate lie. He began his story meaning to tell everything just as it happened, but imperceptibly, involuntarily, and inevitably he lapsed into falsehood. If he had told the truth to his hearers—who like himself had often heard stories of attacks and had formed a definite idea of what an attack was and were expecting to hear just such a story—they would either not have believed him or, still worse, would have thought that Rostov was himself to blame since what generally happens to the narrators of cavalry attacks had not happened to him. He could not tell them simply that everyone went at a trot and that he fell off his horse and sprained his arm and then ran as hard as he could from a Frenchman into the wood. Besides, to tell everything as it really happened, it would have been necessary to make an effort of will to tell only what happened. It is very difficult to tell the truth, and young people are rarely capable of it. His hearers expected a story of how beside himself and all aflame with excitement, he had flown like a storm at the square, cut his way in, slashed right and left, how his saber had tasted flesh and he had fallen exhausted, and so on. And so he told them all that.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (Complete Version, Best Navigation, Active TOC) (p. 268). Flip. Kindle Edition.