Saturday, July 11, 2015

Remembering the Battle of Britain

Along with the fall of the Third Republic and the founding of Vichy, July 10 marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Britain--which is, of course, being commemorated in quite a different fashion.

I was recently surprised to read that half (or more) of Britons aged 18 to 24 surveyed did not know what the Battle of Britain was.

Perhaps it was a surprise because, while in the U.S. we hear such stories all the time, we are less used to such news from other countries.

However, it may also be a matter of the impression we often get in the U.S. of the attitude toward history in Britain--in particular, that while Americans are uninterested in, British society is utterly steeped in the memory of the past, and not least that of World War II.

I think, for instance, of Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain, and his recounting of his childhood, which seemed utterly saturated with the war.

Of course, Winder (born in 1963) belonged to a different generation which, if it did not actually experience the war itself, was still surrounded by people who had been deeply affected by the conflict.

After all, Britain fought the war for six years--much longer than, for example, the United States did. Not only did some five million Britons served in uniform, but the civilian population was subject to extended periods of aerial bombing, which killed tens of thousands, and destroyed the homes and disrupted the lives of many more, so that a good many of them were driven to live in air-raid shelters. (Some people were even born in air-raid shelters. Jerry Springer was one of them.) U-boats stalked the surrounding seas, making even the food supply precarious. Between bomb damage and sunken ships, between the running down of the country's plant amid an all-out production effort and the sell-off of foreign assets, the country lost a quarter of its wealth (according to the official report, anyway), amassed vast new debts, went bankrupt. The result was that its people were subject to rationing, not just during the war, but for many years afterward.

And as one might expect from such a conflict, it had profound consequences: the end of world power status, and empire, and the old world order. It meant a change in the old order at home, too--Labor Britain, the post-war consensus. Some didn't much like this. (Ian Fleming was of them.) Others, more numerous one imagines but less privileged and so less likely to be heard, were more sanguine. But in either case this meant a very different world, and these events not the sort quickly forgotten.

However, today one would have to have lived beyond the usual life expectancy to have a memory of having held any position of real, official responsibility during the war. Anyone under seventy-five has no personal memory of the war years whatsoever. Anyone under sixty cannot even remember rationing or conscription.

The result is that the war, and even its aftermath, have long been receding beyond the mental horizon of most of those living now, in and out of Britain. Increasingly become the sort of thing one knows not firsthand, or even secondhand from the people around them, but only from history class, material learned for the test and then promptly forgotten, unless one particularly cares to remember--a thing that even the presence of such events in film and on television (say, Spitfires shooting it out with Daleks on Doctor Who) may obscure.

Just like the Battle of Waterloo, about which even fewer people know, to go by a survey for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo.

A lot of people seem to think that one's simply an Abba song.

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