Monday, March 7, 2022

Remembering Angus Calder's The People's War

For as long as I can remember the narrative about World War II prevailing in the United States (which received a massive boost in the late '90s from Tom Brokaw and "Stephen Ambrose") has been a distinctly conservative-nationalist one, and even a jingoistic-militarist one--a lesson in the ever-presence of monsters in the world, and the evil that "ideologues" do; the cowardice and foolishness of appeasement, invariably identified with leftie peaceniks, at whose every hesitancy the word "Munich" is to be sneered; the necessity of national unity and deference to leaders, and a cheerful "can-do" attitude and "get-it-done" spirit, above all in what is so often made to seem the sole legitimate collective endeavor, war; the eternal and supreme value of the old-time patriotic and martial attitudes, and the idolization of men of the type of George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, not in spite of but because of what persons of liberal sensibility are prone to see as their failings; the inherent goodness of the English-speaking peoples and the depravity of the continentals and the world's need for America to lead it; and of course, the superiority of the elder generation, the superhuman "Greatest Generation," to its spoiled, flabby, worthless children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Moreover, this understanding corresponded to how Americans think of others as experiencing the war, especially those "nearest others," the British. Passing more or less the same concept through their "stage Englishman" stereotypes, of course, they picture a stiff upper-lipped elite Carrying on and Making Do as the bombs fell--whether in those mansions to which children like the Pevensies were evacuated, or at the front, where Cockney enlisted men cheerfully followed their public school-graduated officers to death if need be in a display of "convenient social virtue" that made even "the Yanks" as described here look so egalitarian and easygoing that the Brits can only shake their heads.

Of course, anyone who gets beyond the most superficial knowledge of the conflict quickly begins noticing a great deal that does not fit in with this narrative. Still, to catch the inconsistencies is one thing, to add them up to create a different and possibly truer image is quite another, and that made discovering Angus Calder's The People's War quite the revelation when I first happened upon it way back when--rather than a history of the conflict in which those on top tell those below them what they would like to think an attempt at a history of the conflict from below. The intent apart, there was what it showed--a deeply unequal and deeply divided nation which brought all its pre-war bagagge with it into the conflict; where the elite, not so different from its "better Hitler than Blum"-minded counterparts on the continent, profoundly ignorant and profoundly disdainful of its poorer countrymen, and thinking first, last and always of the preservation of their own privileges at any cost to the country and the world were reluctant and feckless war-leaders; that elite's discredit in the wake of defeat after defeat in Norway, the Low Countries, France, where the "miracle" of Dunkirk was really a partial escape in the wake of a disastrous defeat that would never have been allowed to happen at all by an even slightly determined and competent Anglo-French leadership, and which turned what might have been a limited post-World War I blow-up into an even greater catastrophe. And there was what ultimately came out of it, a war waged by the people, and won by the people, the close of which, befitting a "people's war," brought with it a new social contract--with the Beveridge report, the election of '45, the first Attlee government, and the beginning of a period of reform rather than the end that the war proved to be elsewhere (in America, the end of the New Deal, with the reformist impulse not to make much comeback until the Great Society era a generation later).

Radically leftish as all this sounds there is a critique of this view from the left--not least of the extent to which the war never ceased to be an Establishment war, the sharp limits on the post-war reforms at home, and the extent to which even very limited reform at home was matched by constancy in policy abroad. Rather than leading the way to a world where there would never be another war--to the left's vision of global governance that would spare the world another conflict like the one that had just ended--it took the role of number two member of the Western alliance in the Cold War, while fighting to hold on to the Empire as much as it could for as long as it could. And indeed, for those purposes, as David Edgerton points out, the welfare state was consistently second to the warfare state in British post-war life. In short, if it was well that the Allies defeated the Axis and Britain's people did their part, and it was well that the British people had their welfare state, it was no happy ending to the tale--with the fact the more obvious in the age of Thatcher, and Blair--and Johnson.

As one might guess from the fact, in considering how little remembered "the people's war"-type understanding of the conflict seems to be by these days by the British public (which, contrary to the incessant output of Heritage drama, seems no more historically-minded than its American peers, for example), it is not the leftist critique that has shunted it aside, but quite the opposite--the triumph of the rightist-nationalistic version of the war's memory, which to go by what we have seen on the big screen has been promoted vehemently in recent years by Euro-disdaining Brexiteers and Blackadder-bashing right-wing revisionists. In an age in which the danger not only of war but full-blown great power war presses this can seem a most inopportune forgetting of the painful lessons of what has been widely accounted the bloodiest century in human history.

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