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Correspondingly, German attitudes to historical memory changed as the nation became more confident, and German leaders more willing to celebrate the end of the war as the defeat of fascism, than as the defeat of Germany. In that they were helped by a more forgiving attitude from France, as both nation’s futures were bound up in the European Union. French discomfort at loss of great power status was perhaps evident in the withdrawal from the 1964 Normandy commemoration, and of all members of the western alliance, France has remained the most critical of the US ‘hyperpuissance’. Still, diplomacy is a learning curve, and French Presidents are unlikely to voice their criticisms as loudly as de Gaulle.
V.E. Day was not the end of the Second World War. That came on 15 August 1945 when Japan surrendered, Victory over Japan Day, or V.J. Day. On the tenth anniversary of V.J. Day, American opinion-makers congratulated themselves on ‘a remarkable political experiment’: ‘The United States, in a benevolent occupation, undertook to change the whole main currents of Japanese life and thought’.23 By contrast, Korea’s independence from Japan, was ‘darkened by strife’,24 and Admiral Nimitz appealed to the nation to be vigilant against ‘sneak attacks’.25 Ten years later Robert Trumbull reported the citizens of a ‘resurgent Japan’ taking time out to visit an exhibition of ‘mementoes of their country’s deepest humiliation’ in Tokyo.26 Wartime military leader Masataka Iwata even praised the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for saving Japanese and American lives by bringing the war to a speedy end.27 Iwata’s view, though, was by no means the general one and the coincidence of the attacks on Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) with the surrender have added to the difficulties that the commemoration of V.J. Day represents for the victorious allies. On the 30th anniversary, 1975, it was Japan’s new industrial challenge that captured the headlines, as British trade minister Peter Shore appealed to his countrymen to buy domestic goods, and to Japan to restrain exports.28 In 1994 the Smithsonian Institute got into trouble for organising an exhibition about the bomber Enola Gay which dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. The exhibition was condemned in a resolution of the Senate, following a campaign by veteran groups. ‘If I didn’t know better’, one member of the internal panel the Smithsonian appointed to review the script fumed, ‘I would leave the exhibit with the strong feeling that Americans are bloodthirsty, racist killers’.29 As the fiftieth anniversary approached President Clinton insisted that ‘the United States owed Japan no apology for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two’.30 British Prime Minister John Major declined to invite his Japanese counterpart to the V.J. Day celebrations, though Helmut Kohl was invited to the V.E. Day event two months earlier. The government explained that for V.E.
Day ‘the theme is reconciliation, a celebration of 50 years of peace in Europe and hope for the future’, the V.J. Day commemorations ‘will have quite a different theme’.31 As the newspapers saw it: ‘there is a huge difference in the way we are treating these once mortal enemies. Rightly so’. Unlike Germany, which ‘has done its best to atone’ for the war, Japan ‘shamefully...has still not found the honour or the honesty to confront its barbaric past’.32 In 2006 Japanese representatives were once again not invited to the British commemorations at the cenotaph, while only one in fifty British schoolchildren knew what V.J. Day meant.33 US President George Bush told servicemen and veterans at the Naval Air Station, San Diego that the fight against Japan in the war was the same as the war against Islamist terrorism today: ‘Once again, we face determined enemies who follow a ruthless ideology that despises everything America stands for’.34 At times it seems that the battle of the anniversaries tells us more about the trajectory of society since the Second World War than it does about the war itself. The striking thing is just how important the war is to the present-day national identities of so many countries.
Historian Tony Judt says that ‘The Soviet Party-State acquired a new foundation myth: The Great Patriotic War’.35 More tellingly, Nina Tumarkin explains that the Soviet cult of the Great Patriotic War got more intense years later: Victory Day was made a regular holiday as late as 1965, when ostentatious commemoration started to become part of the Soviet State’s appeal to its citizens’ loyalty.36 But then is it not also true that other nations derived renewed authority from their role in the war? For the US the war consolidated Roosevelt’s New Deal and established the nation as the custodian of world security; Britain was transformed from laissez faire imperialists to welfare state and head of the Commonwealth; more remarkably (West) Germany was reconstituted as Civil Polity, Japan got its pacifist constitution, Austria became a neutral state - all countries that needed to draw on the post-war settlement to lay out a plausible identity; those countries whose political institutions were compromised, like France, Italy and Yugoslavia drew upon the record of partisan resistance as an alternative source of national pride.
Even the preoccupation with anniversaries itself is something that has got bigger the further we are from the event. People tended to play down the war in the 1950s as they struggled to rebuild their lives. That was especially true of the citizens of the former Axis powers, for whom the past was a source of shame. But that was true, too, of occupied Europe. Even in the victorious nations, the business of reconstruction, and the emerging Cold War kept attention on the present. Oddly, the further from the event the greater weight the historical commemorations of the Second World War seemed to carry. In Britain, America and the USSR, honouring the wartime sacrifice carried a small-c conservative message of obedience to elders that was attractive to authorities, and the message ‘people fought to make you free’ has been used against radical upstarts ever since. In Germany, reflection on the past had the opposite impact, uncovering the ‘collective amnesia’ of which the younger generation accused the older. The politicisation of historical memory underscores the growing interest in wartime anniversaries.
The Official History of the Second World War
From the moment the war ended official efforts to establish the proper and definitive history of the Second World War have been underway. There are official histories of the Second World War published by the governments of America, Britain, the Soviet Union, Australia and New Zealand. The United States of America’s Office of the Chief of Army History issued more than 45 publications on the war, under the editorship of Kent Greenfield, the historical office of the air force published seven volumes, and the Navy historical programme produced fourteen volumes. The British history is subdivided into military (36 volumes) and civil (29 volumes), foreign policy (5 volumes), intelligence (5 volumes) with many more on medicine, the Royal Air Force and the Special Operations Executive. The first volume was published in 1949, the latest in 2004. The Australian history is 22 volumes, written between 1952 and 1977, the New Zealand history alone runs into fifty volumes. The Chronicle of the Netherlands in the Second World War is 25 Volumes. The Soviet official history is a relatively modest six volumes.37 On top of the official histories are the memoirs by leading participants, Winston Churchill (1948-53), the Roosevelt-Hopkins papers, edited by Robert Sherwin (1948), Cordell Hull (1948), Eisenhower (1948), Erwin Rommel (1950), Montgomery (1949), de Gaulle, Harold Macmillan; the Nazis Goebbels (posthumously, 1948), Schacht (1955) and Speer (1970) all wrote memoirs, which, mostly served to illustrate the wickedness of the Nazis, reinforcing the official version; Stalin discouraged memoirs, saying ‘it is still too early’,38 but after his death Marshal Georgii Zhukov (1971) and many others published. As well as the important characters, scores, if not hundreds of lesser figures, like British junior minister Harold Nicholson (1968) and Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenberg (1964).
The first draft of history, we can say, is something like the official version, in which the heroism of the allied armies defeats an opponent militarily worthy, but territorially aggrandising, and cruel. The official version tended to restrict the war to its explicitly military dimension, downgrading the civil mobilisation to a strictly supporting role, which is to say insisting on the authorities’ monopoly over the conflict. In that way credit for the victory was due to constituted authority in the Allied governments. Similarly, the War Crimes Tribunal and denazification process was restricted for the most part to political leaders, though a vaguer concept of collective guilt was left to hang over the German and Japanese people. It was a view of the war that allowed reconstruction to take place in collaboration with compromised civic leaders in the Axis countries, though it would later be denounced as a cover up. Differences between the Allies are there in the official version but there is in broad terms unanimity over what happened.
Few people today, though, would recognise the official version of 1939-1945 as the definitive account of the Second World War. Today we are surprised that atrocities against the Jews barely featured in the case against Nazi Germany, indeed evidence of them was deliberately played down in official propaganda.39 People today would be surprised to learn that much of the war in the Far East and North Africa was fought to restore Colonial overlords who had been overthrown. They would struggle to understand that Britain and America both maintained diplomatic relations with Fascist Spain throughout the war and after, and that the US kept its Embassy in Vichy France until April 1942. And today’s students of the Second World War are often bemused that the forward march of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was celebrated in Britain and America. We are surprised to learn, in fact, that the war was primarily a war against Germany, and against Japan, not a war against Fascism, a national war, not an ideological one.
The People’s War
The most enduring and influential explanation of the Second World War is the one that calls it The People’s War. This is the first propagandistic account of the war, and one that was set out during the war itself. According to the People’s War thesis, the Allies, Britain, America, and the Soviet Union fought not for national advantage, but for all the peoples of Europe and the Far East, to liberate them from Fascism. The compelling part of the argument lies in the difference between the political structures of the Axis Powers, Germany, Italy and Japan and those of the Allies. Germany and Italy were Fascist dictatorships before the war, Japan ruled by militarists;40 by contrast the Allies Britain and the United States of America retained parliamentary structures of accountability (and the Soviet Union’s claim to be a higher form of democracy was taken more seriously then than it is now). More importantly, the Allies victory led to the restoration of constituent assemblies in the liberated countries of Western Europe, ‘People’s Democracies’ in the east and to the eventual recreation of democratic structures in the occupied Axis countries themselves.
But the British government did not go to war in 1939 to fight fascism. Neville Chamberlain Prime Minister (May 1937-May 1940) had tried to avoid war, but concluded reluctantly that Germany’s invasion of Poland threatened British prestige and interests.
Radical opinion was unsure at first, but then embraced the national struggle. In doing so, Labour leaders and popular commentators like George Orwell and J.B. Priestley, radicals in the Ministry of Information and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, imbued the war effort with the character of a People’s War. They lent the struggle the character of a social revolution, demanding equality of sacrifice during the war and committing the country to great reforms in the peace to come. Mostly, the government tolerated this radical spin on the war effort as the price of unity. ‘Let us go forward, together’, was Prime Minster Churchill’s slogan.
Soon after Germany invaded Soviet territory on 22 June 1941 Stalin wrote that ‘the Soviet Union and Great Britain have become fighting allies in the struggle against Hitlerite Germany’. 41 Asking Churchill to open a ‘Second Front’ against Germany in Western Europe Stalin posed the war aims as liberation: ‘ One should not forget that it is a question of saving millions of lives in the occupied territories of Western Europe and Russia’.42 That also meant that communist parties across the world reversed their prior opposition to the war to support the Allies. Labour leaders, colonial nationalist leaders, intellectuals, and trade unionists - those who were communist supporters - became proponents of the People’s War.
Communist ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt lauded an alliance of ‘Conservatives, Liberals, Labour, Communists and non-party, who are all united in the common liberation struggle in the cause of national independence and human culture against fascist barbarism’.43 America’s entry into the war was more gradual, between supporting Britain through the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ agreement of 2 September 1940 to the formal declaration of war made against it by Germany and Italy on 11 December following the Japanese attack on the US port in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor. Still, President Roosevelt lent the war effort a populist bent in the Atlantic Charter of 12 August 1941, whose sixth clause read: ‘after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny they [America and Britain] hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want’.