May 1st was International Workers ‘ day. A Bank Holiday, as usual, but back in 2019 the Westminster government announced that it would be moved to May 8th in 2020, in order to celebrate 75 years since VE Day – the day when the Second World War ended in Europe. The intention was to hold a three-day jamboree of remembrance, until Covid-19 attacked and forced a change of plans.
I wouldn’t dare suggest that there is no value in remembering the end of that war. It is now only a fraction of people who remember living through the experience. And certainly, many of those who were part of the struggle have spent their lives remembering it in some way or another. Far too many went to their graves – many prematurely – having had to live the nightmare daily. Having been unable to close the door on the atrocities.
For them, it was not a failure to remember that was the curse, but an inability to forget.
It is a matter of decency that we all respect that. And give thanks that we only have second hand notions of what it was to be part of such insanity.
There is a quiet, contemplative, sad, yearning, and humble remembering. The kind of remembering so many ordinary people, who were torn from the comfort of their world to the cruelty of war, would partake in. People who did not want to fight in the first place, only they were forced to do so. Gentle, affectionate people who loved their families, who were forced to kill others who were gentle and affectionate, and who loved their families. People who would never talk about their experiences, so raw were their memories. People with unending depths of suffering in their eyes. As so many soldiers, across the ages.
But there is another kind of remembrance.
Remembrance that steals the occasion for cynical political ends. A remembrance that is the distortion of the remembering: it hijacks heroism, and romanticises tragedy. Remembrance that celebrates imperial Britain’s militarism and jingoism. That is the kind of official remembrance that we have in Britain.
It is the kind of remembering that gives prestige to the mentality of a united Britain against Europe.
This may have been part of the original intention of creating this bank holiday – the reinforcement of Brexit. Of course, adaptation has now been necessary. So the occasion is now being used to couple it with our current troubles during the peak of the pandemic, and a ‘war’ against the ‘enemy’ of a virus.
Proof was offered up in the words of Tony Hall, the BBC’s chief Director:
At a time when many are looking for unity and hope, the BBC will bring households together to remember the past, pay tribute to the Second World War generation and honour our heroes both then and now.
An attempt to recreate the ‘wartime spirit’ during this period, no less. One, its authors hope, that will divert attention from the failings of the government in London (and the Welsh government) that has led us to a situation where more people have died of infection in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in the world, save for the US. For a government that views telling the truth as an option not a necessity, creating a false history is nothing new. But the moral distortion goes deeper than one party – it is woven deep into the fabric of the United Kingdom.
We can understand why, in 1945, after years of war, people wanted to celebrate with a street party and welcome the boys home. But this is a different era, and we must question the ‘provision’. This is what is on offer:
- A broadcast by Mrs. Windsor
- A broadcast of sections of Churchill’s speech on VE Day
- Video calls between Boris, the Windsors and some survivors of the war
- Mark Drakeford seeking to emulate this in Wales
- Carlo reads from his grandfather’s diary on VE Day
- A series of programmes on the BBC, including Katherine Jenkins
- Encouraging people to propose a toast of remembrance at 3 in the afternoon
- Encouraging people to place a photograph of a soldier of war in the window
- Packages from the government for the creation of decorations, banners, games and educational material
- And finally, following Mrs Windsor at 9 in the evening, encouraging everyone to sing “We’ll Meet Again” which was immortalised by Vera Lynn at the time of the war
No doubt remembrance of this nature will suit many. It may well be that some of the veterans are delighted. And of course the tremendous achievement of the veteran, Captain Tom Moore, in raising millions for the health service is deserving of infinite praise (although it is a scandal that the government’s negligence has caused shortages for the service in the first place).
However, we must guard against accepting this version of history without recognising there are other realities of war that the London government – and the Welsh government in this regard – does not want us to raise questions about. Because we were conditioned to accept the myth of the bitter-sweet, romantic fanfare of the war. A Just war. Heroic war. A war that could not be avoided. War to do our bit. War over Freedom.
An effect of the myth here is to try to reinforce the idea of an imperialist, royal, Great Britain.
To create a sense that Britain is on a righteous crusade, worthy of its rightful place as one of the countries that counts. It is the story presented not only to adults, but to children, in order to steer their world in a particular direction – that the Empire was Britain’s Golden Age, that the two world wars were “just” adventures, and that Britain is still a great power. And time and again, “uniting the Country” is mentioned – the United Kingdom, with no acknowledgement of the individual countries.
And during these times in particular, such a myth is used to create a climate in which any questioning of these things is synonymous with treachery, and engenders the hatred of the “herd”.
That is why it is easy for governments to have free rein to carry out abhorrent acts and policies. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia, weapons used to kill the innocent in Yemen. Trident renewal at an incredibly high cost. The insistence on a leading role in foreign wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is inevitable that the ordinary people of the countries which Britain attacks are always killed in the thousands. And of course, military training itself is the de-humanisation of humanity, turning a person into a machine that is willing to do things that he would never normally dream of doing. Violence inevitably leads to further violence.
The ability to exercise military power is a drug to which the British state is thoroughly “addicted”.
Meanwhile, the remnants of men leaving the armed forces are over-represented in several regrettable categories. Drug or alcohol dependency. A struggle to cope with everyday life. Prisoners. Homeless and rough sleepers. Often they are people targeted to join in the first place because they come from poor towns, and the armed forces offer an escape.
They pay the price for the foolish dreams of the warlords. It is their sacrifice that allows the exploitation of the arms industry. They are put aside and forgotten – except when a show is needed.
Saying “Thank you” for a day does not fix your body, nor does it cleanse the mind, or bring back your friends.
Victory against Fascism is what is remembered on VE day. It was fascism that developed in several countries and had the freedom to grow into a malicious and cruel force. To an extent, the circumstances were created by the injustice of the Versailles Treaty after the Great War. Hitler could not thrive in a balanced and fair country. Franco in Spain then showed that other countries did not have the stomach to oppose if their interests were not threatened – only ordinary Socialists (including the Welsh) saw the danger and went to support the Spanish Republic. The British government officially stood aside, but there is evidence that much of the British institution supported Franco. Then in 1937 the industrial bombing of the inhabitants of a densely populated town was first seen by the Germans and Italians, as we remember from the famous Picasso painting of Gernika/Guernica in the Basque Country. (Following pressure from the public here, and contrary to the Government’s wish, 200 children from the Basque Country were granted asylum in Wales).
Failure to oppose early enough meant that, eventually, ordinary people from several countries were dragged into the slaughter. It is estimated that from 70 to 85 million people lost their lives.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at that either – the supposed interests of the state are always the priority, not the fairness or justice of a particular situation. Consider what happened in Greece. Only weeks after the Germans were defeated there in 1944 by the partisans – the country’s folk cavalry – Churchill ordered British troops to fire on a peaceful crowd in Athens, and gave guns to right-wing Greeks who had sided with the Nazis. 28 were killed, and hundreds injured. Churchill’s logic was that communism was too strong among the partisans, and that would threaten his plans to restore the monarchy there, in order to ward off communism. The start of the Cold War before the end of the real war! It is one demonstration of how Britain’s supposed interests have been more important than justice and freedom – as in the case of Spain. That is how it was, and that is how it continues in the present day.
The way in which the victory against fascism is remembered here on VE Day demonstrates features of that very mindset.
It should be acknowledged that we could be guided down that devastating path, especially when we have been conditioned to accept restrictions on our customary rights (for legitimate reasons, it is fair to say) during this unique period. The reader may consider if some of the features associated with fascism manifest themselves here:
- A strong, charismatic leader
- The stifling of opposition
- An extreme Right Wing
- Militaristic citizens
- War and imperialism as a means to reviving patriotism
- A romantic symbolism to create a myth about the ‘nation’
We have not yet, of course, seen evidence of a one-party state, the use of physical force to remove opponents, and a complete backlash on democracy. And Johnson, despite his obvious failings, is not in the same field as the hellish triumvirate of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. But we should beware of those who stand in the shadows expecting their chance.
This is an extremely fragile period for freedom in many respects.
The arts and techniques now in hand mean that it is not necessary to use extreme violence to control. The era of data mining, digital spying and the bonds of debt and capital have come to subdue us. And more will come in the future, in a world of artificial intelligence. The people who will manage these things will manage us.
We remember Niemoller’s warning: “First they came for the Socialists”…
Let us be vigilant, let us be bold, let us be steadfast.
And let us remember the dead with decency, humility and in peace.