Why are we still so obsessed by World War 2? Maybe we need reassurance that our generation can survive its own looming cataclysm?
I DIDN’T GO looking for it, but my hand was drawn to the war book as if by a magnet.
Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose. I found it in Smiths when I was looking for something else. A magazine, or Tea Obrecht’s novel, Inland.
Instead I came away with a 750-page Leviathan on a subject that I already have a fair understanding of – but which I always feel needs deepening or refreshing.
Strangely, I’d almost bought All Hell Let Loose for my iPad a couple of evenings before.
I’d finished the novel I was reading and had a sudden book famine, but instead I’d plumped for Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.
And then I realised: The Night Watch and All Hell Breaks Loose are both about World War Two (WW2). And so is the one I’d just finished – Philip Kerr’s The One From The Other.
I thought: What is it about the war?
The other night, I could have watched anything, on TV, but I plumped for a not-very-good documentary about the final battle for Nazi Berlin on Channel Five.
And at the moment, on just one four-shelf bookcase outside our bedroom, there are fourteen books that are in some way about WW2. *
But it’s not just me and my wife who reads and appreciates books like these. A God In Ruins, about a bomber pilot, won The Costa Prize in 2015, while The Night Watch was shortlisted for both the Booker and Orange awards.
Hastings’ history – the ninth he’s found a market for on different aspects of WW2 – was a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller, so I think it’s fair to say we’ve still got the war on our minds in this country, almost exactly 80 years after it began.
Not convinced? Well how else do you explain the ubiquity of memes, posters, stickers, mugs and tea towels inspired by the wartime propaganda slogan: Keep Calm and Carry On?
Brexiters, meanwhile, are still using WW2 rhetoric to aid their cause: like Boris Johnson comparing the EU and Hitler’s projects to unite Europe during the Referendum Campaign in 2016. And, only last month, Johnson accused MPs trying to block No Deal of “terrible collaboration” with the EU.
But the war looms large in the mind of leftists, too: I once read an article which argued that former London Mayor Ken Livingstone saw WW2 as a kind of moral touchstone, a prism through which to view all human behaviour.
And – in a wider sense – the war gave brought about not just the defeat of Fascism, but a more equal society, including a Welfare State and National Health Service.
Nowadays, nostalgia about the war is ingrained in us. In fact, The Night Watch, which came out in 2006, features characters who are already mourning the excitement of the conflict in 1947 – or just two years after it ended.
And, in the uneasy world of 2019, we cherish it as an example of how, when tested, Britons came through terror and were able to be free and happy anew.
Author Susannah Walker says that the Keep Calm… phenomenon can be explained “as an inspiring message from the past to the present in a time of crisis.”
In other words, WW2 proves that we, too, can come through a new test if we are called upon.
Even the daunting litany of problems that have stacked or ramped up since the banking crisis in 2008 is more reassuring when compared to the decade-long gathering of storm clouds over Europe after the Great Depression in 1929.
Then, there was Mussolini, Imperialist Japan raping China, Hitler and German rearmament, Kristallnacht and Munich. So far, we’ve had ISIS, Trump, Putin, Kim-Jong-Un, Iran vs Saudi, and the Climate Crisis.
But the memory of WW2 still offers us a kind of certainty. We did win. We did come through and the Good Guys prevailed in the biggest crisis the world had ever seen.
No wonder, then, that my hand was irresistibly drawn to yet another dose of the war…
*A God In Ruins; Perfidia; A Man Without Breath; Slaughterhouse 5; The Narrow Road To The Deep North; The Lady From Zagreb; Transcription; Snow Falling On Cedars; Moon Tiger; The Diary Of Anne Frank; Life After Life; Citizen Clem; Our Friends In Berlin; The Reader.