Rafael Behr

WWII is slipping away into realm of mythology

The use of the Third Reich to score political points or make glib analogies betrays our past


The U.S. and the Holocaust,09-01-2023,Nazi Party meeting or rally. Sign in back reads "Kauft nicht bei Juden" - Don't buy from Jews.,National Archives and Record Administration NARA,Unknown

May 11, 2023 14:01

The 78th anniversary of German surrender in 1945 was a holiday this year, but not by design. VE Day happened to fall on the Monday of the long Coronation weekend.

The significance of the date, May 8, went largely unremarked, as it does most years. Only the big-number anniversaries get special treatment. There were big plans for 2002, 75 years since Hitler’s defeat, but coronavirus intervened and the festivities moved online. That made them more poignant. Lockdown restrictions gave new resonance to Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again.

History never stays in the past. Old triumphs are banked as an emotional resource to be tapped at times of insecurity. The fact of winning the Second World War invested enough glory to support national pride through decades of decline.It serves a similar purpose, deployed to sinister ends, in Russia. Victory Day has been a public holiday there since the Soviet era (on 9 May because the German surrender happened late enough on 8th that it was past midnight in Moscow).

Under Putin, it has become a carnival of nostalgia for superpower status that was lost when the USSR ended. The war in Ukraine is part of a long campaign to reverse that humiliation. His Victory Day speech this year drew explicit comparison between the present conflict and the one Russians call the Great Patriotic War. The analogy involves grotesque inversions, casting aggressors as liberators and Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as the criminal boss of a neo-Nazi junta.

In reality, Putin’s methods are as faithful a reenactment of fascism as anything seen in Europe this century, but few Russians can process that fact. Draconian censorship obstructs the truth, but the greater barrier is psychological — the conviction, inherited from the Soviet Union, that Russia’s anti-fascist credentials are impeccable and irrevocable. Official histories gloss over Stalin’s deal with Hitler in 1939.

The former allied powers all project their war records through distorting national lenses. In Britain, Churchillian resolve is paramount, while appeasement fades from view. France remembers its resistance better than its collaborators. Americans forget the lobby for staying out of a European war, and how antisemitic it was. Charles Lindberg, the aviator and celebrity campaigner against intervention, accused Jews of using “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government” to bounce the US into a needless quarrel with Hitler.

One thing the competing narratives have in common is Holocaust elision; not an omission so much as a softening of focus. Tales of national heroism can’t dwell on the butchery of European Jews, uninterrupted by allied bombs, even when the Third Reich was mostly beaten. When genocide is present in retellings of the war it is remote and dilute, so as not to spoil the triumphant mood. It imbues the allied cause with moral urgency that never has to be spelled out. The true horrors — and its lessons — are in the small print.

That is part of a desensitisation process that casts Nazis as cartoon baddies of light entertainment. They chased Indiana Jones across the desert. They turned up in Star Trek, in SS regalia, as bellicose rulers of the alien planet Ekos, plotting destruction of a neighbouring race.

The swastika is a scriptwriters’ shorthand for unambiguous evil, which made it an emblem of pantomime villainy, scarcely more threatening than a Halloween costume. Except to Jews. Our hereditary recoil is still visceral. The same process has turned the Third Reich into a repository of glib political analogy. Any illiberal measure is denounced as a step down the slippery slope to fascism. Anti-vaccine demonstrators took to wearing yellow stars, implying equivalence between public health restrictions and Nuremberg laws.

Gary Lineker caused a massive controversy by tweeting that government anti-immigration rhetoric was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s.” His formulation was more nuanced than some condemnation of Conservative migration law, but still counterproductive. There was more debate about BBC social media guidelines than the bill in question, which is cruel in ways that can be expressed without invoking Nazis.

Lineker, like many before him, was using atrocities of the 20th century as a handy moral shortcut, or what the historian Tony Judt called “a pedagogically serviceable Chamber of Historical Horrors”.

It is not wrong to test contemporary politics for likeness to the worst regimes. That is how past evil serves as a warning to the present. But there is a paradox of vigilance: the determination never to forget becomes a mantra that, casually repeated, fuels ignorance and complacency.

With each anniversary, the Second World War drifts further from living memory into national mythology — the realm where history’s jagged edges are sanded smooth to fit the stories countries tell themselves for comfort. When it comes to Nazi evil, that demands a more subtle vigilance. The threat is not extirpation by forgetting, but the insidious sanitisation of horror by selective recall.

‘Politics: A Survivor’s Guide’, by Rafael Behr, is out now (Atlantic, £15)

May 11, 2023 14:01

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