It’s more than 70 years since the end of the Second World War, but its legacy is with us still and rarely for the better, reckons Keith Lowe in this brilliant, myth-busting history
Keith Lowe’s panoramic study of modern times has the subtitle “How the Second World War changed Us”. This might, at first glance, suggest he is offering a study of the United Kingdom since 1939. He is, however, far more ambitious, his reach global. It’s certainly a remarkable work , deeply researched, comprehensive, intelligent and opinionated. It comes festooned with praise from other historians – Anthony Beevor, James Holland and Theodore Zeldin. So you can be sure it is worth reading, sure also that you will learn much, find much to delight you and, equally certainly, much to be irritated by and much to question.
Lowe explores the importance of myths, both national and personal: the myth that Britain stood alone in 1940, the myth of the selfless liberation of western Europe, the myth of American “exceptionalism”, the heroic myth of Soviet Russia, the myth that divides the combatants into heroes and monsters. Much of his questioning of national myths is to the point and valuable; it reminds us that everybody suffered in, and as a result of, the war. Ethnic cleansing didn’t stop in 1945; on the contrary, the expulsion of Germans long settled in Central and Eastern Europe was a tragedy – for individuals and for the culture of those regions too. The myth of righteous colonial struggles for freedom from imperialist masters led, at first, to inter-communal massacres in several countries, and to the establishment of new tyrannies, not only in “rogue” states like North Korea. Yet of course myths, both personal and national, are necessary; it is myth that establishes ideas of who and what you are. Myth may often prevent us from coming to a truer understanding of history and our place in it, but the puncturing of national myths doesn’t necessarily enable us to see things clearly. Here in Scotland, for instance, pride in the Scottish contribution to the British Empire has been replaced by a sort of comfortable shame which denies historical realities.
The strengths of Lowe’s book are evident; it is utterly absorbing and aims to tell the truth. Yet it is also skewed. The Second World War was appalling, its horrors now all to evident, the consequences often disastrous and still being worked out. Many of the geopolitical problems of the world do indeed have their roots in the war and the attempts at a post-war settlement. Yet reading this book you might forget that in so many respects the world is a better, more civilized, more orderly, more law-abiding, and kinder place that it was before the war. It is richer, and, despite the continuing conflicts in the Middle-East, more peaceful. No great country is now a murderous tyranny. Putin’s Russia is benign in comparison with Stalin’s Soviet Union. China today may still be an authoritarian state, but compared with the China of the warlords or the dictatorship of Chairman Mao, it’s not only an economic success but a good place to live. India is the world’s largest democracy, with a free press, the rule of law and a public-spirited civil service – all these legacies of the Raj. Moreover today, when natural disasters strike, there is a generous global response on an unprecedented scale. Unprecedented too is the manner in which European countries have accepted, and are absorbing, millions of refugees from the Middle East. One doesn’t get the full sense of all this from Lowe.
He structures his book round a succession of individual stories from survivors of the war. Some of these were victims of unspeakable cruelty, some were hailed as heroes, some, rightly, denounced as monsters (if often years later). These stories are all to the point. But in another book they might be set alongside more ordinary stories, of people who fought the war, endured the war, became witnesses to its atrocities, and returned home to resume their lives without drama but with determination.
This is a marvellous book in many respects, but the picture it paints of the world that emerged from the struggle of 1939-45 dwells too heavily on the dark side. In 1945 when the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was alarmed but understandable talk of Armageddon and the end of the world in a nuclear holocaust. But we are still here and, despite everything, the world is on the whole a better place now than it was in 1945, or indeed in 1939.
The Fear And The Freedom is published by Viking, £25