VE Day: Why Britain is not overly obsessed with the Second World War – Alastair Stewart

Romanticisation of Britain’s part in the Second World War has lead to derision, but it truly was our finest hour and a struggle of good against evil, writes Alastair Stewart

Winston Churchill, centre, joins the royal family, from left, Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, King George VI, and Princess Margaret, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to celebrate VE Da (Picture: AP)

There's a turgid cliche doing the rounds that we're obsessed with the Second World War. Waterstones, where I worked as a student, always had a run on history books about it. Yes, some of the buyers were eccentric but most had a keen fascination. The selection was thematically broad, from grand accounts right down to the minutia of regiments, materials and uniforms.

Of course, this doesn't answer the charge. Are we obsessed culturally?

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No, is the short answer. Historian Andrew Roberts once wrote that if Winston Churchill returned to Earth, it wouldn't take him along to acclimatise.

The world today is not that different from the one he made. Russia is still an enigma, China is large and looming, and Europe is fractious but at peace. There's also that perennial question of whether Britain is in, next to, or entirely separate from our European neighbours.

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Sometimes history offers good guys and straight off villainy. Often there's a spectrum of grey in which you pick and choose and understand through the prism of our time.

The Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler were an unredeemable wave of total darkness. Their vision was despicable, their actions evil, and they were a stone's throw distance away from dominating Europe, and possibly the world.

The problem is that it sounds a cliche because it is the original cliche. It's a modern dystopian story. Hitler is a textbook a definition of evil to the point of pastiche.

Churchill, in his 60s, quirky in style and manner with a sea of wit and pluck to his name is less a man and more a vessel of the best of British virtues.

As the decades have rolled on, Churchill's bon mots and witticisms against Hitler's outright criminality have gripped the imagination. Romanticisation has lead to derision and dismissal. The 'Finest Hour' can't possibly be as fine as they say, it can't possibly have been good versus evil.

And yet it was - between 1939 and 1942, before the US entry into the war, Britain was the bulwark of an imperial alliance against Nazism. It did not fight alone, but it did lead the charge.

It was an almost impossibly brave decision by men and women from all strata of public life. As Churchill aptly said, the country had the lion's heart; he had the luck to give the roar.

As we commemorate VE Day, it's right to worry our history is being politicised, particularly as fuel for Brexit (both pro and Remain).

If we're to do all those men and women, at home and abroad, civilian and military, who died any justice, we'll pick up a book or read their stories online. If we honour their sacrifice, we'll not forget the hard-fought truth in all its ugliness, and all its valour.

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