Last weekend’s D-Day anniversary made me more than a little uncomfortable. The commemorations were meant to be acts of sober remembrance and a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come as a (more or less) united Europe since 1944.
There were indeed plenty of solemn moments, but these were sandwiched between re-enactments featuring paratroopers, men in jeeps and military uniforms and Spitfires painted with invasion stripes. The stone villages surrounding the Normandy beaches were packed with World War II-era jeeps, children excitedly waving American flags and signs across storefronts welcoming the liberators: “Merci a nos liberateurs!”
There’s no doubt that D-Day was a hugely important milestone on the road to defeating Nazism in the Second World War. There’s no doubt that it should be remembered. But 20,000 men died that day and, however just the cause for which they were fighting, we must continue to mourn that tragic loss of life. Yet Friday’s events showed just how easily sober commemoration can turn into celebration.
It’s easy to remember the things that went well, the victories. The war as a whole, and D-Day and the Blitz in particular, have acquired a special place in the narrative of British national identity. As Jonathan Freedland discusses in an article in ‘The Spectator’ back in 2012, the events of 1940 ‘have acquired the status of a creation myth, the heroic and finest hour in which modern Britain was born’. That myth was cemented by the actions of over 83,000 British men on June 6th 1944.
But nations are formed by more than just victories. Germany is a country that knows this perhaps better than any other and has refused to shy away from the horrors of its past. Every year on 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked by a moment of silence in the German Parliament as well as lectures, theatre performances and church services across the country. German cities are pockmarked with monuments, statues, plaques and sculptures memorialising the Nazi crimes. Some are vast and intimidating, others almost hidden, but each embodies a city’s awareness of the need to make the Holocaust a part of the everyday reality of today’s Germany.
There were many Germans at Normandy last week too. They came despite fear of hostility – one group recounted how locals refused to serve them at the 65th anniversary in 2009 – and despite the inevitable emotional difficulty of facing both the increasingly frail Allied veterans and the sea of gravestones, the many thousands who died that day in the fight against Nazi Germany. They came because they know they should, because they know the importance of continuing to confront their nation’s past, even (perhaps more so) as it recedes out of living memory.
Britain’s history, too, is blotted with acts of horror. But we’re much less good at confronting this. Where is the day commemorating the violence perpetrated by Britain in north America and Australia in the name of colonisation? Where is the day to remember Britain’s role in the deaths of 250,000 people during the Indian partition in 1947? Where is the day to commemorate the almost total destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne and many other German cities during the Second World War?
In his study of British area bombing of Germany during that conflict, philosopher A.C. Grayling looks in detail at that policy and its effects and concludes that it was neither necessary nor proportionate, that it contravened humanitarian principles and general moral standards. ‘In short and in sum: was area bombing wrong? Yes. Very wrong? Yes.’
Immoral actions remain immoral even when fighting a just war. And to point out that the Allied record is not unblemished does nothing to diminish the enormity of the Nazi crimes, as some seem to fear.
Rather, to acknowledge the less admirable, even abhorrent, aspects of our nation’s history is to say, “this must never happen again”. Michael Gove wants “British values” to be taught in our schools. Let’s follow Germany’s example and make sure this includes real examination of Britain’s history, warts and all. Only then can the rose-tinted image of our past be replaced with a humbling narrative that inspires future generations to build a better “Great” Britain.