Don't stop mentioning the war

Andrew Donaldson writes on the English struggle to come to terms with the present


EIGHTY years ago, on September 6, 1939, the Union of South Africa declared war on Nazi Germany. This was three days after Australia and New Zealand, who had issued their own declarations within hours of Britain’s, and a day before Canada’s. The conflict that followed was the worst in history; in just under six brutal years, it killed about 3% of the human race: an estimated 85-million people, mostly civilians.

In terms of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, South Africa was constitutionally obliged to support Britain, but that support did not come readily. Simply put, prime minister Barry Hertzog and the Nats in the ruling United Party coalition wanted no part of the war. The majority of the UP caucus, however, thought differently and, after brief but furious parliamentary debate, Herzog resigned, Jan Smuts took over, and South Africa’s volunteers headed north.

The country was hopelessly unprepared for what followed. Most of Britain’s dominions were. But still the men and money came from all corners of the empire — and not just from the “white” colonies. Some 2.5-million Indians enlisted, the largest volunteer army ever. An estimated 334 000 Africans fought for the Allies. 

In fact, the British Eighth Army — deployed in north Africa to defend the Suez Canal from Axis powers — was one of the most culturally and racially diverse forces ever assembled. By 1941, and the siege of Tobruk, only a quarter of its troops were British; the rest came from India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Uganda, Tanganyika (Tanzania), the Gold Coast (Ghana), Kenya, Nigeria, Bechuanaland (Botswana), the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Palestine (Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip), Mauritius, the Seychelles and Cyprus.

It took some convincing to get Africans and Asians to volunteer, and there were, according to the British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga, concerted propaganda efforts to drive home the underlying racial theories of Nazism. However, as one Nigerian newspaper put it, in August 1941: “What purpose does it serve to remind us that Hitler regards us as semi-apes if the Empire for which we are ready to suffer and die … can tolerate racial discrimination against us?”

The South Africans in the Native Military Corps were well aware of such hypocrisy. Given their pro-German sympathies, many Afrikaners had refused to serve and Smuts was compelled to supplement a shortage of white servicemen by recruiting blacks.

Most white South Africans were opposed to the idea: black soldiers could not serve with the same authority as whites, they argued, and there was the risk that service abroad would expose them to political ideas that were otherwise considered anathema. The mines and other heavy industries also opposed black recruitment, fearing a loss of cheap labour.

Interestingly, the ANC and other black political organisations initially supported recruitment — on condition that there would be political rewards for black South Africans after the war. They also wanted black soldiers to be armed. 

There was little chance of that and, for all intents and purposes, the 80 000-odd NMC troops served as poorly-paid and unarmed second-class soldiers whose contributions to the war effort would be those of menial labourers in largely supportive roles. Further manpower shortages would later result in NMC troops being assigned such roles as dispatch riders, transport drivers, medics and clerks. On the frontlines, and in the heat of battle, such divisions would fall away, and a number of black soldiers would be commended and decorated for extraordinary acts of bravery under fire.

Today, however, the war seems to be of little consequence or importance to the majority of South Africans. But it remains a defining feature of British discourse, particularly in an increasingly toxic Brexit era.

Writing in the Observer last weekend, Olusoga suggested that during the recent centenary of the first world war, historians had argued that popular understanding of that conflict had been shaped by the verses of war poets and not the accounts of the generals and politicians involved. “In the case of the second world war,” he said, “the distorting factor is not poetry but our seemingly insatiable need to view the war through the prism of national mythology.”

The mythology was perhaps necessary at the time. It was essential to transform the costly and humiliating defeat at Dunkirk, for example, into an unlikely victory, one that is largely uncritically celebrated to this day. 

Another myth concerns the “Blitz spirit”, and the suggestion that the stoicism of the British population under aerial bombardment was, as Olusoga put it, “of a different order of moral magnitude to the courage displayed by German, French or Japanese civilians under similar circumstances”. 

Coupled with this, is the “long established and unappealing habit” of marginalising the massive role of the Soviet forces in defeating Hitler’s armies.

“To challenge these myths is to risk being accused of hating Britain, yet for decades historians have been pushing back, offering critical analysis of the conflict that complicates simplistic narratives, introducing inconvenient facts and often unwelcome nuance.

“Fundamental to the way the war is now remembered is the idea that between 1940 and 1941 Britain ‘stood alone'. The myth of national isolation is particularly potent because it is one of the central pillars of the broader fantasy of British exceptionalism, a delusion that can only be maintained by wilful historical amnesia.”

This “broader fantasy” of standing alone against exceptional odds was glaringly obvious in the House of Commons this week, where Boris Johnson suffered a series of humiliating setbacks. Outside, on the streets of Westminster, demonstrators held placards that portrayed the prime minister as Hitler. 

Johnson, meanwhile, continues to cast himself as a latter day Winston Churchill. There is much talk of doing or dying. Of getting on with the getting on with it. On Thursday, for example, he vowed that he would not be returning to Brussels to request a delay to Brexit beyond October 31 despite the likelihood that he will be obliged to do so by parliament. As he told police recruits: “I’d rather be dead in a ditch.”

It’s hardly the stuff of “We shall fight them on the beaches” and the other landmark speeches that Churchill delivered in 1940. But then, it would appear that, these days, the Churchill speeches are not what they used to be, either.

Gone from the “We shall fight them on the beaches” address is the prediction that, if Britain lost the war, and was “subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle”. 

Similarly, Churchill’s opening remarks to his wartime cabinet when he met them for the first time in May 1940 are easily recalled: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He repeated them in a speech some days later, but his subsequent warning goes largely unnoticed: that a German victory would mean the possible demise of not only the British nation but also that there could be “no survival for the British empire, no survival for all that the British empire has stood for”.

The same applies to the “finest hour” speech. The imperial swagger and bluster of the preceding phrase is not remembered: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Such talk is disquieting as it recalls Adolf Hitler’s “thousand year” reich, and the catastrophes that inevitably follow such folly.

Another prominent historian, Neil Ascherson, wrote the following of the Nazi order’s death throes:

“Murray was a young prisoner of war, a South African. He was being marched across a landscape where where was no longer law, hope or future, which had fallen out of any recognisable country or century.

“Villages burned on the horizon. From the air, fighter-bombers in search of prey plunged on columns of refugees pushing handcarts, on lost Wehrmacht units whose lorries were pulled by horses, on slave labourers trudging home to Poland or Ukraine, on survivors from death camps. Bands of ragged, starving men from every European nation wandered the roads with rusty weapons, killing peasants to take their food and rape their women. Germany had seen this landscape 300 years before, in the anti-world created by the Thirty Years’ War when grass grew in the streets and men became wild beasts to men. But in the century of wireless, motor races, ice-cream? Murray became a poet.”