Don't mention the war

28th April 1995 at 01:00
It is a curious feeling to be living at the cusp of history. For most people now, the 50th anniversary of VE Day represents little more than an uneasy mix of history, Hollywood movies and fuzzy newsreels, but for some the Second World War is still part of childhood. You don't have to have one foot in the geriatric ward or even to be retired to be able to remember early schooldays totally shadowed by war.

Life could be frightening or cold or just boring. There were constant threats of bombing, fuel shortages, monotonous food and almost no diversions for schoolchildren. Examinations took place in shelters. All hope and ambition were postponed until "after the war", and when VE Day came, street parties were self-conscious. People felt that they ought to be celebrating, but weren't quite sure how. As Gerald Haigh recalls in our VE Day resources section in TES2, it was really a rather sober occasion.

That is one good reason why neither celebration nor Spam fritters seem the right response 50 years on. Without wishing to live in the past, it would be better if such landmark dates provided the incentive to spread more knowledge and understanding of events to succeeding generations, including those now in school, rather than to trivialise them.

There is a wealth of resources on tap now for all age groups, for which our VE Day pages provide a taste. The BBC will be at full-blast in early May, and making some frank amends for the half-truths, lies and failures of paternalistic propaganda. And, 50 years on, the electronic age has transformed archives and memories into everything from video, CD-Roms and floppy discs to multi-media packs. Museums all over the British Isles, meanwhile, have their exhibitions and inter-active events, and London's Imperial War Museum in particular remains a draw for young people, raising all sorts of queries about why schools seem so reluctant to teach children about the war.

What will schools be teaching this term about victory in Europe in l945, and the war it ended? As Sean Lang suggests (TES2, page l8), the Second World War seems to have an uneasy place in the curriculum which may be due as much to the ambivalence of teachers as to what is specified in the history Order or examinations, since the same attitude was evident in the pre-national curriculum Schools History Project.

This might be summed up in the view that history is about more than battles, so it would be better to concentrate on underlying causes and the home front: the trenches in the First World War can be balanced by the Blitz in the second; don't glorify the fighting man, or anti-German sentiments, or upset multi-racial classes.

Reasonable sentiments, but history requires facts, too. Perhaps it still needs the longer perspective of another generation or two.

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