Not such a lovely war, after all

9th January 2004 at 00:00
A friend recently went into a primary school and found pupils dressed as evacuees, with name tags tied on with string. Yet another example of key stage 2's long love affair with the Second World War.

In a way, it's understandable. It's in the curriculum, there are lots of resources - some years ago I wrote a book on the period myself - and, perhaps most important of all, people are around who were there at the time.

There is still a strong and legitimate feeling that we are duty-bound to tell our young people about what was a uniquely defining period. It's firmly established in our island story as a tale of pride, passion, triumph and tragedy for individuals and for the nation as a whole.

And yet the whole thing troubles me deeply, and perhaps the best way to explain why is to weigh in with a wartime memory of my own. In what was probably 1941 or 1942, when I was at infants school, we were told by our teacher that we were to have a visit from what she called "the gas van".

It had something to do, she said, with testing our gas masks. At that point my imagination took off, and I saw myself made to put on my gas mask and bundled into a gas-filled van to see if I survived. I still feel the terror that I lived with for days before I discovered that the whole process was, of course, harmless, didn't involve wearing the masks at all, and was conducted by a genial chap in a suit.

Only many years later - quite recently in fact - did it strike me that as I was experiencing my groundless fear, at that same time, not so far away in continental Europe, little children actually were being pushed into sealed gas vans and murdered entirely for real. Whatever advance nightmares they suffered had turned out, unlike mine, to be true, and the men involved weren't genial.

That's the trouble, you see. I know we suffered in the Second World War. I know that every dead or maimed soldier, or civilian bomb victim, represents an infinity of personal grief. It's insulting to try to diminish the individual impact of such events. But I still think that what we in this island experienced is very far from being typical. A UK school I know, for example, has links to a school in Denmark.

"Ask your grandparents about wartime memories," said teachers, "and we will share them." From Britain went stories of rationing and the absence of bananas. From Denmark came accounts of people peeping from behind curtains as dock workers suspected of sabotage were taken from their homes.

It bothers me that we feel so comfortable with our own Second World War that we can laughingly enact chunks of it. Children become evacuees. Adults have "Blitz Balls", dressing as soldiers and Land Girls and singing "We'll Meet Again". Do they have Blitz Balls in Stalingrad? Warsaw? Dresden?

How do we deal with this? Should we teach the statistics, perhaps? As a nation we suffered about a quarter of a million military deaths in the Second World War, and 60,000 civilians were killed by enemy bombs. Every lost soldier, every child buried by rubble, is still remembered with love and the grief never goes away.

But I can't help reminding myself that other countries suffered much more.

In Greece, occupied for five years by Italian and then by German troops, more than a quarter of a million civilians died of hunger. Seventy thousand were executed in reprisal for attacks by the resistance. And that is before you get on to the 60,000 Greek Jews who were deported to the camps.

Even the Greek story pales before what happened further east. Six million Poles, half of them Jews, were murdered. The Soviet Union lost 10 million military dead and the same number of civilians. A further 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war never came home. Germany had about 7 million killed, evenly divided between the military and civilians.

The Far Eastern war reaped its own dreadful harvest. The appalling events behind the figures are, of course, capable of keeping you awake even now.

This is the story of the Second World War as it should be told to our children. So much of what is happening today emerges from it. Even the word "refugee" has to be seen in the light of the lethal mass movements that defined the term in the mid-Forties.

Gerald Haigh is a journalist and former primary headteacher.

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