Our dangerous devotion to the Second World War

The west’s enduring obsession with the battle against Nazism is hampering its efforts to meet the challenges of the modern world | By Alec Ryrie

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in the 2018 Oscar winner 'Darkest Hour'.

In 1947, the American radio network ABC began broadcasting a series called, modestly, The Greatest Story Ever Told. It ran for nearly 10 years, was aired in more than 50 countries, and spawned a novel and, eventually, an epic, star-studded movie. That teasing, irresistible title was an allusion to a poem called Tell Me the Old, Old Story, written by an Englishwoman in 1866, which had been set to music the following year and had become a popular hymn.

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The story that both titles referenced, and which neither of them needed to name, was the story of Jesus Christ: still, up to the mid-20th century, the defining sacred story in British, American and western culture. It was a story that was told and retold not because it was unfamiliar, but because it was so deeply familiar. Earnest Christian believers were a minority in both Europe and America, but wholehearted believers, nominal adherents and assertive unbelievers alike recognised the story’s power. Whether or not they believed he was God incarnate, Jesus Christ was their culture’s most potent moral figure.

Yet even by the time the film was released in 1965, that was no longer exactly so. Its global box-office of $12.1m covered little more than half of its vast production costs; critics slated it as tedious, partly on account of its four-hour running time. It is now best remembered for John Wayne’s unintentionally comic cameo as the centurion at Calvary. Reverence was no longer the order of the day.

Since then there’s been a common lament from cultural conservatives that we no longer have shared sacred narratives that hold our societies together: we can no longer agree on what the greatest story ever told might be. This is, supposedly, a sign of our fragmenting values.

But this is not true. We do have a new shared narrative: the event that the French novelist Laurent Binet calls “our Trojan War: a landmark, a reference, a source of inexhaustible stories, a collection of epics and tragedies”. In fact the Second World War is even more than that. It is the defining moral event of our times, the sacred story of a secular age.

Our culture’s most potent moral figure is no longer Jesus Christ: it is Adolf Hitler. Once Jesus taught us what was good; now Hitler teaches us what is evil. To call someone a Nazi is the ultimate moral insult. Our modern ethical consensus was summed up by that great philosopher Indiana Jones: “Nazis! I hate these guys.”

Crosses and crucifixes have lost most of their power in our culture: you can play with them, even joke about them. But you don’t play with swastikas

Perhaps we still believe that Jesus is good, but not with the same fervour and conviction that we believe Nazism is evil. Crosses and crucifixes have lost most of their power in our culture: you can play with them, even joke about them, and no one really minds. But you don’t play with swastikas.

And fair enough. If you’re going to pick one human ideology to represent absolute evil, I challenge you to find a better candidate. But the swap is a momentous one. Our sacred story used to be religious; now it’s secular. And it used to be a positive example; now it’s a negative one. How did this happen? And what are the consequences?

The western allies fought the Second World War not just as a desperate struggle for survival, but as a crusade for a newly invented entity called ‘Judaeo-Christian civilisation’. The Atlantic Charter of 1941, which laid the basis for the whole postwar legal and moral order, presented the war as a struggle to defend human rights – including the freedom of worship, regardless of religion. Allied soldiers were told that they were fighting the forces of evil.

They did not necessarily believe it. There had been similar propaganda in 1914. But as they entered Germany and liberated Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, and as the newsreel footage made its way around the world, it became clear that Allied propaganda had been an understatement, not an exaggeration.

The American GI Paul Fussell, who gave full voice to the cynicism of his fellow-soldiers in Europe in 1944–45, recalled that everything changed when they reached Buchenwald: “They had seen and smelled the death camps, and now they were able to realise that all along they had been… fighting for something positive, the sacredness of life itself… After the camps, a moral attitude was rampant… The boys’ explosive little tour in France had been a crusade after all.”

Plenty of armies are told they are fighting the forces of evil. Just this once, it turned out to be true.

Prisoners at Dachau cheer troops of the 45th Div, 7th US Army

After the war a new, secular framework of international law and human rights was created, via the Nuremberg trials in 1945–46 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But it took a while for this new framework to soak into the wider culture. To begin with the war was remembered in nationalistic and heroic terms: British war films were tales of stoic endurance (The Cruel Sea, 1953), or simply rip-roaring adventures (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958). In politics, the great lesson learned from the war was the folly of appeasement: a lesson that led directly to the Suez fiasco in 1956 and which left Kennedy with terrifyingly little room for manoeuvre during the Cuban crisis in 1962.

But as the postwar generation began to grow up, as it became possible to look directly at the deeper wounds the war had inflicted, the mood began to shift. This was not only because events like the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and the Spiegel affair (the scandal that first prompted West Germany to reckon seriously with its totalitarian past) in 1962 forced a reckoning with the memory of the war. The massacre of 69 black protesters against apartheid at Sharpeville in South Africa in 1960, and the contemporaneous civil rights movement in the United States, showed that evils that resonated with Nazi racial ideology were still destroying lives a decade and a half after Hitler’s suicide. The war had been won, but it was not over.

The memorialisation of the war has not slackened over the following decades. It remains the story we cannot stop telling ourselves: fiction, film and TV circle around its carcass like vultures, and we never tire of it. Have you ever heard any one snatch of audio repeated as often as Chamberlain’s broadcast of 3 September 1939 informing the nation that we were at war? And yet, though repetition ought to have dulled it, though I was born more than 30 years after Chamberlain died, it still turns my spine to water every time I hear it. My children watch the newest cinematic retellings of the war’s story transfixed and are hungry for more. As are we all.

The retellings keep coming, but their mood has darkened, the evils of Nazism and of the Holocaust coming to the fore. Boy’s-own adventures have been displaced by Schindlers List, The Pianist and La Vita è Bella. And even the way the Holocaust story is told has changed, as films like Defiance or the revenge-fantasy Inglourious Basterds gave power and agency to those who had long been seen simply as victims.

A still from 'Schindler's List'
A still from ‘Schindler’s List’. The Second World War “remains the story we cannot stop telling ourselves”, writes Alec Ryrie. “Fiction, film and TV circle around its carcass like vultures.” (Image by Alamy)

Meanwhile, as the war neared the edge of living memory, the cultural power of that memory only grew. Nazism became the ultimate reference point for evil. Godwin’s Law – the rule that all online arguments eventually end with someone calling someone else a Nazi – did not arise by accident. In a culture generally committed to relativism, this is the one fixed reference point, the one absolute on which everything else hangs. Contrarians and shock-merchants generally understand that this is a line they may not cross. Ken Livingstone’s long political career of rule-breaking may have convinced him that there was nothing he could say that could go too far. But it turned out that there was one thing, as he discovered after claiming, in 2016, that Hitler supported Zionism.

An apologist for Stalin’s or Mao’s purges, or a 9/11 ‘truther’, is merely deluded. A Holocaust-denier, by contrast, is an intolerable monster. And rightly so, because in our cultural context such a claim is never an innocent historical mistake. It is always, always a deliberate attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Holocaust-denial is our modern equivalent of blasphemy: words that deny the deepest moral truth our society is built on, and that we know are never spoken in innocence.

And yet, building our new secular morality around a specific historical event is problematic. Memories fade, and simply telling each other the old, old story may not be enough. So we have taken the next step, and translated the story into a new, timeless mode.

To many people it is incongruous, even embarrassing, that the 20th century’s bestselling work of fiction is an excessively long, unapologetically archaic and sometimes self-indulgent fairy tale written by a philologist who was a very traditional Catholic, and whose most devoted readers were and remain teenage boys. But even if you share the disdain for JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, there is no gainsaying its cultural importance. Tolkien himself had no patience for allegory as a literary form, and vigorously denied that he had written one, but if the War of the Ring does not mirror the Second World War which was raging as he wrote the book, it certainly refracts it.

He privately admitted as much. Tolkien was an early and staunch opponent of Nazism, but he was also a veteran of the battle of the Somme, and knew that the Second World War was, like any war, “an ultimately evil job”, as he told his son in 1944. And he used the language of his own developing myth to explain what he meant: not only that there were “a great many Orcs on our side”, but that “we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring”. Such a war might end in victory, but a victory whose effect would be “to breed new Saurons”. Only his mythical war could be won with moral purity.

But if we are using the war’s memory to set our moral compasses, then mythical, clear-cut versions of it are exactly what we need, and that is what Tolkien gave us. We have been breeding new Saurons ever since. The figure of the Dark Lord has stalked through the most persistent and popular mythologies of the postwar era, from Star Wars Darth Vader to Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort. The debt these ersatz Hitlers owe to their real-world archetype is sometimes implied, sometimes openly acknowledged, but always plain. Both George Lucas and JK Rowling have been quite open about the fact.

These are the myths on which generations of children in the post-Christian west have been raised, transposing and cleansing the brutal lessons of the Second World War into timeless morality tales. It is a lesson our culture seems determined to teach itself and eager repeatedly to relearn: that this is what true evil looks like, even though in reality evil rarely appears in such unambiguous dress.

This transposition has all kinds of advantages, allowing the myth to evolve and to purify itself. Even to eat itself: you can condemn Churchill’s imperialism and the queasy racial politics of Tolkien’s world, even while you take your bearings from the moral universe that they have created for you. But self-cannibalism is not usually a good sign. There are reasons to suspect that our new sacred story is running into problems.

For one thing, the jump from Jesus to Hitler takes us from a positive to a negative exemplar. We know what evil is, but we’re no longer very sure what goodness is. We know what we hate, but not what we love. Condemning evil is a part of any ethical system, but perhaps we should devote more energy to finding something we can see as good.

At the same time, our new, Nazi-based concept of evil risks being inadequate. Yes, racism, militarism, patriarchy, authoritarianism and genocide are evil. But they are not the only evils. Knowing that we are against them will not do much to help us stop, say, the climate crisis, or the entrenchment of inequality.

Or a global pandemic. It has been bleakly comic, in 2020, to see how much western countries – none more than Britain – have tried to understand this crisis through the prism of the Second World War. We frantically invoke the spirit of a Blitz that almost none of us can remember. But viruses are not Nazis. This is not an enemy whose morale we can break, or who is trying to break ours.

We have been, as the saying goes, fighting the last war: we brought a Spitfire to a germ fight. And so a heroic national effort built Nightingale hospitals that it turned out we did not quite need; a new Dunkirk spirit signed up three-quarters of a million volunteers that it turned out we couldn’t use; and who knows if our new Bletchley Park boffins will actually crack the viral code and develop a war-winning vaccine. Meanwhile, none of our myths stopped us emptying hospital wards into care homes, which many believe resulted in thousands of preventable deaths. Nor did they save London from enduring, in April 2020, a month more deadly than any the Luftwaffe ever managed.

When it comes to coronavirus, we have been, as the saying goes, fighting the last war: bringing a Spitfire to a germ fight

Not all villains wear skulls on their uniforms. Many – most? – evils are slyer and subtler than that; they are often rooted inside us. We cannot defeat them by jumping in a Spitfire and blowing things up. And our anti-Nazi values do not give us much wisdom on how to tackle them.

Worst of all, this modern ethical consensus is not stable. How could it be? It rests on intuition: a gut feeling that racism, cruelty and genocide are wrong – lessons we originally learned from our religious traditions and from bitter experience. Those truths are not, sadly, self-evident. Lots of human societies down the ages have rejected them. We try to shore up our intuitions by retelling the tales, by trumpeting them ever more stridently, and by pillorying anyone we suspect of questioning them. In the process we risk simply making them more brittle and more alienating.

There is not much reason to believe this will work. Indeed, we risk conjuring the very evils we fear back into life. As authoritarian populists all over the world have learned, there is no better way to get everyone’s attention than to play footsie with fascism.

It looks, in other words, as if our new, post-Christian value system is starting to fail. So as we hunker down for what looks like it will be a long, dark winter, here’s a problem to muse on to while away the time. Where are more stable, durable and nourishing values for our culture going to come from? In the past, they’ve often arisen out of catastrophic events – such as, for example, the bloodiest war in human history. If you come up with a better alternative, please let the rest of us know.

Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University. He presented the BBC Radio 4 Archive on 4 episode Our Sacred Story, which is available on BBC Sounds

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine