And yet, since even the most cherished and sensitive historical topics still deserve critical inquiry, there is no reason to take the story of the war at face value. For the novelist Nicholson Baker, for example, the war was an avoidable tragedy: in his iconoclastic non-fiction account Human Smoke, published to enormous controversy in 2008, he argued that the Allies effectively provoked Hitler into starting the war, and that the pacifists – who thought that Nazism could be beaten by moral example – were right all along.
Although Baker clearly thought he was being terribly daring in challenging the myths of the war, people have been doing it for decades. During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, a generation of left-wing playwrights, horrified by the war in Vietnam, produced a string of works like Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play, looking more critically at the cult of the war and of Winston Churchill.
Controversy over the record of Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of Bomber Command, raged throughout the last years of his life, and in radical circles it became fashionable to equate the bombing of Hamburg or Dresden with the war crimes committed by the Nazis. And in the United States, the argument about the morality of dropping the atom bomb on Japan has been raging since the Sixties, with some historians claiming that it was merely a brutal, racist exercise in intimidating the Soviet Union, the first shot in the Cold War.
Whatever you think of these claims – and most of them strike me as pretty absurd – there is no doubt that reducing the war to a Tolkienesque struggle of good and evil is much too simplistic. There is a terrible irony in the fact that although Britain and France entered the war to save Poland, the conflict actually ended with central and eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army and virtually incorporated into the Soviet empire. And as any visitor to the excellent historical museums in the Baltic capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn quickly realises, the Allied victory in 1945 is not an event fondly remembered in that corner of Europe, since it brought their subjugation by a dictatorship that, despite its rhetoric, was not much less brutal than that of the Nazis.
To argue for a more nuanced account of the war than the ‘greatest generation’ nonsense, however, is not the same as assuming moral equivalence between the warring parties. While Beevor’s account of D-Day includes plenty of details of Allied atrocities against their German opponents, there is also a mature recognition that nasty things happen in warfare, and a sense that the liberation of France was a noble cause.
And while some of the Allies’ tactics might strike tender souls as heavy-handed, it beggars belief that they are so quick to overlook the fact that Britain never wanted war, did everything it could to avoid it, and nevertheless found itself in a struggle for its very existence against an enemy who reached moral depths unparalleled in history.
Many of the war’s critics, it seems to me, suffer from the same blight of self-righteous, self-flagellating present-mindedness that disfigures so much commentary on historical events. Nicholson Baker’s book, for instance, was clearly written with Iraq in mind, frequently distorts the historical record (for instance, by taking quotations out of context), and has a good claim to be one of the most misguided history books written in my lifetime.
Thankfully, however, there is a good antidote. In Richard Overy’s recent book The Morbid Age, a cultural and intellectual history of Britain in the Thirties, we get a sense of how millions of ordinary people, understandably drawn to pacifism in the early part of the decade, stiffened their sinews and rolled up their sleeves when the extent of Hitler’s villainy became clear.
Contrary to what Baker and others suggest, they were not warmongers or imperialists, but reluctant warriors, entering into a messy and bloody struggle only as a last resort. And seven decades on, there is no need to suspend our critical faculties to admit that we owe them a tremendous debt.
This article was first published by BBC History Magazine in August 2009