I have this World-War-II-related obsession. It's not an obsession with World War II as such. Naturally, given how important that war was to the future of Europe and beyond, and given also my strong interest in the Holocaust which took place while it was going on, I do have an interest in World War II. But I don't count it among my obsessions, of which I have several. No, my World-War-II-related obsession has only developed since I started blogging, and it concerns the way in which World War II appears to be indigestible for some people when they write about war. Two articles this weekend have fed my World-War-II-related obsession.
A. One is a piece by Eva Illouz in Haaretz (£), in which she's commending the historical values and outlook of the left for the Israeli context. I have no quarrel with her doing this, especially not now, with so many commentators fearing a further lurch to the right in the coming election there. However, here is how Illouz deals with the issue of war and peace:
War suited premodern societies because their economies were based on territorial expansion and the control of populations. This is also why premodern societies are powerfully structured around such divisions of the world as "us-them," "friends-foes," "allies-enemies." Universalist thought was bound to change that mode of thinking. World War I was the occasion for trade unionists, anarchists and Marxists to unite in their opposition to war, because they saw the humanity of the people who carried the flags. Even if many subsequently changed their minds, this was enough to establish an enduring association of the left with pacifism.
Alphonse Merrheim, a French revolutionary trade unionist, saw the butchery of World War I coming. In 1915, speaking of French political leaders, he said: "They lie. The truth is that they are burying, beneath the buildings and families they have destroyed, the freedom of their own people as well as the independence of other nations."
Throughout the second part of the 20th century, a consensus was slowly built around the idea that war destroys freedom − both of those who are subjugated and those using military power. The left's skepticism toward war has become widespread among Western European citizens, the majority of whom views war as both immoral and ineffective. As [Howard] Zinn... reminds us: "Wars are not practical ways of achieving their ends. More and more, in recent history, the most powerful nations find themselves unable to conquer much weaker nations."
The moral repulsion of war as a permanent way of organizing national sovereignty is based on a highly pragmatic understanding that wars distract nations from economic and cultural development.
The alert reader (and even not such alert readers) can hardly fail to miss the loud noise of a certain omission here: we are taken from premodern societies through World War I to 'the second part of the 20th century', all in pursuit of a war-is-bad message, and Illouz quite fails to mention World War II; as if, whoops, it just slipped her mind. This will convince no intelligent person. Even wanting to accentuate the need for a peaceful settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict does not justify her extraordinary omission. Most people already know that war is, other things equal, a bad thing. But they also know that war not only destroys freedom, it can be a way of opposing and defeating those with this very objective - destroying freedom - in mind. To sing the praises of peace, as necessary as it can be to do that, is an empty game if you make no effort to deal with the hard cases. And World War II and the need to oppose and defeat Nazism is a hard case for pacifists.
B. Then there is the column by Robert McCrum in today's Observer. So far from being an attempt to 'leave out' World War II, this is a piece about that war, about the memory and the legacy of it. Neither is McCrum wanting to overlook its pressing necessities; he is explicit to the contrary. Still, he has a problem with the war's being too prominently or too much remembered. In his own words:
But there's also a cost. Ask any European. Psychologically, many of Britain's older generations are still stumbling away from the Blitz. Memories are one thing; obsessions (with "little ships", Dambusters, and Desert Rats) are something else. Sometimes, our national consciousness seems cornered by its great history. These old wars cast awfully long shadows. We are not yet in the sun.
First of all, I can't imagine there are many people who have overlooked the great costs of World War II. Second, McCrum's worry about obsession is of the same cloth as several other opinion pieces I've highlighted recently that seem to regard memory of the war as, precisely, a shadow. But the reason for thinking of these memories thus - that is, negatively, as darkening our present - and not simply as historically due and merited is not much spelled out. (Thanks: RB.)