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Myths and anniversaries.

* Historical stereotypes may well be buttressed or corrected by the celebration of anniversaries such as VE or VJ Day, but as the term is somewhat ambiguous, it may be advisable to establish exactly what constitutes an historical stereotype before tackling the question. It is logical to assume that the term refers to the current reflection of past and present popular opinions, garnered over time from a variety of sources. These encompass participant and/or eyewitness accounts, wartime and post-war propaganda and, especially in the post-war period, the popular media, although the latter two are unfortunately often indistinguishable. The sum of these influences, when viewed through national and cultural perspectives, form the basis for historical stereotypes, and it is upon this premise that the following is based.

This model is applicable to any national grouping; Japan's transformation from a militaristic, expansionist aggressor to nuclear victim being a clear and relevant example. Similarly, in Britain a variety of dubious assumptions have been cast as concrete and irrefutable facts, and are firmly embedded in the nation's consciousness. These include: a jocularly contemptuous disparagement of Italian military prowess; viewing Germans as ruthless, militarily-talented dupes to a crazed megalomaniac; and, arguably the most germane, a self-view of Britain as the `country which won the war'. This `fact' was recognised by the present government and was the driving force behind their thankfully unsuccessful attempts to generate a nostalgic feel-good factor, complete with jitterbugging and spam fritters, when organising the VE Day commemorative events last May.

At first glance there is little to commend this self perception. The war in Europe was won largely in the crucible of the Eastern Front, and via the equally severe if less extensive campaigns in the West after D-Day, where the manpower balance tilted increasingly toward the US. The US also provided a large proportion of material on both fronts, and their economic muscle won the vast campaign against Japan virtually unaided. Britain's role thus became an increasingly subsidiary one after 1941, and even then the effort involved accelerated her demotion as a world power to the less exalted status she currently enjoys. Indeed, it is difficult to lend any credence to the idea of winners and losers when one considers the post-war economic progress of Germany and Japan vis-a-vis that of Britain or even the United States over the same period.

However, to dismiss the celebration of anniversaries like VE and VJ Days as the maunderings of old men, or as an outlet for xenophobic nationalism, would be misguided. It may be inaccurate to portray Britain as a war winner, but it can be argued with equal force that without Britain the war could not have been won, at least in the West. Even the military and economic might of the US would have found an invasion of mainland Europe a tall order without a British launch pad. Indeed, given her latent isolationism, it is questionable whether the US would have become involved in Europe at all had Britain succumbed to invasion or come to terms with Hitler.

It is also important to consider the question of relativity in shaping views. Despite the vast military potential of the US, British and Commonwealth forces provided half the initial invasion force for the Normandy invasion, and they bore the brunt of the horrendously costly campaign which followed. The ramifications of this sacrifice can also be seen on the Eastern front, for it is relevant that when the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, the cream of the Werhmacht and Waffen SS Panzer formations were en route to, or embroiled with, those very forces. Thus the relative cost of Britain's contribution to victory in Europe was proportionally far higher than that of her US ally, even after the US presence in Europe had grown to almost dwarf that of the British; consequently, by the end of the war Britain had all but exhausted her reserves of manpower and her economic assets.

Therefore, it would be legitimate to argue that Britain did indeed win the war, for she persisted in a dogged policy at risk of her very existence. Victory thus lay not in defeating the enemy, but merely in surviving unbowed. Consequently the British struggle against Hitler was a more personal affair than it could ever be for the US, for whom it represented but a substantial preliminary to the real business of beating Japan. This is doubly ironic when one considers that the British experience was more akin to that of the Soviet Union than her main Cold War ally, even allowing for the vast difference in the scale of devastation involved.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the British contribution in the Far East, which constituted little more than a sideshow. The Japanese presence in Burma did potentially threaten British rule in India, but given the small size of the Japanese forces involved this was arguably more apparent than real, even allowing for the involvement of the Indian National Army - Indians who fought with the Japanese in order to defeat Britain and drive her out of the sub-continent. It is hard not to concur with the US view that British involvement in Burma and the final naval campaign in the Pacific was aimed more at re-establishing colonial credibility than defeating Japan.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that British-led forces did inflict a comprehensive defeat upon a formerly invincible enemy, and it could, therefore, be argued in one sense that the British did win their own, albeit small, section of the larger struggle. This view would appear to concur with the views of Far Eastern veterans themselves, for whom the label `The Forgotten Army' remains a bitter reality. In this sense the recent VJ Day commemorations were a belated recognition of those involved, in parallel to the similarly belated American acknowledgement of Vietnam veterans in 1982.

The point of this extended analysis of Britain's popular self-perception as a war-winning nation is of course to prove that, like all stereotypes, it contains a kernel of truth, a fact that should sound a cautionary note to would-be revisionists. Historical debate in this area is doubly hazardous, for many of those involved in events are very much alive and vociferously kicking, as the revisionist makers of the Canadian Second World War documentary trilogy The Valour and the Horror discovered to their cost in 1994. The programme covering Bomber Command provoked a televised debate during which they were deservedly savaged by not only academic historians but, arguably more eloquently, by Bomber Command veterans themselves.

This adds a new dimension to the historian's task, for in effect the primary sources are answering back, an unusual phenomenon to say the least. Further, the niceties of academic debate tend to cut little ice with such men, many of whom are articulate enough to question and reject conventional academic conclusions and popular wishes; witness the adamant refusal of the Far Eastern veterans to allow Japanese representatives at their ceremonies, government wishes for reconciliation notwithstanding.

In a sense this is a good thing, for history is the property of all, and those who made it have surely earned the right to nurse views of whatever accuracy. Further, it would be churlish to deprive a relative handful of old men their illusions (if such they are), especially as the facts will remain to be debated long after these old warriors have passed. That is not to say that historical mistakes, misconceptions and stereotypes should not be corrected where they exist, but merely that a little finesse and compassion may be applicable in the process.

The answer to the question appears to lie in a paradox, for whilst celebrating anniversaries can undoubtedly buttress historical stereotypes, it can also be the most effective means of correcting them. If such stereotypes are indeed the product of popular opinion, then the most effective method of correcting their errors lies through exposure to public scrutiny via the popular media, particularly through the medium of television. In this respect the high profile coverage given to the 1995 commemorations was particularly useful, including prime-time mock news broadcasts, documentaries, studio debates and live coverage of official functions, a combination which cannot fail to have placed the events at centre stage.

Arguably the most imaginative of these was the BBC's daily reporting of the events leading up to VE Day appended to their main news bulletins, whilst the most relevant in the present context was the Myths and Memories of World War II series. This programme allowed historians to present alternative views of established `truths' to fellow academics and Second World War veterans; even if the results were less than conclusive, the programme succeeded in provoking fresh debate over well-ploughed ground, presumably the object of the exercise.

Such works render a useful service in spite of their academic limitation, for the stimulation of public interest both corrects historical stereotypes where necessary and, perhaps more importantly, goes some way to preventing the harnessing of history for political ends. The power of history as a weapon is clear. One has only to consider the central role that warped (or at least one-sided) history has played in maintaining the sectarian divide in Ulster, or in precipitating the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, whilst the Soviet habit of airbrushing history to suit Party lines would be amusing in a less sinister context.

The example of Japan, where history has been deliberately manipulated in the interests of successive postwar governments and their zaibatsu backers has already been mentioned. The widespread public ignorance so generated has allowed the Japanese people to wallow in self-pity over their nuclear martyrdom whilst avoiding unpalatable truths about how and why that status came about. Similarly, the immediate post-war concentration upon eradicating Nazism in Germany provided a convenient scapegoat, which allowed the German people to avoid responsibility for the evil done in their name. Neither has such mass delusion been the sole preserve of the defeated, for France has also been reluctant to face the uncomfortable realities of the 1940s, even in the face of high profile events like the Barbie trial; indeed one programme in the Myths and Memories series concentrated upon this very area in an attempt to explode the perceived myth of French self-liberation and resistance to German occupation in general.

All three of these examples show that historical stereotypes rely upon the selective use of history, and arguably such selectivity can only succeed in the absence of public debate. It could be contended that the commemoration of individual anniversaries like VE or VJ Day exert little influence upon historical stereotypes one way or the other. It is the manner and context of their commemoration which counts, for minor changes in emphasis can easily transform education into indoctrination.

The 1995 commemorations in Britain can, therefore, be viewed as a model of how such events should be handled. The records of events were laid out in a rational fashion from a variety of perspectives, and the public were left to buttress or correct historical stereotypes as they saw fit. This is as it should be, for history is a two-way process and research is of dubious worth if it cannot withstand examination outside academia. The end result is, therefore, something of a balancing act, with each side countering the excesses of the other and hopefully guiding each other to that most elusive creature, historical truth.
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Title Annotation:historical stereotypes and anniversaries of historical events
Author:Buckingham, William
Publication:History Today
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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