by Philip Austin, Bolton
This is one of a series of pieces written by members and staff from NFPB, reflecting on how the second world war shaped them, their families, and thinking and action for peace
I recall an incident that must have been in about 1970. We were told that a boy from Germany was to be visiting the school, and one of my classmates piped up with ‘Will he have a gun?’. That was much closer in time to the end of the second world war than we are now, but it still struck me as absurd. Films portraying the war were still very prevalent and jokes about Germany and the war were and continue to be not that uncommon. People who grew up in the 60s and 70s, now in middle-age, have been fed the national narrative of the war for much of our lives. Political capital is still being made of that narrative, so it is important that we tell and hear other stories.
Reflection and different narratives
In February this year, at the NFPB members’ meeting before the lockdown, Friends began a process of reflection about the second world war from both very personal perspectives and looking more widely at the problems of how we engage with the process of remembering and understanding.
As we approach what the government had originally planned to be a big celebration at the time of the VE day anniversary, we are again faced with a gradual ramping up of the war narrative. We cannot pretend that the period before, during and after the 1939-45 was not of huge significance, but the oversimplifying of the narrative hides millions of individual experiences and stories that may not fit into that.
When Northern Friends Peace Board reflected in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the end the war, Friends acknowledged that for many of those who had played an active part in the armed forces, the experience was likely to continue to be one that shaped the rest of their lives. Over time, I have talked with people of that generation who have come from different perspectives. Some had lived through the horrors of armed combat at close quarters and were passionate about avoiding war at all costs as a result. Amongst those who had been conscientious objectors, the decision they made at the time to refuse to fight has equally been one that set a path along which they would continue to walk, with passion and dedication.
War is a result of failure in human relations and under its cloak many brutal acts take place. But acts of human compassion and generosity can also come to the surface in the midst of the horror and there can be a resolve in the aftermath to do things differently in the future. But any peace dividend doesn’t come about simply through not spending as much money and effort on weapons and warfare – it’s about deploying skills, imagination and compassion with the purpose of building a better society and planet. Investing in peace needs to be an active process.
The second world war grew, to a large degree, from the detritus of the 1914-18 war. As well as leaving the legacy of the NHS and welfare state in the UK, it also set the parameters for the cold war and the nuclear age. These are the big historical arcs we can trace. What are the arcs that have been traced in your and your families’ lives as result of – or perhaps in spite of – the second world war? What can we learn from these about how we live our lives together on this planet in the midst of one crisis and acutely conscious of the approach of others, both related and unrelated? What can we do together now for a better world in the future?