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By Aaron Payne
During his speech to the Labour Party Conference last week, Labour leader Ed Miliband, having taken a jibe at the aristocratic Conservative front bench, began to narrate his own family history: “Both of my parents came to Britain as immigrants – Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis. I know I would not be standing on this stage today without the compassion and tolerance of our great country: Great Britain.” Cue thunderous applause.
It so happens that on the week that Ed Miliband gave this speech, I was studying Britain during the Second World War. I learnt that in the spring and summer of 1940, 30,000 ‘non-enemy aliens’ were interned in camps on the Isle of Man for the sake of British security, the majority of whom were Jews who had fled to Britain from Austria and Germany. They were separated from their property and treated like prisoners of war. It is also true that the Second World War saw a marked rise in anti-Semitic feeling in Britain, with popular anger blaming Jews for all kinds of things: a crowd surge in the Bethnal Green tube station that killed 173 people, making profits while ‘British people’ became poorer, and cheating the rationing system. Needless to say, there is no truth in any of these claims.
I don’t doubt that Ed Miliband’s parents were treated kindly during the war, and I don’t doubt that they were grateful for it, or that Ed Miliband is either. But I do have a problem with his casual peddling of a wider narrative that he probably knows to be inaccurate. By implicitly juxtaposing Britain’s heroism with Germany’s fascism, Miliband perpetuated, as so many do, a simplistic and narrow version of events.
In his 1991 book, The Myth of the Blitz, historian Angus Calder outlined the various ways in which Britain’s wartime history has been mythologized. Within the academic community, the Second
World War is treated critically rather than mythically. But the same cannot be said for mainstream British society, or indeed popular history. The BBC’s pages on the Second World War have no room for any of our wartime failings, or even controversial actions: there is no mention of the bombing of Dresden, for instance, which, considering the controversy that it continues to stir today, seems baffling. Not surprisingly, there is a large section on Nazi genocide, as there should be. But our own acts of inhumanity seem to have been conveniently forgotten.
The bombing of Dresden was not our only uncompassionate wartime act. The traumas and misunderstandings caused by the initial bungling of the evacuation process were the result of the lamentable failures of a ‘male, military and middle class’ planning process. Catholic children, for instance, were subject to much abuse when they found themselves planted into heavily Protestant communities. Little brothers and sister were separated, and slum children had their heads shaved and in some cases dyed purple in order to treat their lice and scabies. Moreover, the Coalition government of the war spectacularly failed to intervene in Liverpool when clubs banned black people in order to secure the patronage of white American G.I.s, and the government refused to lambast America’s policy of segregating its black and white soldiers, something that was illegal in Britain. Until recently, however, I was completely unaware of these injustices committed by the British during the war.
While I insist that we should not overlook the genuine kindness displayed by many people to each other in shelters, voluntary canteens and hospitals, I do think it is odd that the British still cling so tightly to their ‘compassionate Britain’ war myth. We may not have had Hitler, but that does not mean we were always the good guys.
Politicians clearly feel that it is worth their time to pray at the altar of the ‘People’s War’. The British believe it was their finest hour. But at many points, it wasn’t. It would be more than worthwhile for the population of Britain to look critically at their history and realise that, although their grandparents’ generation won the military conflict, they might have done many other things a damn sight better. Then, maybe, rid of our moral complacency, we could clap along to Ed Miliband not because we enjoy the comforting warmth of our myths, but because of his policies, which aren’t half bad.