September marks the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Throughout the month there are commemorations connected with the momentous events that marked the beginning of a war that eventually saw fifty million souls lose their lives. On September 20, just under the window where I sit writing this piece, a Spitfire flew over central London marking the sixty-ninth year since the brutal Battle of Britain.
As September got under way I expected the BBC to devote a good proportion of its broadcasting day, most particularly on September 3, the day war was declared, to commemorative programs and repeats of original soundtracks from the historic perambulations of Neville Chamberlain.
No such thing: to my astonishment, BBC Radio Four spent exactly seven minutes on the milestone and decided to offer on the historic morning of September 3 a program and interactive debate about Islamophobia. It wheeled out the usual spokespeople for the Anglo-Muslim community, kvetching about the proliferation of stereotypes and unfair depictions of Islam in every area of British culture. To be fair, one must be as tolerant of such programs as one is of those about anti-Semitism, but the juxtaposition of the top news story about the release of Libyan Lockerbie terrorist Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi by the Scottish authorities with whining representatives of Islam, complaining about the unfair focus of the media on Islamic baddies, was bizarre.
To the dismay of many Londoners, the late edition of the Russian-owned Evening Standard newspaper sported — no pun intended — a blazing headline about Chelsea Football Club on September 3, 2009, when it ought to have printed a facsimile of the 1939 edition; is this how the young of Britain should be reminded of their history?
During the week beginning September 3, television was devoid of commemorative programs, save one documentary, Outbreak, produced by the History Channel and ITV, in which famous Britons, including one Sir Richard Attenborough, reminisce about their childhood wartime experiences. Why this program was on at 10:30 p.m. is beyond me; it should have been broadcast when youngsters could watch and fully understand the damage wrought by the Luftwaffe on Britain during what Winston Churchill called his island people’s “finest hour.” Another oddity was a special about Muslim Tommies; there is nothing wrong with this but where were the programs about the staggering events of 1939-40, when as everyone breathed Europe fell like dominoes to the most terrible dictator of all time and Britain’s valiant pilots repelled the mighty Luftwaffe?
My instinct was right: there was a stinging editorial by British humorist Ben Miller, who complains in BBC Radio Times magazine that there was minimal coverage this year of the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of war when in fact he and other young people yearn for knowledge of that period. He observes, “When celebration seems inappropriate, commemoration is all the more important,” and notes that British television has commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the last episode of American audience favorite Fawlty Towers. He also points out that this year marks fifty years of the legendary soap opera Coronation Street and twenty years of East Enders and of David Suchet as Poirot. But his pleasure over these milestones stops there.
Miller castigates British television for air-brushing World War II as if it is something about which we should almost be embarrassed. He points out that the last surviving veteran of the First World War, Harry Patch, described war as “the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings” and “not worth one life,” but at the same time was a staunch supporter of the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.
Frankly, I disagree with old Harry. As I said on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour in a special August segment on women and war, some conflicts are necessary. Had I had to give up my life to save the world from Hitler, I would have done so without hesitation. It horrified me that in December 2005 I stood on the balcony of Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands and to my disbelief a group of young British-born Muslims asked me who had bombed the docks. When I told them “the Luftwaffe,” they continued to be baffled. Yes, perhaps it is the educational system that has left a generation bereft of knowledge of its own history, but as Ben Miller says in his editorial, it is vital for Britons of every generation to hunt down each nugget and jewel of programming about the Second World War. He asserts, “The Second World War is one of the few conflicts where we can be fairly sure we were on the right side. And seventy years on, perhaps we could all do with a history lesson.”
Indeed. Just as British television has had absolutely nothing on the five main channels about the Nazi Holocaust on National Holocaust Memorial Day over the past few years, so has British television in September 2009 had a pitifully low number of programs educating the public about the cataclysmic events that culminated in the defeat of fascism. If we ignore history the catastrophes of the past will be repeated. Where was a rerun of the superb series The Winds of War? Where was a screening of Stalag 17, The Gathering Storm, or Sophie’s Choice?
An embittered letter-writer complained to the Evening Standard earlier this summer that Saving Private Ryan is irritatingly U.S.-centric and portrays D-Day as an exclusively American affair, as if Britain and Canada made no contribution whatsoever to the Normandy landings. The film does, after all, depict the events at Omaha Beach, one of two American landing sectors. If the London letter-writers want to see the heroism of their lads commemorated, then the British film industry should set about making a motion picture of the magnitude of Spielberg’s epic.
Perhaps the absence of wartime material on British television relates to a self-consciousness that has crept into Britain and that scares me. Workers are intimidated if they wish to wear a crucifix. Religious faith is regarded as an aberration. Villagers are threatened — as was my accountant’s — if they want to have big British flags on their lawns. A conference I attended on Remembrance Day 2007 was at the receiving end of a tirade from a Muslim woman who said RAF pilots are just as offensive to her as we in the West find young suicide bombers strapped with explosives.
One ray of hope that Britain has not lost the plot is the fact that as I file this article the World War II favorite song “We’ll Meet Again,” sung by Dame Vera Lynn, the “Forces Sweetheart” who is now ninety-two, is number one in the charts. She has made history as the oldest Top of the Pops number one artist. My goddaughter thinks the cover of my World War II novel, Spitfire Girls, depicting the brave women of the Air Transport Auxiliary, is “cool,” so perhaps Britons do cherish the legacy of their wartime valor.
I suggest the BBC, liberal television executives, and the left-leaning media wake up and realize that, like Ben Miller, our youth do want to hear about the war that kept the Nazis from our doorstep more than they want to be lectured about the charms of Sharia and Scheherazade.