Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

From commemoration to cosplay

We are losing sight of what we claim to be remembering

Artillery Row

Many of us who do a job for a long time have a specific moment of psychic divorce from it. As a tour guide, it came for me at a roadside in France — probably near Arromanches, in Normandy, where you can still see the Mulberry harbours from D-Day floating in the bay. I saw a couple of Italian guys, dressed in replica American army uniforms, waddle up to and drive off in a replica World War Two jeep. They were middle-aged men, clearly non-military, and they looked like they were having a whale of a time.

Surviving veterans were greeted rapturously as if they were rockstars

For a decade my principal source of income was leading war commemoration tours across Europe. I led school groups from the US and Canada, with a special focus on sites connected to the Western Front of World War II. The Canadians often had a particular interest in World War One, especially in the battle of Vimy Ridge, which marked the first time Canadians fought together under Canadian command. For groups from Newfoundland, there was the additional need to pay respects at Beaumont-Hamel, where an entire generation of Newfoundland men were wiped out in a single half-hour of bloody slaughter, forcing a bankrupt Newfoundland to return to British rule.

I became a specialist in these tours because they sold. Indeed, war tourism became a significantly bigger deal in the decade I worked in it. In 2017, 25,000 people were present at the Vimy 100 ceremony, and a further 12,000 gathered at the Normandy American Cemetery to mark D-Day’s 75th anniversary.

Above all, I led one particular tour, “World War II and the Western Front”. Starting in London and the Churchill War Rooms, it followed the path of the Allied armada over to Normandy, on to Paris (because it’s Paris) and then north to Belgium to mark the Battle of the Bulge. The tour continued over the Rhine and then to Berlin to trace the last days of the war. Frequently, there was also an extension down to Munich via Nuremberg, culminating in Austria for a visit to Hitler’s Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest, plus a somewhat incongruous stop in Salzburg to visit the sites of the “Sound of Music”.

My job on these tours was to communicate the gravity of these wars to American high-school groups and their parents. Many had family members who’d fought in these conflicts; some had relatives who’d been on Omaha Beach. I tried to communicate the horror of war to groups who were also dealing with the horror of their first experience of French service station toilets.

At the start of the work, I was myself very moved, seeing names on the graves just a few years younger than me. As I inched my way through my thirties, though, people older than me dried up, and I began to emotionally shut off from the work. To preserve my own sanity, I would in later years not even go into certain sites. I did try to take a minute to look over the vast seas of graves, always immaculately preserved by the relevant military authority.

Over time I became more uneasy with some of the contradictions of war tourism on this scale. My role as an educator was to communicate that war was hell, but there was in the attitude of the groups I guided an inevitable sense of war also being exciting, like when we’d go into a military hangar and groups would coo at the vintage war tech on offer. Once, seeing a group of (extremely nice) Americans go into paroxysms of delight about seeing some surviving artillery, I went to the visitor’s book and wrote sullenly that everything in the hangar was a disgrace.

It was pretty clear at the D-Day 75 that most of the surviving veterans would be there for the last time. They were greeted rapturously by young Americans as if they were rockstars. Good for them — they’d been very brave. I wondered what would happen to “Never forget” with these men no longer around, though. I wondered about the terror these men had felt fighting the war, now being lost from how we remembered the war.

Putting on a Nazi uniform will be no more shocking than a toga

Once the men and women who fought are gone, all that’s left are the accoutrements of war — the trucks, the guns, the batteries. Pretty soon we’re at the point where paunchy Italians feel free to dress up as WWII soldiers and go out for a drive; we have moved from commemoration to cosplay. The logical end point of this is that we end up feeling actual envy for missing the “adventure” of a time which saw Europe destroyed and 38 million dead.

It is living witnesses to the war that have ennobled our commemoration. In Bastogne, where the Battle of the Bulge occurred, a wonderful octogenarian called Henri Mignon used to show my groups round. He’d been a child at the time of the battle, and his anecdotes were full of the humanity that reminds us that history books are full of people.

Henri would add the little human detail, such as how strange it had been that the Germans had left his town and then, during the counteroffensive, come back; and how joyful it had been as a child not to have to go to school for years. Above all he shared the death of his father, killed by a German bomb, and how he clearly still felt the lifelong devastation of that. The group would get what war really means for individuals then.

The truth is World War II has moved in my lifetime, and ever more quickly now, from being something of the recent to the distant past. It is that shift that now sees us comfortable wearing its costumes and cosplaying the era — no more part of our time than the Romans or the Elizabethans are these days. One day in the not too distant future, putting on a Nazi uniform will be no more shocking than wearing a toga.

The two World Wars are becoming something we put to our own purposes, rather than catastrophes our culture is forever grappling to understand. You can see that in the way the left, for example, increasingly fold their dislike of Churchill into a modern anti-imperial discourse without any sense of a requirement to acknowledge the context of the time.

At worst, all we will be left with is an aesthetic delight in WWII and its vanished heroes, something akin to the annual celebrations in Guernsey, where each spring the whole island dresses up in wartime regalia to celebrate the island’s wartime liberation. I am fearful of cultural attitudes to WWII that become increasingly divorced from the dull, miserable grind of commemoration — a war whose history increasingly resembles a cartoon.

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