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On mentioning the war

What’s behind our obsession with World War 2?

Artillery Row

When Gary Lineker tweeted that the government’s rhetoric mirrored “1930s Germany”, a very predictable twitter storm arrived. The anger Lineker generated, both from those defending his description, and those castigating his decision as a BBC presenter to break impartiality in such an obvious way, missed the biggest problem with what his argument represented. Lineker’s intervention highlights much of our collective inability to define certain politics outside of references to Nazism. The slippery slope to Godwin’s law is an increasingly common occurrence in political discussions surrounding a range of issues such as migration, emergency powers, and human rights laws, whereby anything to the right of a classical liberal approach is derided as “Nazism” or “fascist”.

Have we ever really moved on from the Second World War?

Whether it is popular tv shows such as The Man in the High Castle or the multiple biographies on Hitler, we live in an age that still surveys Nazism relentlessly. Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook on the popular podcast The Rest is History also made this point, claiming we all still live in the shadow of the Third Reich. This is not to say Nazism, with all of its destructiveness, racism and terror is not worthy of reflection or discussion — but our fascination towards this era of history speaks towards a broader cultural and intellectual morbidity. We live in a country with over 1,000 years of history, literary giants, great rises, terrible falls, and yet we continually focus on a six year period. 

This begs the question — have we ever really moved on from the Second World War? Whilst Churchill was surely right when he said that “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say ‘This was their finest hour’”, this does not fully explain our lingering cultural fetish with this time period. Instead, our current fascination is more reminiscent of Dean Acheson’s claim that Britain had “lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. Not only is this true externally, our odd relationship with the US and Europe can both be in part explained as a Post-Empire reaction, but it is also true internally when we try to find an expression of “who we are”. 

It is oftentimes the right who are scoffed for constantly harking back to an imaginary time when we all stood up and were counted. It can be very fair. Yet, the left is also guilty of the same failure of imagination and political caricatures. The inability to distinguish conservatism, illiberalism and fascism is a primary indicator that the left is in sore need of some political education.

It is not just ex-footballers or the average joe who are succumbing to this ideological indulgence. Newspaper columnists, who should know better, wilfully misalign a dying conservative administration in its fourth term with the hallmarks of a “resurgent fascist movement”. It’s a talking point that is good for liberal shock jocks who regularly denounce the supposed “fascist playbook”. This political tactic is great for clicks — after all, social media feeds off outrage and what is more outrageous than the emergence of fascism in the country that “stood alone” in 1940? 

Yet by defining fascism via a lukewarm conservative administration, you defang it — and by defanging it, you make it seem like a regular form of politics. Of course, fascism is not a regular form of politics. Fascism’s fuzzy ideological boundaries have allowed commentators and politicians to stir a moral panic that fascism is just “around the corner”. Rather than recognising, as scholar Roger Griffin does, that fascism is not just anti-liberal, conservative or populist but ideologically distinct, progressives make the false claim that current conservatism = fascism. The result of fascism is not conservatism, but a revolutionary, trans-class, anti-conservative, militant nationalism. 

The application of fascist politics also sits at odds with our current political culture. Genuinely constitutional governments (and yes, the UK has a constitution) struggle to project any truly totalitarian political movement. The UK is not akin to the Weimar Republic; there is no major crisis of state legitimacy, no parties using militias, no excessive emergency executive measures bypassing Parliament and no Hitler waiting in the wings. Our political security can be found in the writings of someone often quoted in defence of the “we’re almost fascist” hypothesis, Hannah Arendt, who wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

Under conditions of constitutional government and freedom of opinion, totalitarian movements struggling for power can use terror to a limited extent only and share with other parties the necessity of winning adherents and of appearing plausible to a public which is not yet rigorously isolated from all other sources of information.

Fascism is extreme in its anti-democratic functioning, its reliance on centralised tools of coercion, and its determination to forcefully create a “national homogeneity”. In the world today the regimes which are most reminiscent of fascist politics are North Korea, Syria and perhaps Russia. The UK with its democratic traditions, parliamentary checks on the executive and lively free press does not bear a shadow of a resemblance to such monstrous regimes. That does not mean it is impossible for a fascist movement to arise in the UK (and the UK has hosted fascist movements, like the National Front). It does make it substantially less likely. Misusing the label therefore risks becoming that unfortunate archetype, the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

What is it about World War 2 that makes us want to go back to it or even relive it? Perhaps it is the very real sense of “pulling together” under difficulty that has now gone missing. The country does not face an existential threat akin to invasion as it did 1940, but it does face climate change, economic decline and eroded infrastructure. David Cameron’s unfortunate phrase “we’re all in it together” — deployed whilst austerity bit — highlights what we feel we have lost. The mythology of everyone uniting to achieve a national goal has been replaced by partisan political squabbling where no one is really getting what they want. Maybe WW2 is a comforting place, a place where despite everything, Britons can believe there was a time when all our current ills were fixed. 

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