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- Recalling the beginning of World War II brings many surprises

One of the few surprises of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II was the British rediscovery of Dame Vera Lynn. Once the favourite of a war-torn generation, an album of old Vera Lynn favourites such as “White cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll meet again” suddenly found itself at the top of the music charts last week.

The temptation to momentarily relive, at least musically, the lost world of Anderson shelters, Doodlebugs, Wrens, camp coffee, spam, spivs and Churchillian bombast may well be the function of unadulterated nostalgia. World War II and the Nazis did, after all, exercise a macabre hold on the collective imagination of many generations, including those born in the late-1950s. Those conveniently-sized combat comics, where stiff-necked and jackbooted German officers with monocles used to exclaim “Achtung”, “Schweinhund”, “Donner und Blitzen” and, at a pinch, “one Englander less”, both amused and fascinated impressionable minds. In his autobiography, Nirad C. Chaudhuri recounted the Bengali admiration for the German war machine — something that must have influenced Subhas Chandra Bose. I remember the awe-filled reverence of a granduncle when he spoke of von Rundstedt, von Rommel and von Mannstein — he always stressed the “von”, perhaps to make them sound more authentic.

Impressions of national character are invariably shaped by stereotypes. If, for a very long time, the resolute, blundering Briton with a great sense of propriety and humour, was seen to be the perfect foil to the ruthless and fanatical German, the answer may be found in the pages of Biggles and Battler Britton, films such as The Dam Busters — where Guy Gibson had a black Labrador named “Nigger” — and television serials such as Foyle’s War, about a police detective serving in Hastings through the war. They updated the stiff upper-lip jingoism of earlier films such as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, set in the turbulent North-west frontier of India. This Gary Cooper blockbuster also happened to be one of Hitler’s great favourites and it is possible that his grudging respect for the English could have been shaped by its constant viewing and conversations with the lively but starry-eyed Unity Mitford.

Likewise, it was Glenn Miller’s band that set the signature tune for the GI presence in war-torn Europe and Asia. With it, Hollywood’s portrayal of the world war established the Japanese as perfidious, buck-toothed fanatics screaming “Banzai” and painted Americans as fun-loving, blunt-talking, non-hierarchical and brave defenders of liberty and decency. The charitable image of the Yankee corresponded to that of Rick in Casablanca; the not-so-indulgent portrayal was summed up in the wartime English gripe about the Americans being “overpaid, oversexed and over here”.

The extent to which World War II defined our mental images of other peoples is one that merits further inquiry. What is certain is that these wartime perceptions of the national character lingered on till the end of the 20th century.

Germany was a particular victim of persisting stereotypes. In his memoirs, the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, narrated the incredible hostility he faced at a European meeting on December 8, 1989, after he had unveiled his proposal for German reunification. Shedding diplomatic niceties, the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, told the heads of state over dinner: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they're back.” Last week, following the release of a mass of documents on the subject, it emerges that Thatcher’s views were shaped by the then French president, François Mitterand. According to notes made by the foreign policy adviser, Sir Charles Powell, Mitterand warned Thatcher over lunch at the Élysée Palace on January 20, 1990, that reunification would result in Germany gaining more European influence than Hitler ever had. His gloomy forecasts included a return of the “bad” Germans.

After two devastating world wars, it is understandable that fears of the “real” German character —seen through the prism of Prussian militarism and Nazi inhumanity —remained a subliminal concern of British and French leaders. But this fear also stemmed from the belief that national character, while certainly layered, is also largely unchanging. As convenient (but unstated) journalistic shorthand, generalizations laced with perceptive insights do have a role. In understanding the ways of the English, it is, for example, impossible to ignore George Orwell’s writings on the subject. But do Orwell’s observations still hold? For that matter, does Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the underpinnings of American nationhood make sense in an increasingly diverse country?

Likewise, despite Edward Said’s strictures against Orientalism, it is hard to not factor in the observations of experienced colonial administrators on the Hindu mind or the Islamic mentality. Indeed, much of contemporary strategic studies is devoted to penetrating the apparent inscrutability of the Han Chinese, separating the indigenous Iranian from the logic of Khomeinism and coming to terms with al Qaida mindset.

Yet, as the case of Germany suggests, there are major problems in wrapping national character with history. Post-war studies of Germany indicate that the de-Nazification process was left incomplete due to the compulsions of the Cold War. At the same time, there are reasons to believe that wartime sufferings, the loss of territory, the dispossession of ethnic Germans from Poland, erstwhile Czechoslovakia and the Balkans, and the realization of the magnitude of the Holocaust have resulted in a genuine abhorrence of both war and militarism. “Where in the world,” Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, was moved to ask at a function in Berlin to mark the Holocaust, “has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?” At the ceremony in Gdansk (formerly the German-dominated port of Danzig) on September 1, the Poles alluded to the culpability of the erstwhile Soviet Union and Stalin’s annexation of eastern Poland; Vladimir Putin took a dig at those who colluded with Hitler till it was too late. Yet, none took exception to the unqualified German apology of the chancellor, Angela Merkel, for starting the war.

When I was in Kabul last year, I heard many disparaging comments about the small German contingent stationed in the relatively safe Kunduz province. It was suggested that the Germans don’t conduct night patrols, that they have Afghan irregulars protecting their military camps and that they have made a complete hash of the police training duties assigned to them by focusing too much on nurseries and crèches and not enough on the rough and tumble. Perhaps the detractors were being too unkind but following the near-hysterical reaction in Germany to the air-strikes in Kunduz at the hijackers of two oil tankers, I am inclined to the belief that there is nothing in common between the German army that perfected the Blitzkrieg in Poland 50 years ago and the German army that finds itself in Afghanistan. They may well have come from different planets altogether.

This is a feeling that also strikes a visitor to an English city on a Saturday evening. Watching drunken louts on the rampage, the question arises: is this the people who, 50 years ago, ruled over the largest empire in history?

There was a German national character in 1939, a British sense of values and even a Japanese sense of misplaced mission. Fifty years is enough to reshape a people beyond recognition. Just as the Germany of Beethoven, Goethe and Bismarck was overwhelmed by Hitler’s fulminations, Goebbels’ lies and Göering’s comic vulgarity, today’s Germany seems at the forefront of an emerging West European sensibility, one that has repudiated history. Are sharp ruptures with the past also a global trend?

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