As the Second World War recedes in time and further into history, the obsession with that conflict alarmingly intensifies. Popular accounts, particularly of military operations and weaponry, multiply to satisfy a growing market. Historians, now joined by investigative journalists, claw at the mountains of documentation that, ironically enough constitute some of the more enduring battle debris. The media continue to cut and recut, or discover new film in a determined attempt to feet the curiosity of a generation with fewer surviving veterans and increasingly distorted perceptions of global war.
What motivates this intense interest? A partial answer is contained in this book, which examines the Second World War as a national experience. The underlying assumption here is that the second total war of the twentieth century will not ultimately be measured by the statistics of destruction, impressive as they are. Physical recovery from that devastation, so evident in 1945, is virtually complete thirty-five years later. Reconstruction among the major participants introduced an "age of affluence" sooner than anticipated, although more fragile than expected. The roots of present day concern, it is suggested, are better sought after among the less tangible, more elusive after-effects of the war, such as psychological and sociological upheavals, and collectivisim in the political and economic fields. In short, it is the nature of the national experience itself that is the lasting fruit, or poison, of 1945.
There is another reason why this book may shed some light on current preoccupations. The 1939-1945 War was a collective encounter of epic proportions. It was more than the sum of actions and memories of each participant. It was a shared experience, of national conflict, fought over an international battlefield. Mass involvement was matched by a massive communal commitment. Whether this was intended, as Winston Churchill declared in September 1939, as "a war to establish and revive the stature of man" is debatable. Rhetoric was a necessary substitute for the mundane reality of 1939 diplomacy. But the 1945 mood reflected the Churchillian objective. At war's end few adopted the 1918 view that the war to end war had been fought: yet many could not shy away from some vision of a brave new world.
International developments since then have made a mockery of even the cynic's level of expectation. More dangerously perhaps, a tendency to romanticize the Second World War, accompanied by recent fears of relative material deprivation in the western world have complicated the appreciation of the wartime experience. Events since 1945 have deepened the obsession with the war. Current anxieties and the conspicuous absence of nationwide purpose are contrasted with the compelling unity of a country in arms. The "spirit of Dunkirk" or one of its many equivalents has become a routine invocation of the beleaguered politician. Only the protagonists have changed. Inflation and the energy crisis have taken the place of Hitler and fascism. The enemy within appears more capable of victory than the traditional enemy abroad. Where indeed is the "people's peace" which was to have followed the "people's war"?
The character of the diverse experiences of the Second World War, therefore, are both relevant and suggestive. After surveying the historical background 'in his introductory essay, Theodore Ropp comments that there is a twentieth century tendency towards "dehumanizating,
resegmenting and thus denationalizing was as a collective experience." The acuity of this observation would appear to apply more to future, than past world wars. For continued investigation, as represented by the contributors to this book, tends to suggest the contrary.
There is abundant evidence, taking for example the involvement of such different countries as Britain, Canada, Yugoslavia, Norway, the United States and France, that the 1939- 1945 War generally elicited an integrative, consensus building response. Patriotism, solidarity, community, stability and purpose were more often the rule than the exception. This is not to deny the existence of fractiousness and disaffection, and the incidence of resistance or civil war. Rather it is to point out a paradox of the wartime experience and the selectivity of the post-war communal memory.
Under the impact of the Second World War, British society took on a new look. Extremes of policies, values and priorities gave way to a broad measure of agreement which cut across the former social and political divisions. Nor was the Canadian road to 1945 an altogether dissimilar journey. During the war Canadian society matured, its industrial structure expanded and diversified, and its international status rose. In contrast, Norway of course collapsed under the German assault and the nation's loyalties were tragically split. Yet, in the area of foreign affairs, the Norwegian government in exile formulated a far-sighted "Atlantic policy": a clear anticipation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the United States the area of civil-military relations provided a similar case in point. Patterns of co-operation necessary for victory were only developed under the pressure of war; even though in the end the war proved too complex for soldiers and politicians called upon to consider the conditions of peace and the post-war settlement. With regard to France, it is useful to recall that despite defeat, occupation, and social and political repression, the continued existence of an independent French empire afforded a focal point attuned to the needs of eventual French liberation and reconstruction. And finally, Yugoslavia poses the intriguing question as to how a young, multi-national state survived fragmentation and civil war and still emerged as a united entity in the post-war world? Why did the numerous national experiences coalesce into a postwar Yugoslavism? The nature of the Second World War as an integrative, consensus building force provides much of the answer.
In the last analysis, all wars begin as propaganda and end as myth. At the time the entire apparatus of the mass media and the instruments of government mind-bending are structured to suppress or embellish. In retrospect, the politician, the historian and the public focusing on the Second World War have tended to follow this pattern of propaganda and myth. Certain aspects of wartime life are relegated to the dustbins of history. Others are elevated to the level of legend. And some have yet to be discovered. It is only by looking again at the 1939- 1945 War as a national experience that the balance between myth, illusion and reality can be restored.
Various considerations--venue, availability and circumstance--have dictated the choice of contributors to this book. In this instance Canada was selected for intensive examination. It is not the most pressing example, or indeed the most complex. The Canadian experience of the war had two basic characteristics. Wartime destruction was never seen on the Canadian landscape; losses were limited to vessels at sea, and manpower and material in distant theatres of action. Nor, except for occasional threats to coastal security, were the majority of Canadians ever remotely worried about invasion and occupation. Nevertheless, the dynamics of war affected every aspect of Canadian life, many of which are examined here. Each country
that was involved in the Second World War ideally merits such analysis. These collected essays, therefore, are a contribution to the subject and an incentive for others to work in that direction.
University of Toronto
31 March 1980
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Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation