The Second World War: The Myth of the Good War

“The glorification of the second world war has led us to an easier acceptance of ‘liberal interventionism'”

This year has been such a miserable and violent one in so many parts of the world that it can scarcely end too soon. But for many Europeans, it has also been a year of remembrance: the centenary of another terrible conflict. The intensity of public feeling about what those who survived it called the Great War has surprised some, and annoyed others, but it has undoubtedly been a dominant element in the public mood. Apart from all the books and articles, television and radio programmes, an astonishing 5 million people visited the sea of poppies around the Tower of London. Although there are few still living who have even childhood memories of the war, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s 888,246 ceramic flowers – one for every dead British soldier – which steadily filled the moat over three months, provided a reminder that scarcely any family in Britain was unaffected by that war. It is a deeply ingrained folk memory.

Next May sees another milestone, the 70th anniversary of VE Day; it will also mark the 75th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister. For all the deep and sincere mourning this past year, there has long been an implied contrast between the first and second world wars. In crude terms, we have come to think of them – haven’t we? – as the Bad War and the Good War.

After 1945, Europe seemed to have at last achieved what had been falsely promised in 1918: a war to make the world safe for democracy, and a war to end wars. That was how it felt during the glorious western postwar half-century of peace and prosperity, when no European countries fought each other, and when finally the cold war ended without armies clashing in Europe.


But so far from an eternal age of peace, we have not only returned to fighting wars – we have returned to fighting a kind of war grimly prefigured not by the supposedly evil Great War but instead by the seemingly noble Good War. From 1914 to 1918 as many as 18 million people died, while more than 70 million died from 1939 to 1945. The immensely important difference was that almost all of those killed in the first world war were soldiers in uniform, while the peculiar – and peculiarly horrible – distinguishing feature of the second world war was that up to 50 million of the dead were civilians. That would be the true face of the new war.

The myth of the Bad War and the Good War has become very dangerous, insofar as it has conditioned our attitude to war as a whole. The notion that the second world war was finer and nobler than the first is highly dubious in itself, since it sanitises so much, from the slaughter of civilians by Allied bombing to the gang rape of millions of women by our Russian allies at the moment of victory.

And it may be that the sanctification of the later war has had more pernicious consequences than the anathematisation of the former. Any argument that the Great War was uniquely wicked and wasteful is plainly false in statistical terms, and the idea that the Good War was uniquely noble is absurd in view of its moral ambiguities.

Worse than that, the glorification of the second world war has had practical and baleful consequences. It has led us to an easier acceptance of “liberal interventionism”, founded on the assumption that we in the west are alone virtuous and qualified to distinguish political right from wrong – and the conviction that our self-evidently virtuous ends must justify whatever means we employ, lighting up a bomber flare path from Dresden to Baghdad to Tripoli.

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At the start of 1914, few seriously expected another European war. In the spring of that year, the widely read socialist commentator HN Brailsford averred that “there will be no more wars among the six great powers”. Even in the weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, most political leaders thought that war would be averted. The outbreak of war was therefore an immense shock, one which precipitated a revolution in public opinion – not among jingoists, but liberals and radicals, including this paper.

The Manchester Guardian had been very strongly opposed to war, and frankly isolationist. No one was more insistent on the need to keep out of a European war than the paper’s chief leader writer and deputy editor, CE Montague. But when war was declared, he was so appalled by German perfidy that he enlisted, aged 47, dying his grey hair to conceal his age.


At the outset, every country thought victory certain, and everyone expected a very short war. Even when the scale of the carnage became clear within weeks – 27,000 French soldiers were killed on 23 August – the Economist, as confident as ever, proclaimed “the economic and financial impossibility of carrying out hostilities many more months on the present scale”. But there were four more years to come, on a scale even more vast and terrible, as one country after another – or at least their rulers – grasped not only the human catastrophe but the grim political outcome. When peace came, there came also a long period of intense and repressed mourning. We may now look askance at the rhetoric of “the glorious dead” who “shall grow not old as we that are left grow old”, but the bereaved did not want to think that their sons and husbands and lovers had died in vain.

Remembrance took different forms in different countries, set in stone for posterity. British war memorials are marked by their acute realism, with every detail of buckle, puttee and gun carriage captured as if never to be forgotten, so that they need never be seen again. See the works of the gifted sculptor Charles Jagger, his haggard infantryman at Paddington station, or the huge bas relief of the Royal Artillery memorial at Hyde Park Corner, gunners dragging their guns through the mud.

Although the British thought that they had suffered an unimaginable loss, France had lost 1.4 million men from a smaller population, and in France the dominant tone of war memorials is desolation – Marianne grieving for her lost sons. At Gentioux-Pigerolles in the Limousin region, the village war memorial bore the inscription “À nos chers enfants,” followed by the names of the fallen, and then “Maudite soit la guerre”. This was bitterly controversial at the time, and those words – “let war be accursed” – suggested a nation that had lost all appetite for war ever after, as the British might also have done.

But had the Germans? Their memorials were not so much mournful as defiant. Some of them listed the fallen, and then ended with the chilling words: “Not one too many died for the Fatherland.” The memorial to the alumni of the University of Berlin killed in the war bore the motto “Invictis Victi Victuri”, which oracular and ambiguous words could possibly be taken to mean, “To the unconquered from the conquered, who will themselves conquer.”


Even so, in Berlin as well as Paris and London, the 1920s were a time of hedonistic oblivion, as if to put the horrors out of mind. But there was also a reaction, beginning again with this paper. In 1922, Montague published a book about the war, Disenchantment – whose title conveys its disillusioned dismay at the murderous folly with which the war had been fought, and disappointment at its political consequences. He was a forerunner. At the end of the decade, by an accident of publishing history, though maybe a significant one, came a clutch of books that have shaped our consciousness of the war ever since: Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon, Her Privates We by Frederic Manning and RC Sheriff’s play Journey’s End. Besides those was a very famous German novel, All Quiet on the Western Front by EM Remarque. All were published between 1928 and 1930, and all told the same story of appalling and fruitless carnage.

When the war had begun, it was greeted poetically, but not at all in the way we now think. Few today recall the poet Rupert Brooke when he saw his generation “as swimmers into cleanness leaping, / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”. Julian Grenfell’s poem Into Battle, much anthologised at the time, is now even harder to stomach: “And he is dead who will not fight; / And who dies fighting has increase.”

Less than a year after the war began, Grenfell and Brooke were both dead, and within three more years – after the carnage of Loos and the Somme and Passchendaele – their lines seemed repugnant. To be told that your menfolk had died bravely in a good cause was one thing. To be told that death had “cleansed” or “increased” them was another.

We remember instead Wilfred Owen, who was only really discovered some years after a war in whose very last days he was killed: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” His subject, he said, was “the pity of war”, and “the old lie” that it is sweet to die for your country. And those other war poets, Graves, Blunden, Sassoon, who survived to write memoirs, likewise wrote poetry which is savage, bitter, and angry.

Among the most trenchant critics of the war’s misconduct while it was still under way was none other than Winston Churchill. In the first months of fighting, he was dismayed by the sight of sterile trench war, where “Tommies chew barbed wire in Flanders”. On 1 August 1916, a month to the day after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, he wrote a savage confidential critique of the offensive, detailing how little had been achieved, and at what enormous cost.

Churchill befriended Siegfried Sassoon, and used one of his poems as an epigraph to one chapter in a book about the war. He later wrote a preface to a harrowing documentary novel about a man unjustly court-martialled and shot for cowardice. The World Crisis, his ostensible history of the first world war – which the former Conservative prime minister AJ Balfour called “Winston’s brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe” – is largely an indictment of the foolish strategy of the allied generals, not least Douglas Haig. In the late 1930s Churchill tried to combat the revulsion from war that gripped England, but he had played his own part in fostering the belief that the Great War had been a bad war, in means if not ends.

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