Oh What a Lovely War

When I landed in England in the 70s, the War was very present in the culture. Indeed it had ended less than 30 years ago, which does not seem very long now, but to a 10 year-old is like an eternity. But there was another time-distorting aspect to this. In Germany, at the time, the War was out of sight and out of mind, Basil Fawlty’s ‘don’t mention the War’ was actually not far from the German reality. People had suffered immensely; my Mother’s family were bombed out, my Grandfather was shot through the jaw, we know people whose parents had starved to death, or been swallowed by the Dresden firestorm. There must also have been huge guilt and guilt by association. Although they did not become widely publicised until the 80s, people knew of the horrendous Nazi crimes well enough. But also, the country had been transformed completely. From a strutting aggressive dictatorship with imperial ambitions to a divided country, each part beholden to a different superpower, one affluent and democratic, the other oppressed but at least stable and well fed. In between had been blanket bombing and destitution. It is not surprising that it seemed like a different world.

England in the seventies lived and breathed the War. In films, TV, novels, children’s comics, toys, comedy. The memory was brought out daily like a talisman, polished, enjoyed and passed around. Whereas kids in Germany played cowboys and Indians, in England they played WWII. When I arrived in my primary school in King’s Lynn, almost the only immigrant and certainly the only German, with hardly a word of English, the kids went crazy. The enemy had appeared in their midst. On the first day my mother had naïvely sent me out in Lederhosen, because that’s what German children wore to school at that time. At break time, for my first few days at the English school, I was followed around the playground by a mob of kids screaming ‘Sieg Heil!’, a phrase with which they were a great deal more familiar than me.