Friday, August 14, 2009

The pity of war, the pity war distilled

On holiday in Brittany I had to hide "D-Day" by Anthony Beevor whenever the German family next door dropped round. I'm sure they think we're obsessed with the fifty year old past. I suppose I am. In my defence it's the way I was brought up, at the teat of the nation's sustaining myth. I can't claim to follow every thrust and counter thrust of the Normandy campaign. Earlier today I drove up through the bocage and tried to relate this peaceful, tidy landscape to the killing ground described in the book. I couldn't.

What I love in Beevor's books are the gripping details of human nature under unrepeatable duress. The mid-western farm boys who had little concept of a world beyond Kansas but were profoundly moved by the sight of Normandy cows desperate to be milked. The fact that the invaders stripped dead German soldiers naked for the souvenir value of their uniforms. And the head-spinning story of the three French whores who had set up a brothel in a burned-out landing craft on the invasion beach on the evening of D-Day.


  1. He has that rare ability to paint a huge canvas whilst still allowing for the intimacy of the individual.

  2. I had a similar experience in Berlin last summer. The one day I managed to get an English newspaper (The Guardian)Adolf was displayed prominently on the front.Confirming to the Germans that we still are truly obssessed with the events of the Thirties and Forties. I tried furtively reading it on the U Bahn trying all the while to hide the picture. In the end I got paranoid, gave up and threw the front cover in the waste bin.

  3. Headline in the Glasgow Herald this weekend - "Schools give negative view of Germany". I was not sure whether they were complaining or boasting.

  4. Simon1:09 pm

    Living with a German and knowing Germany well, I'm not sure they're at all bothered with the way the British think. It always amazes me how much they like the British (probably due to the cultural similarities) given the obsession with WWII in Britain. My other half claims that there is something on TV (on the five terrestrial channels) about WWII at least once a week in the UK.

  5. That's interesting. I moved from the UK to Germany in 1987 and was amazed just how many WWII-related programmes were on the German TV.

    It seemed pretty clear that the message was "this must not be allowed to happen again".

    There's not so much these days, but I'd guess there's about as much on German TV as there is in the UK.

  6. "Earlier today I drove up through the bocage and tried to relate this peaceful, tidy landscape to the killing ground described in the book. I couldn't."

    I'm glad you couldn't, because that's not what it is. For a brief moment in time, the human race turned somewhere beautiful into a living hell. While not forgetting the event, hoping against all experience that we can avoid such enormity again, it is good that the place now should not be scarred and can be appreciated simply for being what it is, rather that what it had (fleetingly) been.