Saturday, September 03, 2011

Don't mention the war

To state the bleedin' obvious, war is neither entertaining nor funny. But this being the 3rd of September provides gratuitous opportunity to offer you my favourite opening to any book ever written - Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall.

"HOW IT ALL STARTED. September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away, Father and I were watching Mother digging our air-raid shelter. 'She's a great little woman,' said Father. 'And getting smaller all the time,' I added. Two minutes later, a man called Chamberlain, who did Prime Minister impressions, spoke on the wireless. He said, 'As from eleven o'clock we are at war with Germany.' (I loved the WE.). 'War?' said Mother. 'It must have been something we said,' said Father. The people next door panicked, burnt their post office books and took in the washing."

The British are often accused of being fixated with events of 72 years ago. Our apparent love of war humour does underline the point. If you listen, however, to the many WW2-themed episodes of The Goon Show - the seminal 1950s BBC radio comedy which Spike Milligan wrote and performed in with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe - you'll hear an old soldier expunge six years of slaughter. In particular, you'll hear him reflect on the cost to his mental health (Milligan suffered chronic manic depression after the war, which he attributed to the effects of a mortar shell exploding near him in 1944).

As the World War Two generation has receded, the politically correct have frequently stepped in to complain about anyone finding humour in war. It depends on how you look at the subject: Robert Altman's M*A*S*H is generally regarded as one of the sharpest satires on the insanity of armed conflict, especially as it appeared in the midst of Vietnam (a war notably lacking comic reflection, Robin Williams notwithstanding). In the Netherlands, bafflingly, the BBC's 'Allo, 'Allo was a huge hit, even though the Dutch have as much right as any to be offended by occupation-themed comedy (a variable description given the laboriousness of some of the series' jokes...). I've even heard German friends of mine repeat the immortal Fawlty Towers line: "Don't mention the war - I mentioned it once and think I got away with it."

September 3, 1939 was merely the day that Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. The six years that followed were, clearly, anything but a laughing matter: the Holocaust; the devastation of Poland, Russia and the Baltics, 60 million deaths throughout the world - 40 million civilian, 20 million combatant; the eventual first use of a nuclear weapon in anger; the start of the Cold War thereafter.

But while we rightly remember the days when wars ended - the 1918 Armistice on November 11, for example, or the two-day Dutch Nationale Dodenherdenking (remembrance) on May 4 and Bevrijdingsdag (freedom) on May 5, would remembering when and why these wars started help prevent them happening again? It's just a thought.

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