Thursday 12 June 2014

The Personal and the Political, by H.M. Castor

Tucked away at the end of a platform at Bristol Temple Meads railways station, there are some photographs taken by Mark Perham (for a project called ‘Reverberations' ) of people who work, or have worked, at the station. When I spotted them the other day, as I waited for a train, they moved me; they made me think how many people have given day after day, year after year of their working lives to that station. They made me think how precious are individual lives – lived only once. And they made me reflect, too, on the fact that when each person retires – or dies – that deep accretion of experience, built up over all those days and years, leaves with them.

I thought of this same point when reading coverage of the D-Day commemorations last week in Normandy. I was shocked to realise that, all too soon, the whole of the generation that served in World War II will have gone.

Ellan Levitsky-Orkin, who served as a U.S. Army nurse in Normandy during World War II, is greeted by a U.S. Army paratrooper during a ceremony honoring the service of U.S. Army nurses during World War II, in Bolleville, France, June 4, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sara Keller)
(Flickr: D-Day Commemoration) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
When I was growing up, it was the World War I generation that was elderly, whose numbers were dwindling; even so, I heard many desperately moving interviews with veterans on television and radio, and there were many men and women attending the yearly commemorations who had been there. The World War II generation, by contrast, seemed robust and all around me – energetic people in their 60s. My great-uncle told me stories of his war service in the Middle East and my grandfather (to my great delight) gave me the fascinating coins he’d collected while serving in North Africa – and his Army Ordnance Corps badges too. Although both wars were (of course) a very long way from my own experience, neither felt completely out of reach, since the thread connecting me to them was a living one. Knowing (or seeing) individuals who had been involved, and hearing them speak of their experiences, played a huge part in this sense of proximity and emotional connection. As my children learn now about the World Wars at school, I am aware how different it is for them: once a generation has gone, once the events they lived through have passed out of personal memory and into what we call ‘history’, that connection can never be quite the same.

These belonged to my grandfather
This brings me to another point about memory. Last week, with the D-Day anniversary in the news, there was a chilling juxtaposition. As the commemorations were beginning in France, black-shirted ‘Golden Dawn’ supporters were lining up in military formation outside the Athens parliament, singing a Greek version of the Nazi Horst Wessel song, while inside the building their leader (currently charged with murder and assault) gave Nazi salutes and hurled abuse at MPs. Political commentator Pavlos Tzimas has been quoted as saying that Golden Dawn is “a true neo-Nazi force whose aim is to use democracy to destroy democracy.” Its support in Greece is growing.

These scenes, for me, underline the significance of the loss of first-hand memory and experience. The connection between financial crisis, economic austerity and the rise of nationalism and racism rings clear bells for anyone with some knowledge of the inter-war years of the 1920s and ’30s. (Is there any stronger argument than this for the importance of studying history?) Golden Dawn may be a very particular case – an organization that has grown out of the polarization of Greek politics since the civil war of 1946-9, and whose support-base has been boosted by the Greek government-debt crisis – but no one could deny that its rise is part of a wider trend. Right-wing xenophobic parties have scored successes over a wide area in the recent European elections. In Britain, the political party that has benefited from this trend is UKIP. While most UKIP supporters would no doubt be appalled to think of it as having anything whatsoever in common with an organization like Golden Dawn, still it is instructive to note that support for the far-right British National Party has collapsed as UKIP’s fortunes have risen; BNP support has transferred to UKIP.

Xenophobia, it’s safe to say, is on the rise. But what do people imagine that nationalism and xenophobia lead to? Even as we commemorate the D-Day landings in Normandy, are we at risk of forgetting the experiences of the World War II generation? Many in this country who hold xenophobic views might well say that they are admirers of Winston Churchill, yet few realize that Churchill was a strong supporter of the movement for a united Europe. Yes, it’s true that he saw Britain as a special case, having a unique role to play as the link between that united Europe and the USA, but nevertheless he was convinced of the vital need for closer ties and closer co-operation as the best bulwark against future outbreaks of bloody conflict. Whatever problems there are with the governance of Europe, nationalism and racism cannot be the road to improvement – as history clearly shows.

Among supporters of the far right, realistic thoughts of what these political trends might lead to in the long run – even among those extremists who would not be averse to starting a war – seem conspicuous by their absence. Instead, it is all about the expression of anger and distress. In interviews with Golden Dawn supporters quoted here  in The Guardian, the projection of each individual’s own rage and fear onto dark forces ‘out there’ is plain to see. This is how scapegoating operates, and it requires the dehumanisation of the target.

Which brings me back to the importance of the personal connection. When any group or institution (or, indeed, historical event) can be seen in terms of the personal and the specific, fellow-feeling and empathy are much more likely to be evoked. Seeing the individual D-Day veterans and hearing their reminiscences prompts us to think what it might have been like to walk in their shoes. More than this: as long as those with first-hand experience are alive, they have (we hope) the chance to speak up. When, on the other hand, the World War II generation has gone, that part of the electorate that experienced the Great Depression and the rise of fascism will have vanished. (And the reasons why the NHS and the welfare state were established – the reality of what happened to the most vulnerable in society when there was no safety net – will be in danger, it seems, of being forgotten too.), Individual memories, individual human voices will still be heard by historians reading the records but not, I fear, by the population at large – or, at least, not in a way that makes people think, urgently, of their own future and that of their children.

I looked at those pictures in Temple Meads station and I thought how valuable, how precious, is personal history, the lived experience. With each individual’s death, a whole world of experiences is lost. And in cases of the worst, most traumatic experiences, is the determination never to let them happen again lost too? I hope not. But I am worried.

This is my final post as a History Girl, since I am passing the baton to Tanya Landman – and am very much looking forward to reading her posts! It’s been an honour and a pleasure to be included in such a wonderful group for the past three years, and I would like to thank all the HGs, past and present, for their fellowship and support. Huge thanks, also, to everyone who has read and commented on my posts. I shall continue to be involved as a keen reader of the blog!
I am also delighted to mention that my aunt, Ruth Hayward, has recently published a book based on her research into the life and letters of (Jonathan) Wathen Phipps, eye-surgeon to George III, and a close confidant not only of the King, but of three of his sons too. Phippy is published by Brewin Books. 

Au revoir, Harriet! We've loved having you as a History Girl and wish you well for the future. Do stay in touch.


Carol Drinkwater said...

How touching and accurate this post is, Harriet. Here in France as the power of Le Pen rises, this nation, or those who wish to see France rid of Arabs, has forgotten or barely ever admitted the contribution the Maghrebians, the north Africans, played fighting with the Allies. Algeria was a vitally important base for the Allies. It helped keep the Mediterranean in the hands of the Allies. Yet today, I see the appalling disrespect shown here towards these Arab and Berber peoples who were valiant supporters and whose relatives gave their lives for France.
Lest we forget, indeed….

Meredith said...

Here in the U.S. our problem is that we seem to be so far removed from everyone else; who are our closest neighbors? Canada and Mexico, and the latter is seen as more of a problem than a "neighbor." In a country as big as ours is, it's easy to forget we are part of a global community. Our problems tend to divide us as people look inward, instead of outward, for causes.

I think this is why historical fiction is so important as a genre; as you said, it personalizes these events, makes them more immediate and more intimate.

Good bye, and good luck with your future endeavors!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Wonderful post, Harriet. Thank you and all the best to you!

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for this post, Harriet. It is so moving and important.

Mark Burgess said...

As usual, a thoughtful and pertinent
post, Harriet. I'm sorry that you're leaving HG but thank you for all your posts and good luck.

Sophia Allwood said...

When someone from the older generation dies, the personal side of history disappears. History then becomes a series of facts and the everyday experiences of ordinary people are lost. I know I felt I had lost a huge part of my history when hen my grandmother died.
I looked forward to your posts. They covered a wide range: Jack in the Green, ballet, lost treasures, all written in -depth and memorable and informative.
You will be missed but thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Clare Mulley said...

Excellent post Harriet, thank you.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for this and all your other wonderful posts for History Girls, Harriet! I hope our paths cross soon at some literary event! C x

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you ALL for these warm, thought-provoking & much appreciated comments.

adele said...

Lovely to have read you for 3 years and will now continue reading your books. Keep in touch and good luck with everything. I am doing an anonymous comment as this machine won't let me post as Adele Geras...grrr.

adele said...

No, Google let me in. Thanks Google!

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