Monty, General Bernard Law Montgomery, was interviewed on Canadian television while touring that country shortly after the Second World War. The interview reminds me of one of these improvised dialogues between the satirists John Bird and John Fortune, in which Bird took the role of interviewer and straight man, and Fortune the role of interviewee, an establishment figure, a politician, captain of industry, or military man, who turns out to be completely bonkers. Fortune’s response to questions would become more and more ridiculous, his wide-eyed, disdainful expression more and more absurd, to the point that Bird would have the greatest difficulty maintaining his own serious demeanour, without “corpsing”.
Monty thought the generals of the Great War were a bunch of amateurs, and he recalled that thirty thousand British soldiers (his own statistic) were killed on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme. “Imagine that!” said Monty, with Fortune’s wide-eyed stare. “Thirty thousand! Before lunch!”
And later: “I didn’t want to parley with General Rommel. I wanted to smash him!”
As the harsh reality of the war receded from our collective consciousness, the conflict became a vehicle for gentle nostalgia, quips and ribaldry. Hence the BBC produced shows like Dad’s Army – “Vot ist your name?” – “Don’t tell ’im, Pike!” and ’Allo ’Allo, which mocked the French Resistance – “Listen carefully, ah weel say zees only wance”), and even made fun of the Gestapo. Then there is that Fawlty Towers sketch “Don’t talk about the war!” in which Basil, erstwhile Minister of Funny Walks in Python, does his ridiculous goosestep. There is a marvellous Smith and Jones sketch which mocks our stereotypical notion of the character of senior officers in the Wehrmacht. One of them listens to Wagner on an ancient Deutsche Grammophon contraption with its huge HMV trumpet, while his tailor measures him for a new uniform, and he enjoys the company of a Marlene Dietrich lookalike. “You see, we are not all barbarians.”
At Bayreuth, one of the Wagners showed Daniel Barenboim a passage in the score of Tannhäuser. “This is the point at which the Führer wept.” That line could have come straight from an Alas Smith and Jones sketch. It is possible to laugh at anything, so long as the subject is safely locked up in the museum of the past. I have even laughed at a joke about a concentration camp. I can only remember the joke’s punchline: “You had to be there.”
But now look what’s happened. It turns out all these characters aren’t in a museum at all. Far from being as extinct as the dinosaurs, they are very much alive and kicking. The events of the late 1930s no longer seem remote. They could have happened last week. Actually, they did happen last week. Winston’s great oratorical set pieces no longer sound archaic. They have come alive. It turns out that we have been deluding ourselves, as Winston said we would, in the theme of the final volume of his History of the Second World War, Triumph and Tragedy –
“How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.”
In his second term as PM, Winston wanted to work hard at the preservation of the peace. He wanted to convene a “summit” (he even coined the term) of the great powers to find a way to de-escalate the nuclear arms race. But by that time the UK itself was no longer a great power, so his overtures to the USA and the USSR were ignored. In the 60s, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Macmillan secured an uneasy détente, but the fact that there are said to be 13,000 nuclear warheads still extant in the world today is surely an appalling indictment of international diplomacy and, in particular, the members of the United Nations “Permanent Security Council”, an oxymoron if ever there was one.
What are we to do? There isn’t much point in quoting the Irishman you approach in the street to ask for directions. “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” It would be nice to return to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it seemed that the world was granted a golden opportunity. But our greatest delusion then was the notion that “History has come to an end”. We had the same delusion in 1918, with the notion that the armistice brought to a conclusion “the war to end all wars”. It was a delusion again in 1945. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. We were deluded then simply because such conflicts didn’t directly affect Europe. Even now, here in our remote island on the western edge of the continent, surrounded by our moat, we can’t quite take it in. I met my friends at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday evening, as usual, and we listened to glorious Walton, Rachmaninov, and Elgar, and for a time we could almost, but not quite, forget the troubles of the world. I heard from a friend whose Swedish friend has just returned from her native land, that everybody there has packed an overnight bag, ready to go, and has identified the location of the nearest air-raid shelter.
Unfortunately, Mr Putin has opened Pandora’s Box. If in any sense we are receding back into history, it is not to 1989, but to 1939. Or, as the remarkable final sentence of The Great Gatsby has it:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.