The diet of films offered to a boy growing up in the 1950s and 1960s included a large number of items concerning WW2, writes Rev Sydney Maitland.
The allies were shown as heroic and the enemy – especially the Nazis – were shown as robotically evil. Of course their uniforms were smarter and their equipment often better, but well, ‘we’ won and ‘they’ lost. In fact, the war was largely won by American money, manpower and equipment, and by Russian blood. The British offering was in survival until the Americans and Russians came into it, winning occasional battles, such as that of Britain, and el Alamein, and losing heroically at Dunkirk and Arnhem.
German (and Austrian) actors, especially in and after the 1960s, such as Maximillan Schell, Kurt Jurgens and Anton Differing, have brought skill and subtlety to difficult roles and done so with great determination. Moreover, it has been British actors in Nazi roles who have brought a particular credibility to their work and in this respect I am thinking of the dramatization of the Wannsee Conference by Kenneth Branagh as Reinhart Heydrich which was particularly chilling.
My purpose however is not to discuss WW2 dramatizations, of which there are many. Rather it is to ask why the selective portrayal of its inhumanities and of subsequent episodes. Where for example is the massacre of the Polish Army officers by the Red Army? Or the starvation visited on the Ukraine in the 1930s by Stalin? Or the massacre, whether by design or neglect, by the Turks of the Armenians in 1915? Or the Killing Fields of Cambodia (there is only one such dramatization as far as I know).
More to the point why has discussion of these events been effectively suppressed? How is it that ‘speaking truth to power’ has fallen silent in these instances? The fact that there has been little recounting of these events or subsequent accounting for them only offers an unbalanced narrative of modern history, leading to an unbalanced understanding of it.
These events have not resulted in heroic victories by anyone and so may lack the emotional appeal of ‘good-war’ stories but to ignore them is to allow them to be repeated, maybe with even greater effect and loss of life.
To allow ourselves to be cocooned by such distorted renderings of history will undermine our own sense of what is right and allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security at a time then the capacity for even greater evil has been developed exponentially.
Jesus said quite a lot about truth and in the prologue to John’s gospel He is presented as ‘full of grace and truth’ (1: 17), ‘And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’ (Jn 8: 32) the ‘Way, the Truth and the Life’ (Jn 14: 6). The truth of Jesus is that of His incarnation, ministry, passion, atonement and resurrection, and that He bestows on us new and perhaps disturbing perspectives of self-denying love, self-giving service, and an overriding personal commitment to the things of God. It also leads us to question the nature of power, of service and of control as they are presented and exercised in the cultural, social, economic and political arenas.
The possibility that these unreported and unpresented events may undermine a sense of the progressive view of history does not justify the silencing of the innocent of these events, for whose blood, like that Abel, the soil calls out.
Perhaps it is time to lay aside the well-rehearsed events of WW2, especially in the west, for most of our generation grew up in its aftermath and did not as such shoot at anyone in anger or receive shot, shell or bomb in a general war. Perhaps it is time to give a more balanced story of humanity and address other events and issues. Maybe the more so as we also have to face the aftermath of the Brexit vote, regardless of how we cast our own ballots.