Poppies, patriots and pro-Brexit propaganda: Revisiting the myths of Britain's past

The Brexit debate has sparked a battle over the memories of Europe's war dead, and how we imagine Britain's place in world history.

Julian Petley
11 August 2016
 Owen Humphreys / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All r

A soldier ays a cross for his fallen friend on Armistice Day. Photo: Owen Humphreys / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reservedThis year marks the anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, which raged from 21 February to 18 December 1916. By the end of this terrible struggle, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the First world war, some 143,000 German and 162,000 French soldiers had been killed. But because British forces were not involved in this battle, this part of the Western Front is less visited by the British than are the more westerly battlefields such as those of the Somme and the Marne. And yet the whole area, throughout the length of the war, saw some of the worst battles of the entire conflict – not least in the hilly, forested area south west of Verdun, known as the Argonne. Such spots can teach us a great deal about the past and draw lessons for the future, but as I discovered, in these raw post-Brexit times, even what they tell us is a matter of controversy. 

A blood-drenched landscape

I certainly knew about Verdun, but until we travelled around the Argonne I had no idea just how blood-drenched is this pastoral landscape. Literally one cannot travel more than a few miles without encountering a war cemetery, either French, German or American, along with numerous imposing memorials. So a country holiday turned into more of a battlefield tour – but it was also one which, quite unexpectedly, brought me face to face with another kind of horror, one which I thought I’d left safely behind for a while: the British press.

The Argonne is the site of the largest American military cemetery in Europe, larger than even that at Colleville-sur-Mer, which overlooks Omaha Beach in Normandy and features in the distinctly American 'Saving Private Ryan'. It is at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, and contains the bodies of 14,246 soldiers who died in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest. This was a major part of the final Allied campaign of the war and stretched along the entire Western Front, lasting from 26 September 1918 until the Armistice. It marked the United States’ largest military campaign to date, involving 1.2 million soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force. The battle cost 26,277 American lives, with 95,786 wounded.  

one cannot travel more than a few miles without encountering a war cemetery

Then there are places which are not actual cemeteries but which nonetheless contain the remains of huge numbers of soldiers, like the 8,000 thought to lie pulverised under the Butte de Vauquois. This is a hill about fifteen miles south west of Verdun, at whose peak there was once a small village of about 170 inhabitants. This picturesque spot overlooked an important route to Verdun, and was thus captured and fortified by the Germans in 1914. It was then bitterly fought over for the next three years. In the course of the fighting, the village was largely destroyed and then completely obliterated, as the hilltop on which it had once rested was quite literally blown sky high. This was the result of both the Germans and the French digging under each other’s positions and setting off vast quantities of explosives. The site now is like a lunar landscape, pitted with huge craters, the largest of which is some 20m deep and 80m wide, the result of the Germans detonating  60,000kg of explosives on 14 May 1916, killing 108 French soldiers. It is estimated that during the struggle to dominate the Butte, the French detonated 320 mines and the Germans 199, albeit to absolutely no avail whatsoever. But this form of warfare has now entered the repertoire, and in particular has been regularly used by Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo, the most recent explosion taking place on 3 August. And this being the age of mediatised warfare, the huge blast was carefully captured on film from a number of different angles.

Lessons from the past

Many of the smaller cemeteries scattered throughout the Argonne are actually German, and it was whilst visiting one at Aprémont, set in peaceful woodland and beautifully maintained, like all such cemeteries, by the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), that we came across a notice which was headed by a quotation from Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, to the effect that ‘those who do not believe in Europe, doubt it or are exasperated by it should visit the graves of our wars’. In the wake of Brexit, this seemed remarkably apposite, so I looked up the source of the quotation online. But before I could find it, I had to wade through pages of references to pro-Brexit propaganda emanating from EU-hating British newspapers and from websites that parrot their every anti-EU word as gospel truth.     

The quotation turned out to be from a lecture given in The Hague on 3 March 2016. It ranged far and wide, although its main theme was the various threats and challenges facing the EU, and in particular the refugee crisis. It ended with a brief passage which began: ‘When talking about Europe, we should not forget why, after the Second world war, the States of Europe decided not to repeat the crass errors of the last century’, and continued by pointing out not only the horrors of Verdun but also the fact that, at the end of the 1920s, young people from Germany and France shook hands on its battlefields. But as, only ten years later, war in Europe broke out all over again, Juncker’s message was that "peace can never be taken for granted" and that "Europe will always benefit if we constantly remind people that it is a great project for peace".

Propaganda posing as journalism

Unexceptionable, indeed noble, sentiments, one might think. But not if you’re working for one of Britain’s EU-hating newspapers, particularly when in full Brexit propagandist flow. Concentrating entirely on the last few minutes of a long speech, they proceeded to twist its contents out of all recognition. Thus on 4 March, the Mail ran an article headed ‘EU Chief Provokes Fury by Telling Brexit Backers to Visit War Graves and then Think Again about Quitting EU’.  However, he had told ‘Brexit Backers’ to do no such thing, and their ‘fury’ was almost certainly the result of the Mail feeding them its own highly selective and out-of-context version of what he had actually said. Thus Robin Oxley of the Vote Leave campaign was prompted to opine that Juncker’s alleged remarks were ‘crass and an insult to the sacrifice those cemeteries represent’, a reading which it is quite simply impossible to square with what he actually said.

"Europe will always benefit if we constantly remind people that it is a great project for peace"

This, however, was as nothing compared to Liam Fox’s response to the effect that "the military cemeteries of Europe are testament to the failure of the continent to control extremism in the twentieth century. If Britain had not been a free and independent nation, we would have been unable to intervene to protect Europe from the result of its own folly". This is so historically illiterate, so absurdly an Anglocentric view of twentieth century European history, that it simply beggars belief. But it’s no more unbelievable than the fact that someone capable of spouting such arrant nonsense has actually been appointed Secretary of State for International Trade, and will thus be centrally involved in the Brexit process.

First of all, Britain had plenty of its own home-grown extremists in the 1930s, namely the British Union of Fascists (BUF), which, in its early days, was ardently supported by the Daily Mail. Second, although Britain did indeed intervene in Europe in 1939, in the shape of declaring war on Germany, it is extremely doubtful that it could have emerged on the winning side in 1945 without two other interventions: those of the Soviet Union and the USA, both in 1941. As far as the former is concerned, from the moment that Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, the majority of its forces were deployed on the Eastern Front, thus very considerably relieving the pressure on Britain and its allies on other fronts. According to reliable German sources, the Wehrmacht had a total strength of 7,234,000 men in 1941. For Operation Barbarossa, Germany mobilised 3,300,000 troops of the Wehrmacht, 150,000 of the Waffen-SS and approximately 250,000 personnel of the Luftwaffe.  By July 1943, the Wehrmacht numbered 6,815,000 troops. Of these, 3,900,000 were deployed in eastern Europe and 1,370,000 in the west.  By April 1944, Wehrmacht numbers had increased to 7,849,000, with 3,878,000  of  these being deployed in eastern Europe and 1,873,000 in the west.

Third, "free and independent" Britain did absolutely nothing "to intervene to protect Europe from the result of its own folly" until the 59th second of the 59th minute of the eleventh hour.  It is, of course, true that, after the horrors of the 1914-18 conflagration,  many people wanted simply to avoid another war at all costs. These might accurately be described as ‘appeasers’, but they should not be confused with what Richard Griffiths has called ‘fellow travellers of the Right’ and ‘British enthusiasts for Nazi Germany’. And these, in turn, should not be confused with members of the BUF. For the most part, these pro-Nazis were members of Britain’s upper classes, and they used their very considerable influence to discourage any moves towards confronting Germany. It was largely thanks to the untiring efforts of people such as these that the far-sighted and patriotic Churchill could find himself described in late 1930s Britain as "unquestionably the biggest war-monger in the world today" and as a man of the ‘war psychosis’ (both quoted in Richard Griffiths’ Fellow Travellers of the Right [1980]).

Foremost amongst them were Mail owner Lord Rothermere and the future Edward VIII, but their numbers were considerably larger than is usually imagined, and included numerous Conservative MPs, Peers and leading society figures. Many of these eventually came together in the Right Club, an organisation which aimed to purge the Conservative party of alleged Jewish control and so make it more friendly towards Nazi Germany. This was founded by the Conservative MP Captain Archibald Ramsay, and its members’ names were logged in what was known as the Red Book. That this was lost for many years has frequently been ascribed to the machinations of M15 to conceal the extent of Nazi sympathies amongst Britain’s upper echelons, but, whatever the case, its disappearance certainly helped to obscure the truth about the pro-Nazi sympathies of many of the Great and the Good in the 1930s. However, the book is now safely lodged in the Wiener Library, and the disturbing story of the Right Club and its members is expertly told by Richard Griffiths in Patriotism Perverted (1998).

For the most part, these pro-Nazis were members of Britain’s upper classes, and they used their very considerable influence to discourage any moves towards confronting Germany

Not to be outdone in the nonsense stakes in the press coverage of Juncker's speech, the Express, 9 March, published an article headed  ‘Britain Could Spark EU WAR: Juncker Says UK Could BREAK Brussels Peace’ with the strapline ‘Brussels chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned Britain could spark World War Three if it votes to leave the European Union (EU)’. This informed its readers that "patronising Juncker accused Brexit voters of forgetting the role the EU has played in the years since the Second world war" and that  "the desperate leader warned voters not to repeat the “enormous stupidity”  of two world wars in an astonishing  attack". But this, again, is simply propaganda posing as journalism. There is absolutely nothing at all in the speech about ‘EU war’ or ‘Brussels peace’ (whatever they’re supposed to be) or ‘World War Three’, nor does it ‘accuse’ Brexit voters of anything at all. Indeed, Brexit is mentioned only once, and then very briefly, with Juncker actually stating that "it would not be fitting for a Commission President to interfere in the British referendum campaign".  The speech isn’t an attack, astonishing or otherwise, on anyone, and if one examines the full text (which was delivered in German), it is perfectly clear that ‘enormous stupidity’ (gewaltigen Dummheiten in the original) refers to the events which led to the two world wars in the twentieth century and not specifically to those wars themselves. The article also quotes Fox’s own gewaltigen Dummheiten, and these are reproduced yet again in an article in the Telegraph, 4 March.

Deadly parallels

Presenting distorted visions of a terrible past for propagandist purposes, caricaturing and attacking the positions of those who have the temerity to differ from the propagandist line, abandoning truth and trustworthiness for ideology of a particularly rabid kind – this isn’t journalism by any conceivable measure,  unless one includes the kind of ‘journalism’ once found in the pages of the Völkischer Beobachter (to which a former senior Tory cabinet minister recently compared the Mail, albeit off-the-record and in the privacy of my car). Indeed, it increasingly appears that whilst Germany has, for the most part, finally managed to put behind it the past touched on in this article, England is ever more in thrall to versions of its past which are largely mythical, if not downright delusional, and infected with a virulent strain of nationalism.

England is ever more in thrall to versions of its past which are largely mythical, if not downright delusional

These, of course, were greatly fostered during the referendum campaign (and, indeed, long before that) by papers such as the SunMailTelegraphExpress and Star, which, it is now abundantly clear, are essentially English nationalist in terms of their ideology, and which in certain really quite disturbing ways recall the vehemently right-wing press of the Weimar period. Vast amounts of this were in the hands of the publishing house Scherl Verlag, which also had considerable book publishing interests. It was owned by Alfred Hugenberg, who, additionally, had a controlling interest in the famous UFA film studios. If this reminds you of somebody, then you’re dead right, but a major difference between Hugenberg and Murdoch is that the former was directly involved in politics in his role, from 1919 onwards, as a deputy of the right wing German National People’s Party (Deutschnationale  Volkspartei), of which he was made chairman in 1928, before briefly serving as Minister of Economics and Agriculture in Hitler’s first cabinet. But, of course, Murdoch doesn’t need to be directly involved in politics in order to get his way. As he famously stated when asked why his papers were so opposed to the European Union: ‘That’s easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice’. And now we’re all going to have to live with the consequences.     

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