How Should We Tell The Story of a World War?

Shefali Saxena Wednesday 27th April 2022 12:43 EDT

The Second World War was a global struggle on an unprecedented scale, the likes of which have never been seen since. From London to Hamburg, Nanking to Manitoba, Dar-es-Salaam to Rawalpindi, Detroit to Stalingrad, the war affected everyone.


But while there is no doubt that the Second World War was a conflict on a massive scale, public discussion and commemoration of the war in the UK has often neglected to acknowledge its truly global nature, focusing instead on battles in Europe, the home front and the role of great power leaders.


So how should our society best explore the global nature of the Second World War? And in an era of increased debate about history and Britain’s imperial past, how can we ensure voices from all sides are heard in order to move towards a more inclusive understanding of our shared global history?

We speak to Professor Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at St Cross College, Oxford and Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Reader in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London, and Chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group about it. 


How Should We Tell The Story of a World War?


Dr Meera: A war as far-reaching, widespread and destructive as the Second World War needs to be understood in its full historical and moral complexity. Our understanding needs to go beyond the battlefronts to look at civilians, who died both from violence and from the indirect effects of the war in numbers that far outnumbered military deaths. We need to go well beyond thinking about Britain, France, Germany and America to think about the huge roles played by China and the Soviet Union where deaths were far higher, and Japan whose impact across Asia was enormous. We also need to see this not as a war between nation-states but between empires and their allies and appreciate that there were tensions within as well as between these imperial structures. For example, in India, different parts of the national movement supported different sides in the war or shifted allegiances particularly as they became frustrated with broken promises from the British.


Do you think an objective account of the current climate will be possible in the near future or for our future generations?


Dr Meera: There has been a really significant shift over recent decades in moving away from a more self-serving jingoistic account of the war and towards a fuller reckoning with it from multiple perspectives and angles, towards appreciating it as something with enormous social consequences - towards writing a history 'from below'. Whilst of course some elements will not be available to be recovered, it will be important for historians around the world to collaborate and piece together archives of what can.


Prof Rana: Right now we have one advantage over previous generations - there is much more material available at the grassroots, because of the proliferation of digital materials - blogs, images, photos, social media posts. We know - if we care to - what it's like being a Syrian refugee or a Ukrainian under fire. The danger is the preservation of such materials. To gain some kind of objectivity - which is not the same as neutrality - we must start working now on the task of preserving such materials to ensure the widest range is left for later generations to interpret. The IWM is one of the institutions that can and does play a crucial role in this sort of discussion.

Why is studying our history so important? How can nations like Britain do justice to it and make sure Britons know of the colonial past?


Dr Meera: Everyone on the receiving end of it seems to remember British imperialism quite well! It's odd that Brits themselves know relatively little about it. Whilst it is not possible to capture absolutely everything, it is necessary for people to make sense e.g. of Chinese military strategy or Caribbean calls for reparations in the context of the things that happened.


Prof Rana: It's important because it's complex. The more you read and understand the complexity of the past, the more you understand why today's society is shaped by the contours of history that lie just below the surface. It's important to remember that for many Asians, the links with Britain's history are ones that are not always well-known in Britain itself - for instance, both the contribution of Chinese workers (100,000 of them on the western front in World War II) and Indian soldiers in the Great War. There are never simply good or bad outcomes in history - history is not theology. But nobody can make a full judgement about Britain's fascinating history without having full and detailed knowledge of its colonial past.

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