Monday, June 27, 2011

Angus Calder – The People’s War: Britain 1939 – 1945

There are many histories of the Second World War. Most of them deal with the battles and military campaigns, or the leaders of armies and nations. Angus Calder’s book though is in some ways a very narrow history, because it looks at the War through the eyes of the people of Britain.
The British were told they were fighting a war for democracy and freedom, against tyranny. However for the majority of the people of Britain the world of democracy was not one of peace and justice, it was one of poverty and unemployment, of fear of the future and old age. The belief that the world should be a better place helps explain the introduction and the enthusiasm for the welfare state at the end of this conflict. The establishment knew this, Tory MP Quentiin Hogg commentated about the Beveridge Report that  "[i]t was not that it was a bible or a panacea, but it was a flag to nail to the mast, a symbol, a rallying point for men of goodwill - above all, an opportunity to re-establish a social conscience in the Tory party"?
One of the central threads to this history is class. Rationing was supposed to be for everyone, yet those with money could always find better food.  Take one quote from a young woman travelling with some salesmen, “Tyres? As many as you want – at the right place” he tells her smiling, when she overhears their deals. At a time of rubber shortages for the war effort, those with the cash could get what they need. This was particularly true in terms of housing. The “clearest area in which the rich stayed rich and the poor got poorer as a result of wartime conditions” argues Calder. In part this was because the immense bombing raids tended to hit the poorest parts of East London, in part is was because war workers had to be accommodated in villages and towns around the country and compensation wasn’t adequate. What made things worse was the way that those with larger homes, the ”upper middle classes” often took the least burden. In one case a town was declared full, when all the working class accommodation was full, but twenty-three town councillors have between them 66 rooms to spare.
Of course many of the wealthy didn’t think that they needed to contribute anything at all. During World War Two, various councils asked citizens what public services they could do in the event of a Nazi invasion. In November 1942, from the West End of London came this response "My maid and I would be glad to help in any way from five to seven any evening except at week-ends, when we are always in the country".

The book is full of anecdotes, humour and insights that result from Calder’s reliance on the testimony of ordinary people. The unique Mass Observation system which encouraged people, through diaries, interviews and records to put down their thoughts on everything from the cost of food, to their attitudes to the Germans gives us a fascinating insight into life during wartime. Calder uses this sparingly, but often enough for us to almost understand what life was like. The pain and the suffering is always there, but so is the resistance and defiance – and not just of the enemy, but also of governments and politicians seen as being remote. This was a time of boom for authors and writers, books sold in vast quantities, despite the shortage of paper. Libraries were oversubscribed – the ones that survived the bombing.
One of the great aspects to this book is the way that Calder draws conclusions about the people’s ideas from less obvious sources. He quotes one social scientist who “undertook the ordeal of reading sedulously every book about the war published between the outbreak and the end of 1941”. The scientist is surprised and taken aback by the right-wing sympathies of the low-grade fiction, and “the prevalent anti-Semitic tone” half the books had a Jewish character and only in one case was the reference positive.
What Calder gets at here, is that whatever the war was being fought for, the image of a united, collective British people is mistaken. People had all sorts of ideas. Some wanted an end to Fascism, some wanted just to survive. Some would have worked with and helped the Nazis had they invaded. During the war, the absence of contested elections between the main parties allowed a number of more obscure parties to gain a hearing. The Communist Party vacillated all over the place, depending on the line from Moscow, even supporting Tory candidates at times, against socialists and anti-imperialists. The “Common Wealth” party gained a hearing, mixing popularist policies with demands for the immediate introduction of the Welfare State. This was early evidence for the swing away from Churchill towards Labour after 1944. Interestingly though, Labour couldn’t find it in themselves to build on this popularity. Reminding me of their activities post 1997, when expectations of actual policies were much more optimistic than Tony Blair delivered, the incoming Labour government in 1945 didn’t take the Welfare State or nationalisation program as far, or as quick as most voters expected (and hoped for).
There is so much that I found fascinating in Angus Calder’s book, that I feel that I cheat you by not including more. So I want to finish with one more quote that I think summarises why Calder was such a brilliant historian – this is the empathy with which he treats his subjects. Describing the thousands of children evacuated to the country early in the war, the trip chaotic badly planned and the ending disorganised. He tells how many of these children away from home and parents for the first time, in a countryside many had never visited with strangers looking after then, slept in strange beds, and
Because they had bottled themselves up in the train or because they were upset at being parted from their parents, or because they thought the country darkness must harbour ghosts and were afraid to move, at the beginning of September, from Aberdeenshire to Devon, countless numbers of children wet their beds.
It is a powerful image that Calder creates. Yet it was the first of many terrors for these children and their friends, family and all those who spent the war in the British Isles. Calder’s history is a monument to their courage and sacrifices, but it is a far truer account that you’ll get from those whose simplistic histories are ones were the war was won by the British stiff upper lip and a united country facing a common enemy.

Related Reviews

Angus Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Heartfield - An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Challinor - The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War

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