Seventy-fours years ago today we stood shoulder to shoulder with our closest ally, issuing an ultimatum to a Fascist dictator who had overstepped a red line. And the rest is history – in fact the only history that most people know anything about.
One of the things the Syrian crisis has shown is just how much the Second World War dominates public discourse in Britain and the US. The last week has seen a flowering of dubious WW2 analogies, with 'appeasement' being bandied around by MPs and lots of usually sensible people making references to 1938, Chamberlain and Churchill. John Kerry has said that Assad is like Hitler because he used poison gas, even though, as the Guardian pointed out, Churchill used it too.
Assad is nothing like as threatening as Hitler. Sure, Nazism influenced the Ba’athists, and somewhere down in Bashar’s headquarters I’m sure you’ll find some 100-year-old with a dueling scar, a limp and a monocle still running Syria’s torture operations. Oh yes, and Assad has a moustache, just like Hitler, although a good rule of thumb in Middle Eastern politics is always back the guy with the moustache against the guy with the beard.
As knowledge of history has declined across the English-speaking world, so the few things that are remembered become more important; Britain has never been able to get over the War, which left it ruined but righteous, and so as the Great Amnesia began in the teaching of history the Battle of Britain, the Few and Churchill’s inspiring speeches have become even more important.
This has affected our relations with the Germans, and with the French, who we label 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys'. Go to any village in France and you’ll see heartbreaking memorials bearing the words Mort pour la patrie, with the names of all the young men who died in the Great War, often with a (II) or even (III) beside them to show where families had lost more than one son. The horror of what happened led to appeasement and so a new war, which we survived because the sea protected us.
But just as in 1938 the French and British were still fighting the last war, as is human nature, so are we, and Syria rather illustrates the point that learning about history doesn’t help us to prevent mistakes, since we may learn the wrong lessons.
And as far as the Middle East stands right now, 2013 looks far more like 1914 than 1938.