Our guest blogger, Greg Tinker, conducted his doctoral research on cultural memory and the Second World War. Studying for his PhD at the University of Reading, he explored the relationship between British veterans and remembrance. Here he describes some of the findings of his thesis.
I joined the University of Reading’s Languages at War team to research and write my doctoral thesis on British Second World War veterans’ remembrance activities. Languages at War was an AHRC-funded research project that aimed to provide new insights into the policies and practices of language contacts in conflict. The research documented veterans’ ‘Heroes Return’ visits to former sites of battle, embarked on as part of the government’s Veterans Reunited national remembrance programme, mounted to mark the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe in 2004-5.
The IWM contributed to the programme with Their Past Your Future (TPYF), an education project that grew out of a youth remembrance scheme created by the UK government'scross-departmental Veterans Task Force. The Task Force had been set up by the Prime Minister in 2001 to promote wider public recognition of the achievements of British armed forces veterans and service personnel.
My research explores the ‘voice’ of the veteran, and the role it has had in public remembrance of the Second World War. Prior to the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings, the veterans’ ‘voice’ had been marginalised, partly by governments creating official histories of the war and responding to Cold War threats, partly by the post-war generation, who may have found it difficult to empathise effectively with the wartime generation, and partly by the veterans themselves.
Through a series of at-home interviews with Second World War veterans, I investigatedthe veterans’ own views and attitudes towards remembrance – their individual account of and relationship with remembrance practices as opposed to those offered by veteran groups or through the media. Unexpectedly, veterans did not see the need for explicit recognition of their personal wartime achievements; they believed instead that future generations ought to learn about the veterans’ cause in the war, about ethics in war, and in particular what veterans regard as the clear moral justification for the Second World War. They did not think there was much to be gained from a commemorative focus on the figure of the veteran per se. With few exceptions, veterans believed that young people must instead learn more about the real existential threat faced by the democratic world in the two decades after the First World War, during the crisis of liberalism and the rise of fascism. They believed that young people must be required to gain a thorough appreciation of this, together with knowledge of the causes and long-term social and economic consequences of the war.
It also became clear that many veterans embraced their war (and post-war) responsibilities very readily. They regarded themselves not so much as heroes or victims, but as fortunate survivors. Their survival, unlike those who died in the war, enabled many veterans to derive lifelong satisfaction and personal meaning from their wartime contribution as part of a larger shared experience. In view of this, they broadly counselled young people to develop themselves as individuals and build identities through face-to-face interactions as part of their own shared experiences. Veterans emphasised that they had fought so that today’s young people might enjoy the freedom – and responsibility – to discover how to live together peacefully as independent citizens.