You will also go on the list: Why the British press is obsessed with World War II

Show us your papers, etc.

Hiroo Onoda fought the Second World War for 29 years after everyone else had called it quits. Surviving on very little and moving from place to place in the Philippine jungle, Onoda was waiting for his orders and when they never came, he kept on fighting. It was only when his former commanding officer travelled to the island in 1974 that he was persuaded to surrender. Only then did the war end for Hiroo Onoda, who went on to live to 91, having spent the rest of his life as a farmer in Brazil and setting up nature camps for children in Japan.

The British media is Onoda, but no commanding officer will ever get it to stop fighting the Second World War.

For columnists and reporters in the British newspapers, and on TV and radio shows, dug in to the foxholes of their fevered imagination, the Second World War will never end. It is there in the daily headlines that invoke the sacrifice of war and the old enmities that helped fuel it. It is there in the almost constant comparisons to the Blitz, Dunkirk, D-Day, and the dark spectre of the Gestapo.

Just take the Daily Mail’s front page from yesterday, which featured the headline, NOW SHOW US YOUR PAPERS, applying Second World War themed hyperbole to a story about pub landlords being asked to check whether people live in the same household. While I also believe the Coronavirus rules as slipping towards an authoritarian position, I would be rather less quick to reference the Gestapo.

From Piers Morgan re-litigating World War II during Euro ‘96 with the infamous Mirror front page ACHTUNG! SURRENDER to papers of all kinds comparing Brexit travails with the semi-mythical Blitz spirit and the ‘glorious’ retreat at Dunkirk, we have a media which, especially during poppy season (aka War Christmas), suffers from a conflict psychosis.

The fact that there is no one writing regularly in the British media who was old enough to serve in WW2 (or even to really remember it) makes no difference. Every Boomer and a depressing number of Millennials believes that they would have been very heroic in WW2 and, if they’d had the ‘misfortune’ to be French, they would have definitely have been in the Resistance.

It’s actually more likely that most of the columnists with sinecure positions in the British newspapers would have collaborated faster that you can say Goebbels. The tenor of much of current British commentary is, at best, Black Shirts and at worst the sort of thing that Julius Streicher would have happily published in the virulently antisemitic Nazi house journal Der Stürmer.

The British press and media is obsessed with WWII for three reasons:

  • It has an increasingly older skewing audience who enjoy tales of the war their parents and grandparents fought but for which they were too young to fight or not even born, despite brain worms assuring them they definitely stormed the beaches on D-Day

  • WWII, to a newspaper comment class who have read about four books between them, is a clear Goodies vs. Baddies event that serves up lots of easy analogies. That the Second World War was a complex mess and not a tale of daring do is something they tend to ignore.

  • The British press loves a man — and it is usually a man — in uniform, and in truth it doesn’t really matter if that uniform is an Allied or an Axis one. Remember when Bryan Ferry was quoted, then quickly denied saying, “My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves. ... Leni Riefenstahl's movies and Albert Speer's buildings and the mass parades and the flags - just amazing. Really beautiful…” There are plenty of people in the British media who would agree with that sentiment.

The columnists will never stop fighting the Second World War because making Germans the villains in a psychodrama, obsessing over Winston Churchill, and turning modern political clashes into echoes of real warfare is just too tasty to resist.

British newspaper columnists love false comparisons and faux-Churchillian rhetoric more than Adolf Hitler loved dogs and inappropriate relationships with his own niece.