Playing History

I had planned to post a WW2-themed piece on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings earlier this month, but for one reason and another I missed the deadline. I’ve another chance today though, since June 22nd marks the start of the other great Allied offensive of 1944; Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s drive into Belorussia, which destroyed an entire German army group and opened the way for the Soviet advance to Berlin.

Watching and reading the media coverage of the D-Day commemoration, I was struck by how the Second World War is now a properly historical event, with little more immediate emotional resonance for today’s generation than the Somme, or the Napoleonic wars, or Agincourt.

It was very different when I was young. Though the conflict had been over for a quarter century it was still a part of the live culture; in the films and programmes we watched on TV, in the comics we read, and in the games we played after school. Most of the boys preferred to be British commandos in our imaginary gun battles, though there were a few who were suspiciously OK with being Nazis. I was pretty much alone in wanting to be a Red Guard, so I usually ended up storming a make-believe Stalingrad single handed. When I was a little older I had a whole division of miniature T-34s which I would pitch against my friends’ Tigers and Panthers in epic reenactments of Kharkov and Kursk.

Of course in those days there were still a lot of people around with direct experience of the conflict; both of my grandfathers served overseas for most of the duration, and while they didn’t talk about it much it was one of their formative experiences. More importantly perhaps the Cold War had frozen Europe in 1945, and it wouldn’t thaw out until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, finally allowing Britain to start to move on from its imperial past.

I guess kids today still play WW2 video games, but I never see boys running around the neighbourhood pretending to shoot each other with Sten guns and Lugers like it really means something. Which is for the best I suppose, but I do think a childhood without toy tanks is probably missing something…

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