TAITMAIL Wars of empire as real people saw them
TOTAL WAR! the didactic shouts at the start of the Imperial War Museum’s new permanent exhibition: the concept realised for the first time with the Second World War that non-combatants as well as combatants were considered legitimate targets.
Uniquely, in its new galleries, the IWM has combined the narratives of the Holocaust and the war to tell a complete story of how the 20th century was ripped in half physically, politically, socially and demographically.
And in this telling it’s not a story of campaigns, battles or field heroism - I might have walked past it but I don’t remember seeing any mention of El Alamein, the battle along with the Battle of Britain, which also gets only cursory mention, that has tended to be at the pivot of any telling of Britain’s war.
It’s about empires, established and putative, colliding. But it’s chiefly people who find themselves in those empires by chance, told through individual stories with pictures and personal objects: soldiers; Jewish children; bombed East Enders; the Chinese USAF pilot; the Jamaican air gunner who sold his bike and saxophone to pay for his voyage to Britain to join up; the Dutch Nazi Party leader; the Arctic convoy seaman who was torpedoed and succoured by Russian peasants in Murmansk; the freelance journalist who was in Berlin when the city fell; the woman who was a Japanese prisoner for three years; the Nagasaki doctor who continued to treat survivors of the atomic bomb until he succumbed to radiation poisoning; Peter Himmler, brother of Heinrich, who used his contacts to get visas for Jews, and helped them take their financial assets with them; the children liberated from camps in 1945 some of whom could not remember their name or age. This is frightening.
And in another part of London another, more modest, war exhibition opens, this time about one individual, a certain George King, a seaman who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar whose life was shattered by his experiences of war at sea in the heroic age. That exhibition, Fighting Talk: One boy’s journey from abandonment to Trafalgar, is at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury until February27.
A former director of the Imperial War Museum, Alan Borg, would bemoan the title of his museum: “I run an institution with the worst three words in the English language: imperial, war and museum” he said, as Mrs Thatcher opened a massive refurbishment while expressing her disappointment that the new display didn’t glorify war enough.
The present director-general, Di Lees, has no problem with the name. It’s IWM now, a brand, and an institution that allows its displays to speak for it. “The Second World War and the Holocaust will soon pass out of living memory, leaving us without the first hand testimony of veterans, eye-witnesses, and survivors” Lees says. “IWM’s new galleries… will preserve their stories and ensure that the world never forgets what they experienced”. A recent YouGov poll, she says, shows that 93% of us believe these stories are relevant today, and 78% think genocide is currently happening.
These two new sets of galleries, on two floors, have taken six years to complete and cost £30.7m. They have more than 3,500 items and personal stories from more than 80 countries in an attempt to make it simultaneously global and personal. For the first time the museum is showing clandestine photographs of executions taken by truculent members of German death squads, unthinkable in a different time to display them.
The didactic is simple, unashamedly aimed at 12-year-old schoolchildren because it needs to be to the point. It is a minimalist design in which the emotion lies in the bare facts and the words of those who were there. It tells us in simple terms that racial hatred is millennia old, that hate crime happens at all levels, that communities such as Hitler fashioned in Eastern Europe - “We have to create a Garden of Eden in the newly won eastern territories” - can become weapons, that circumstances came together in the 1920s, 30s and 40s to all but turn the world off its axis. And it tells us of the contented normality of European life for Jews, picnics and feeding the pigeons in the square, until Nazism suddenly scorched the earth.
There’s a typical British 1940s parlour, complete with teacups on the table and family photos on the sideboard, but the devastation of a recent bomb strike outside the window. There is a part of a transport train, a postcard complete with postage stamp flung in despair from a carriage window, a corner of a concentration camp.
George King’s story has come to light almost by accident. He wrote an autobiography which found its way into the Foundling Museum’s voluminous archive and was discovered on a bookshelf where it had been neglected for decades, the only memoir of an 18th century Foundling Hospital child.
He was born in 1787 and was raised in the hospital. He was given his foundling name in honour of the monarch by his mother, Mary Miller, as she left him for ever. He was taught to read and write by an enlightened schoolmaster there - his writing shows a fine copperplate hand, with decent spelling if indifferent punctuation - and at 13 was apprenticed to a confectioner where his response to bullying (being a foundling was a matter for derision) got him sacked and he ran away.
At 17 he was press-ganged aboard HMS Polyphemus, a 64-gun ship of the line. He fought at Trafalgar and gave the only eye-witness below decks account of the bloody carnage, as well as the progress of the battle in which the French ship Achille was eventually sunk. Soon after he is punished for drunkenness, a problem that was to pursue him for the rest of his life along with an inability to settle until old age. Briefly married before his wife of three years died, he was a sailor for 24 years, for a while a teacher in South Carolina where he saw black slaves for the first time, a farm labourer, a policeman and a docker before destitution stared him in the face and he was taken in by the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, where he wrote his book and died a few weeks after his 70th birthday.
His story, says the exhibition’s curator Professor Helen Berry, is a legacy of empire history told from the experiences of empire - it was the Royal Navy and arguably the Battle of Trafalgar that secured Britain’s empire – from within.
“There is another critical thing that we’re all missing at the moment, which is that the histories of white working class people are also deeply caught up in stories of empire and the labour that went into Britain’s imperial project” she said. “George King is part of that, and we can learn from his story.”
In the IWM exhibition: “I want the coming generation to remember our times” writes the 18-year-old Nachum Grzywacz. “I don’t know my fate. I don’t know whether I will be able to tell you what happened later”. In a few weeks he was dead, killed in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1942.