There seems to be an increasingly alarming trend nowadays for some people to consider that the story of the Second World War was the story of the Holocaust. They may mention the Holocaust in any word association exercise with the Second World War – or posit that the Allies went to war in order to end the Holocaust. This trend is particularly taking root in the young, I fear. I often visit the Imperial War Museum in London and nigh on every time I attend, I observe a school party being marched up to the (excellent) Holocaust exhibition. As heartening as this is, I feel subsequently disheartened by the fact that the teachers and syllabus ignore so many other benefits that the museum and a study of the Second World War in general has to offer. In many ways it was Britain and America’s finest hour. To some extent, it may be argued to be the greatest story ever told, full of heroism, tragedy, social upheaval and inspirational – and abhorrent – characters. But all too often students are marched straight back out again once they have seen the exhibition, briefly staring in wonder at the tanks and mini-sub on display. Instead of being up close and personal with a Spitfire, though, they are left vacantly glaring out of a school bus window.
Is it not time that a general study of the World War Two replaced the current, Holocaust-centred curriculum? The course could and should encompass military history, economic history, political ideologies and social history – and more. It was, arguably, the finest hour of the British Empire. The course content should duly encompass the history of the Holocaust, a significant part of the story of the Second World War. But it is far from the whole story. Some people have tagged today’s students as being part of a forgotten generation, in relation to the economic climate, their job prospects and the national debt, hanging over them like the Sword of Damocles. The greater tragedy however, for me, is that students today may be judged as being the ill-informed generation, through a narrow curriculum, lack of intellectual curiosity and the rewriting (or cancelling) of our island story.
I may be seen to be shooting myself in the foot by arguing for the above. I have recently released a novel, Warsaw, set in the Warsaw Ghetto – with the central character of a Jewish Policeman. I have already been contacted by a couple of colleges to give a talk about the book, as it fits in with the Holocaust module of their syllabus. Upon the basis of my new syllabus, however, the colleges would be contacting the likes of Adam Tooze (The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy), Max Hastings (All Hell Let Loose) and Roger Moorhouse (The Devils’ Alliance) to take my place. If I am shooting myself in the foot by saying such a thing though, it is an academic war wound I would be willing to endure.