WW2 Relevance

|   26 October 2010

Selected news, selected history

Paris last week – distinctly lacking in violence and chaos….

I was in Paris for a few days at the end of last week. But I almost didn’t go, because the newspapers and TV news were full of reports about the mass strikes in France, held in protest at the proposed changes in the retirement age.

If you watched the news or read the papers you would have thought that pretty much the whole country was in flames. Which meant that I was shocked to emerge from Charles De Gaulle airport to discover something wholly surprising – calm. My taxi driver, as he drove me into the centre of Paris, told me that that he’d had to queue at a petrol station for diesel, but that was about the only inconvenience he’d faced. And in the whole time that I was in the French capital there was no sign of any disturbance.

Which isn’t to say that the media were making stuff up. There were strikes, and there were other instances of civil disturbance. It’s just that this was certainly not the norm. And the message I had taken from watching and reading about what was happening in France was that it was.

And that’s my point. Not just that news reporting is by definition selective, but that we select for ourselves the most relevant bits from a message that someone else has previously selected.

It’s a tendency that is a real block on a true understanding of events. When we see footage of the epic battles of WW2, for instance, we think of how dangerous, frightening and dramatic it must have been to be a soldier taking part in this epic struggle. But what many veterans tell you is that for them the war meant ‘hours and hours of hanging about, punctuated by moments of appalling terror.’ But we don’t think of that – how potentially boring war can be – because it doesn’t fit our edited version of the history.

Equally, the whole history of women on the home front has been largely ignored. Yet research has shown that the suffering of women left to cope on their own with small children – many of whom had not seen their fathers for years – was immense. But this is a story that is virtually impossible to capture in a single dramatic narrative, so it’s omitted from many popular histories of the war.

Popular historians, just like today’s news media, have a tendency to focus on the dramatic. But, often, the real story can lie elsewhere.

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