Mentioning the war

War memorial

“That bloody war,” the woman said, a pained and angry look on her face.

I can’t quite remember how the Second World War came up in conversation, but when it did her anger was clear.

We were on a train heading from Austria up towards Munich, the beginnings of our slow rail journey across Europe and towards home. One of the delightful consequences of the old-fashioned compartment-style layout of trains is that you’re more likely to get into conversation with your neighbours than in a more “open plan” carriage. So when an elderly German couple got on, themselves also returning home from holiday, we inevitably got talking, practising our German that had been improved (language snobbery about Styrian dialect notwithstanding) by our week in Austria.

We talked about our respective holidays, where we came from, and all the usual pleasantries. The elderly man said that he had been a fighter pilot in the war (though I don’t recall this being the first mention of it) and had been injured. I guess he was probably lucky to have survived.

The anger in the woman’s cursing reference towards the war was not in the slightest aimed at the victors but was entirely targeted at those who had led Germany and Austria into a pointless and horrible war through its immoral and aggressive acts. Of course, one could surely trace part of that aggression in turn back to the injustices of the Versailles Treaty, but that’s not the point of this post.

It wasn’t the first occasion during our time in Austria that the war, which of course is not generally a productive topic of conversation in a German-speaking country, nor a relevant one in today’s new Europe, had come to our minds.

The first, if I recall rightly, was when one of our good friends in Austria, a lovely and kind retired man, produced a bottle of Scapa, a lovely Orcadian whisky, and insisted we sample it. I required little persuasion.

“Scapa was a name from the war, yes?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A great many ships from the German navy were sunk at Scapa Flow during the First World War.” (though I’ve only just discovered now that it was also an important site in WW2.)

A brief, awkward silence. I attempted to fill it with a more positive aspect to Orkney’s wartime history – the fascinating story of the Italian Chapel, but it was clear that for many of the older generation the war was still within living memory and a sensitive and even shameful matter.

In many places, we saw reminders of the conflicts that ripped Europe apart. War memorials, the stained glass window in Graz, the stories we heard. Someone else we knew told us of a story of how previous generations of the family were bitterly and irrevocably divided between those who supported the Nazis and those who did not.

Out for a drive one day, we passed a cemetery where we were told dozens of Austrian soldiers were buried. On the day the war ended they, no doubt relieved, dropped their weapons and left the town they were stationed in. They encountered a group of other soldiers who did not know that peace had broken out and were still armed, and the others killed their defenceless comrades on the assumption they were deserters.

The war is engrained in the psyche of Britain – too strongly, too deeply, if you ask me. It’s over sixty years since it finished and Europe is a marvellously different place. Maybe the war will never disappear from our collective consciousness, in the same way that the influence of previous centuries still lingers. But for countries who were defeated and in places completely destroyed by the war, an extra burden remains.

Though maybe, given all these references were ones raised to us not by us, the process of talking about it is a part of moving on.

I have no idea, to be honest. I’m too busy enjoying the new Europe to linger in the old one.

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