During our many days in London, my husband remarked to the kids that London has a long history. I
thought about that and realized that he’s half right. Yes, it has a long history, but so does every other inhabited place on earth. What distinguishes
the British is that they’ve memorialized their history, in words, painting and stone. They don’t let go of their history but, instead, keep celebrating and
building upon it.
There’s something more profound here than just the fact that the British have enough information to boast about their past. Seeing
the past spread out behind one also gives one the opportunity to develop a stable, exportable civilization — something the Jews did to extraordinary
effect with the Bible.
For that reason, I find it distressing and disturbing to see the latest generation of British, in the throes of political
correctness, willingly abandon their past. Sure they maintain the tourist sites (beautifully well, I might add), but they, like the rest of the West, are
embarrassed to celebrate their culture as part of the education they pass on to their children. The museums may boast, but the school curricula (at least
according to news reports) get more and more narrow, with Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill cast aside in favor of properly multicultural, but less
mentally nourishing, lessons.
The museums, though, ARE wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed the old warhorses, such as the National Portrait Gallery,
Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London, all of which are beautifully refurbished and very accessible. The best museums in my estimation, however,
were the Churchill War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum.
The War Rooms recreate the underground headquarters from which Churchill and his staff ran the British side of WWII. The place is a perfect time capsule, since large sections had been left untouched since the end of the war. The exhibits are clearly laid out, and the background information is interesting and very . . . human. One has a sense of immediacy that is missing from so many museums.
The Imperial War Museum is just as good. We sent four hours there, leaving only because we had a plane to catch. It’s got superb exhibits focusing on WWI and WWII.
In the WWI section, there is a trench recreation that includes the horrible odor of decomposing flesh, sewer smells, and the disinfect that the
British sprinkled about in a vain attempt to mask the stench and prevent disease. The display cases are jam packed with letters, photos, uniforms,
weapons, old war posters, government publications, household good, and whatever other objects the museum could salvage from the war. It is an immersive
The WWII exhibit is equally intense. It covers the North African campaign (my father’s war), the Pacific theater (my mother’s war), the
euthanasia of “defective” people (my great uncle Ernie, who was bipolar, met his end that way), and the Holocaust (all but my father’s immediate family). The
museum resonated very personally with me.
The museum does an excellent job of conveying the massive scale of death in these worldwide conflagrations. During WWI, several million British, German, French, American, Belgian, Serbian,
etc., troops died during a pointless four year bloodbath fought over a few miles of land. They were lambs to the slaughter.
World War II dwarfed WWI, with estimates of up to 40,000,000 dead worldwide. The lambs to the slaughter were the civilians, especially the Jews, and that is deeply depressing. The
troops who died in the hundreds of thousands at least fought to real effect and died with guns in their hands. I’m not articulating this well, except to say
that, while most of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto died, the ones who fought the in the uprising were not victims.
Speaking of lambs to the slaughter and innocents, the museum had a stunning exhibit about children in Britain during the war — the Kindertransport children who escaped the Nazis, the children
evacuated from London, and the children who remained (many thousands of whom died during the Blitz). Again, letters, photos, clothes, stuffed animals,
drawings, and other objects of daily life, create a vivid picture of a nation, not just AT war, but actually IN war.
Near the end of our tour, we met a darling little man who in describing his experiences during the Blitz while growing up in Birmingham, provided the perfect coda to the experience. He
explained that the British government under Churchill did two brilliant things: it made all citizens part of the war effort, and it never made a promise to the
public that it couldn’t keep. During our long years at war, our government, both under Bush and under Obama, has failed on both counts.