The people's war that only the last of the few now remember

IT was the people's war, but the people who went through it have mostly gone.

London schoolchildren carry gas masks and luggage September 1, 1939, as they leave by train for evacuation to Devon at the start of the Second World War.

The 80th anniversary in September of the beginning of the Second World War, for which the country is beginning to gear up, will take on a different flavour to the landmark dates that have gone before.

No longer an opportunity to relapse into nostalgia, it is being viewed as a chance to educate a generation with no concept of conscription, rationing or the Blitz.

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Across the world, commemorations have already begun. Austria marked the anniversary of its annexation by Germany and in Poland a calendar of themed events and reenactments has been unveiled.

German soldiers tear down the barrier at the German-Polish border on Sept. 1, 1939. The first shots of what was called the Second Great War were fired in Poland on that day, when Nazi forces began a lightning invasion.

In Britain, a detailed, day-by-day diary for the six years from September 1 – the day on which Germany invaded Poland – is being planned, with contributions online from the remaining survivors and their descendants.

Academics are keen to point out that the legacy of war continues to permeate the politics of today – although, as one history professor in Yorkshire said, many students do not now know who Margaret Thatcher was, let alone Churchill or Eisenhower.

It was an event 80 years ago next week – nine months before Britain declared war on Germany – that planted the seeds of the war’s end.

On January 6, 1939, Lise Meitner, a physicist from Vienna, published her discovery of nuclear fission.

She was a pacifist but she was also the Mother of the Atomic Bomb. Of Jewish heritage, she had fled Vienna after the Anschluss, and was living in exile in Sweden. Her research on splitting the atom helped lay the groundwork for the nuclear bombs that finally brought the war to a close.

It was one of the ironies of the era that Ms Meitner spent the rest of her life opposing the use of the weapons she had helped to create. She never returned to her homeland, but moved instead to England, and died in Cambridge, in 1968.

But it was her work that defined the mood and mindset of the postwar world.

“Conscription would be a shock to young people today but it will never come to that because if there’s a nuclear war there will be no time to conscript anybody. We’ll all have four minutes to get under a table,” said Keith Laybourn, professor of history at Huddersfield University, who has written extensively on 20th century Britain.

“Nuclear war and the end of the world was almost an expectation when I was young,” he said. “War was part of the culture. At the time of the Cuba missile crisis, Bob Dylan was singing A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.

“In the 1950s there were war films on TV all the time, and usually a documentary about the war in the 15 minutes before the BBC closed down at night.” While today’s students may not immediately grasp the politics of the times, the underlying themes are plain to see, Prof Laybourn said.

“The lesson from the Second World War is that one must protect democracy and not indulge dictatorship.

“The dangerous thing at the moment is the undermining of democratic processes that you still see. Ask any American.”

It was the first and perhaps only “people’s war”, he added.

“Unlike in the First World War, people were asking what they were fighting for – and the answer to a large extent was a new, more democratic nation where citizenship was extended to all, not just a few.

“That is its legacy. War always brings major change, and the bigger the war, the bigger the impact.”