The 20th century was blighted by two catastrophic world wars – events of such horror and magnitude that those of us born after they happened can only feel immense gratitude that we were lucky enough to avoid them.
Both the First and Second World Wars remain popular topics for fiction and non-fiction books, films, TV documentaries and dramas. And no wonder – they offer a seemingly inexhaustible seam of fascinating stories, ripe with human drama and excitement.
But should we take such an interest? Are we vicariously revelling in the misfortunes of an era we can easily recognise apart from our own, secure in the knowledge that most of us in our safe little island will never have to face such horrors in our daily lives?
I think we should. I’ve written many books about the two world wars, both fiction and non-fiction, for children and young adults, and one of the things that inspires me and makes me want to carry on doing it, is to make history accessible.
I feel very strongly that it is important that we understand why the First and Second World Wars were fought and the consequences of those wars in the great ebb and flow of world history.
The First World War cast a dark shadow over the rest of the century. It was the spark that ignited the Russian Revolution, which gave the Russian people the dubious merits of communism and the unquestionable horrors of Stalin and the purges that accompanied his brutal dictatorship.
It also led directly to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany and, with an awful inevitability, to the Second World War.
This Second World War claimed four times as many lives as the First, including the great obscenity of the Holocaust and the destruction of entire cities in Europe and Japan.
It left us with a Cold War that divided Europe and saw the world a hair’s breadth away from nuclear destruction.
The clumsy diplomatic compromises that followed both these wars also laid a foundation for the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the turmoil that has visited the Middle East for the last sixty years.
It is important to understand what is happening in the world. If you don’t understand, you are more easily prey to political or religious extremism. If you want to understand the 20th century, and the world we live in, in 2014, then you have to understand the causes and consequences of both world wars.
Think about all the great international stories that have been in the news over the last year: the continual tensions between the West and Russia, the running sore of Israel and Palestine, the civil wars in other Middle Eastern countries, the disputed borders of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist activities of extremist Islam, the desperate flow of refugees and other migrants from Africa to the prosperous European states … all these issues have their origins in the First and Second World Wars.
Why else are we interested? For men and boys, especially, there is an unquestionable glamour and fascination in the technology of the wars – Zeppelins and submarines, the great hulking Allied bombers like the Lancaster and the Superfortress, or the German Tiger tank and V1 and V2 rockets – and the extraordinary set piece battles of the Second World War: Stalingrad, D-Day, Pearl Harbour, The Battle of Britain – all epic in their scope and drama.
It is also important that we remember the soldiers who fought in both the wars, with both pride and compassion. In the Second World War Allied soldiers often left this message on the graves of their fallen comrades: For your tomorrows they gave their today. It is a fitting epitaph to a war that destroyed Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Militarist Japan – three of the ugliest regimes in modern history.
For a range of children’s books about the First and Second World Wars – including many written by Paul Dowswell – visit www.usborne.com/worldwars
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