Back in early December 2014, I posted a video of Post Haste, a quirky little short film made for distribution to cinemas during World War Two, in order to encourage people to post early for Christmas – so when I found this wonderful image*, I had to revisit the subject. Anyway, you can look at it as a useful reminder if you’re as disorganised about Christmas as I am!
From the same era as Post Haste, this eye-catching illustration of an efficient-looking dog busily taking his festive parcels to the Post Office (in plenty of time, of course) sends a message that still has a resonance today, especially if you have friends and family who live abroad. Such festive reminders were commonplace during World War Two (you can see more examples of similar Christmas post-related home front propaganda here, here and here) when many people were separated from their loved ones for long periods by the effects of the conflict.
This seasonal wartime propaganda short was produced for the American market and has since become a minor classic of the genre, also being nominated for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar in 1942. Written and narrated by the London-based US journalist Quentin Reynolds (1902–1965) (whose distinctively intimate voice can also be heard on the previous year’s now-iconic London Can Take It!, also aimed at American cinemagoers), this film tells the story of Britain during the Christmas of 1940, when the country was quite literally under fire.
Wearing its propaganda colours firmly on its sleeve right from the off (the opening shot tells us this is a ‘Ministry of Information film’), this film knows exactly which buttons to press in order to get an emotional and visceral reaction from the average American viewer. As a result, there are vivid images of the way the war has had an impact on what Reynolds sees as the timeless peace of British life – so there are shots of shelterers in the London Underground, children playing at soldiers, troops watching out for enemy planes or manning guns in British cities and countryside, and bombed-out shopkeepers in what remains of their premises, declaring ‘business as usual’.
During the six long years of World War Two, Christmas was a much-needed chance to celebrate and forget the horrors of the conflict – but it was also a sad time for millions of people, with so many families separated by death, evacuation and military service, so many homes destroyed by bombing, and so many shortages everywhere.
War broke out in September 1939, and that Christmas was a relatively normal one. There was no rationing – yet – but the British people knew that shortages were officially due to begin the following January and many were determined to enjoy themselves while they still could.
However, the war still loomed over the festive season: the best-selling toys that Christmas had a military theme, while adults gave each other fancy decorated gas mask cases and steel helmets alongside the usual seasonal gifts. The Christmas edition of Women’s Weekly magazine got in on the act too, suggesting that the inside of blackout blinds could be decorated for the festive season.
By Christmas 1940, the shortages were already biting and the bombs were dropping – which made small artificial trees very popular, as they could be taken down into air raid shelters to give these gloomy places a touch of festive cheer during some of the heaviest bombing of the Blitz. Good Housekeeping magazine even suggested a recipe for a Christmas cake in the shape of an Anderson shelter! The most popular gift that year appears to have been soap, which ended up being a real luxury in Europe at various points during the war.
March is both Women’s History Month and International Women’s Month, which includes the marking of International Women’s Day on March 8th. In particular, as a history graduate and a feminist the former appeals to me greatly, and I decided to dig out a blog post I wrote way back in May 2007 (on the subject of one of my historical heroines) in honour of the occasion. Almost three years on, it naturally needed a little dusting off, a little editing and a few slight re-writes in places (and it’s also a little long) – but I hope you are as fascinated by the story of Noor Inayat Khan as I am.
“Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of these obliged her to take her position in the war. However she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable, an invincible courage” – Madame de Gaulle-Anthonioz at the memorial service for Noor Inayat Khan.
The memory of Noor Inayat Khan is, in the main, ignored in this country; unlike in France, where she is justly considered a heroine – ‘Madeleine dans la Resistance‘. But who was this girl with the pretty, exotic name, who is so revered by the French? And why should we care about her today?
We should care because this woman did something amazing, something most modern women (and men) would probably find almost impossible – considering our pampered 21st century lives.
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak out for me” – Martin Niemoller.
Martin Niemoller was a controversial figure, whose motives and actions are still debated by historians, theologians and political theorists to this day. But his words (above) ring as true today as they did in the 1940s. Like many Lutheran pastors (and other religious leaders) in 1930s Germany, Niemoller was an anti-communist who opposed the democratic experiment of the Weimar Republic and its associated ‘decadence’, welcoming the Nazi accession to power in 1933 even to the extent of apparently having official meetings with Adolf Hitler.
*WARNING: POSSIBLE TRIGGERS BELOW*
I was interested to note yesterday that film director Roman Polanski has been arrested in Switzerland. Most reports seem to concur that he has been detained over a thirty-one year old outstanding arrest warrant, connected to the 1978 scandal in which Polanski pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse (read: rape) with a 13 year old girl – after which he fled to Europe to escape justice, and eventually became a French citizen.
There has been an awful lot of distinctly male hand-wringing over Polanski’s arrest, with the French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand commenting that he “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them”. In a way, Mitterrand does have a point, but only sort of – Polanski’s life has not been a bed of roses by any stretch of the imagination, but no amount of childhood ordeals excuse his later behaviour in any way, shape or form. There is NEVER any excuse for rape, not even this kind of hellish childhood…
Born in Paris of secular Jewish parents in 1933, the Polanski family moved back to their native Poland in 1936. They were living in the city of Krakow when the Nazis invaded three years later, and were forced into the Krakow Ghetto soon after. Polanski’s father survived the camps, but his mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Polanksi himself only just survived the war in hiding with Polish Catholic families (which may explain why he was so drawn to the idea of making a film of The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of life in hiding in the Warsaw Ghetto), before moving back to France and subsequently the US.