Don’t mention the war (but which war? And not to whom?)

The latest news in my part of the world (where there is no South Park to discuss but a new Dr Who series is on TV) is that the annual commemoration for World War Two was on 9 April. Since OOD does not have many social events to boast of, this was a big thing here and there were events (the usual speeches, lighting candles, etc) planned throughout the city. So, lunchtime conversations have been about WWII. These lunchtime conversations are one of the fun aspects of being at OOD uni. After being here for a week, I found out that, unlike in the happy anonymity of TUWSNBN, PhD students and faculty are expected to have lunch together, all sitting at a long table with benches on either side (this involves my having to strategically position myself at one end of the table to be able to make a quick exit and also to be able to exercise my left-handedness without encroaching on my neighbour's space). These conversations have been wonderful since they allow students and faculty to talk to each other in an informal setting (though we mostly whinge about the weather). Last week, most conversations were about two things: the Pope (see Elizabeth's earlier post) and about the WWII commemorations. People talked about the commemorations and related activities but the subject quickly changed to something else when the German staff and students arrived. For some reason, there is a large German contingent. So, the topic often changed suddenly. Yet, when the one Japanese student was among us, talk about WWII went on.

At first, I didn't even notice. But, today, it happened for the third time--one moment we were discussing where most of the German bunkers in Denmark were. A few students had mentioned we saw some on our trip to the northern part of OOD. Personally, I had expected my first-ever German bunkers, to look a bit more posh (I don't know why but I'd assumed that there would be proper rooms, at least) but these were made of dull grey stone and with limited space inside (also, no loos that I could see). Imagine a fairly small square area with really tiny rooms, situated on the cold and windy coastline of Northern Denmark and with holes, not big enough to put your head through, as windows. The youth of Denmark had exercised their creative abilities to express their unstoppable passions and decorated the walls of these bunkers with colourful graffiti, mostly about undying love (Why is graffiti usually in English?). Also, following common worldwide tradition presumably, the sand-covered floors of the bunkers were littered with used ciggie packs and empty beer bottles, showing people have an enviable ability to get pissed anywhere, even in abandoned bunkers. Anyway, as I said, one moment we were discussing the role of these bunkers during WWII, the next moment we were discussing the weather (very cold but getting warmer soon) as one of the (German) professors came to sit with us.

Early on, at an earlier conversation about the commemoration, I was asked if we were taught about WWII at school (apparently, in some parts of Asia--it was not mentioned where--it is not) and I said we were. But, during subsequent talks, it occurred to me that we may well be talking about different wars. When in high school and at Uni, we read about World War II in Europe but that was just part of it. For me, the war was in Singapore, in New Guinea, in Australia and all over South-east Asia. We visited Kanchanaburi, the site for the Bridge over the River Kwai where hundreds of thousands of people died when trying to make the Burma-Thailand railway as the Japanese pushed north. The war was in northern Australia, where the grandparents of many students I went to Uni with could remember the days when Darwin was attacked. Yes, there was a war in Europe but it affected Australia (and the rest of Asia, presumably) mainly as far as it took "their" people away to fight somewhere else while their "homelands" were attacked. We read diaries by politicians and prisoners-of-war in Asia about how they saw the events of the time. WWII also changed alliances, as countries moved from relying on Britain to being more independent (or depending on America, an ongoing tendency ever since).

Here, the story of the war was different. Denmark surrendered fairly early (having a tiny army, there was not much they could do), the Germans established their bases (doing their best to choose the most inhospitable parts of the country to do so) and things went on. The monarchy was allowed to continue (the Germans probably rightly thinking that a few royals were not going to disturb their activities), many people escaped (mostly to Sweden, including physicist Niels Bohr who went to Sweden and then England and America) and Denmark was finally liberated on 5 May, 1945 (though the yearly commemoration is on the day the Germans arrived). From this standpoint, the war in the Pacific is distant (as the European war was for me when learning about it). But, it is rather discombobulating to find that events I had thought of as being constitutive of the way "my" part of the world came into being were not part of the discussions here. Here, WWII is mainly used to describe activities in Europe (and, therefore, the sensitivity to German viewpoints but not to Japanese?). Maybe because it was the last big war for this part of the world that the interest (and ongoing commemorations) was high and discussions remain ongoing. One of the OOD Uni students told me that there is usually talk about WWII during this time of year but did not mention if the exclusion of the German contingent from the discussions was also a yearly event.


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