It has now been 75 years since the Second World War ended, and yet it remains an inescapable presence in today’s politics. Numerous anachronistic comparisons plagued both sides of the debate during the Brexit campaign. Those voting Leave celebrated the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of Britain, while those voting Remain rendered the referendum another ‘Eden moment’. There were bizarre campaigns, such as the Leave poster exclaiming ‘halt ze German advance! Vote Leave’, and the bus blaring the tune of the 1955 war film, The Dam Busters. Even more recently, Covid-19 has elicited endless comparisons to the war: food bank support has been compared to the ‘Blitz spirit’, private labs to ‘Dunkirk little ships’, and even the Queen has drawn parallels between the experiences of isolation and wartime evacuation.
But why do these comparisons exist? It is not uncommon to draw on past events to interpret our present, but nonetheless, narratives of the Second World War appear to pervade the fabric of our politics far more than any other historical comparison. Where does this bizarre and rather loud obsession with the Second World War come from, and what are the dangers?
Comparisons to the Second World War may arise from a desire to find solace and comfort in knowing that, as a nation, we have overcome other crises, yet other comparisons come with much greater and potentially damaging ramifications. The recurrent comparison to the war has the ability to distort our politics, warp our history, and aggrandise our perception of Britain’s place in the world. As a nation, we have a selective memory, and forget the parts we do not wish to remember. By mythologising our past into a romanticised and simplistic narrative, depicting the essence of the British ‘plucky’ character, we have forgotten the other half of the infamous speeches that our leaders continue to import today.
We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth.
Forgotten from the “blood, sweat and tears” speech is the warning that without victory the British empire would not survive. Forgotten from the “finest hour” speech is the precursor to the infamous phrase: “if the British empire and its commonwealth last for 1000 years, men will say, “This was their finest hour.” Behind what we believe to be narratives of morality and unquestionable dignity, the injustice and inequality of the British empire is hidden. The danger in misremembering is that it continually projects an image which is factually incorrect. What has thus far contributed to a fantasy of British exceptionalism does not render us exceptional from our nation’s wrong-doings. We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth. Moreover, not only has it allowed us to forget our wrong-doings as a nation, it also proposes the myth that Britain stood, and will stand, alone against the odds. As David Edgerton notes, this is a mythologised ideal: “people want to remember the war, and especially the early years of the war, as a time when the nation stood alone without an empire or without allies. Nobody at the time would have believed this.” Many men of the empire stood with the British army against Hitler, and yet they remain unwritten from the popularly accepted version of history.
This has very real consequences for our political decisions today. Following our withdrawal from the EU, we have overstated our independence as a nation historically, and will inevitably realise that we cannot live up to this ideal; one romanticised for far too long. India will not strike up a trade deal for sentimental reasons, nor will Ireland remain Britain’s neutral and junior partner following us out of the EU. Instead, the realisation of Britain’s lack of status and power will smack us in the face and our inability to ‘stand alone’ will challenge the 75 years of misremembered history.
Edgerton proclaims, “the problem is not just getting history wrong, but that history is invoked at all”. Although I would not wholly support this sentiment, the use of historical analogies in our contemporary politics, as well as our popular historical narratives, needs to be challenged. This is beginning with conversations around statues, but the issues go much further, and are certainly cause for more conversation.