The Nationalisation of British History: Historians, Nationalism and the Myths of 1940

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Abstract

Neither the idea that Britain 'stood alone' in 1940, nor that the British war was a 'people's war', were at all common during the Second World War. If anything was thought to be 'alone', it was the empire, though the more common view was that the empire always had allies. 'People's war' was a rare synonym for 'total war' and was sometimes used in an internationalist sense of a war of many peoples, and as the sort of war Britain should be, but was not, fighting. However, from 1945 a national 'alone' came into usage, for example by Churchill; but only from the 1960s was it a commonplace in history books. 'People's war' became more widely used in histories written in the 1960s, which defined it in a national progressive sense, although the term did not become common until the 1990s. Both ideas were essentially the creations of historians, who nationalised the history of what was an imperial and internationalist war, often turning it into a radically different domestic story focused on a national Home Front (ignoring the many imperial home fronts), a story which marginalised the military, foreign and political history of the war, and indeed the social history of the military as well. Historians later assumed that 'alone' and 'people's war' represented wartime nationalist ideologies, and wrote about them critically. Yet until recently they did not recognise that it was the very particular nature of the histories written in the 1960s which had generated these terms, and which embodied very particular analyses of British history and of the Second World War. The paper ends by arguing that much greater understanding is needed of the core assumptions which lie beneath the historiography of twentieth-century Britain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)950-985
Number of pages36
JournalThe English Historical Review
Volume136
Issue number581
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Sept 2021

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