The Home Guard, rationing, evacuation to the countryside, Vera Lynn’s songs and Churchill’s emotive oratory all feature heavily in British collective memory of the Second World War. But it is perhaps the Blitz, the intense bombing of Britain’s major cities from September 1940 until May 1941, and the air raid sirens and shelters that went with it, which is what people associate the most with the war. Conversely, the British carpet-bombing of Germany seldom features in their imagination. In instances such as these, the selective nature of collective national memory - of all countries - is apparent. But while national perceptions of the past may be nothing more sinister than a collection of facts and genuine personal memories, their tendency to exaggerate certain memories and omit others should not be forgotten.
Britain’s ‘finest hour’
As one of the only countries not occupied during the Second World War and as a non-continental European country, Britain’s collective memory is different from that of other European nations. Fond reminiscence of Winston Churchill’s patriotic rhetoric and his celebrated friendship with American President Roosevelt has inspired the British perception of the war as an Anglo-Saxon victory against the continental forces of evil. In his speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, Churchill galvanised the British nation proclaiming that if they stood up to Hitler, then “all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move into broad, sunlit uplands”. In many of his numerous speeches, Churchill made effective use of Britain’s island status to prepare Britain to “fight on alone” once France was taken. Thus for the British at the time, the Second World War was very much a solitary crusade and, in Churchill’s own words, one that others would look back upon as Britain’s “finest hour”.
Following the end of the Second World War in Europe, Britain’s alliance with France was short-lived and their relationship soon returned to one of uneasy rivalry. Anglo-French antagonism is today fuelled by national collective memory of the war on both sides of the Channel. Although it is not a universally shared sentiment among the British people today, there does still remain some delight in their perceived superior status as a victor nation. Remnants of Nazi-related German stereotyping can also still be encountered following a Germany versus England football match or in the occasional British comedy, the most infamous of which is episode six of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’ (1975) whose catchphrase “Don’t mention the war” has entered popular vernacular. Happily, however, this backward-looking national typecasting is on the way out. But on the topic of European integration, British national memory of the war has had a rather more profound effect on national attitudes towards union with its neighbours.
Churchill himself was a keen sponsor of European integration. However, he did not believe that Britain should be part of the “United States of Europe” that he was enthusiastically advocating. Rather, it was to be primarily a Franco-German project to ensure peace on the continent. Churchill’s landmark refusal to join the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 has, arguably, been at the root of Britain’s subsequent ambivalence towards Europe. The influence of Churchill’s belief that "we are with Europe but not of it” on British popular thinking today should not be underestimated. He was, after all, voted the greatest Briton of all time in a nationwide poll in 2002.
But what is little known, and what historians are increasingly insisting, is that Churchill has been widely misinterpreted in his views on Britain’s position in Europe. Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath argued that Churchill opposed British participation during the European Community’s foundation based on circumstances, rather than principle. As a steadfast realist, Churchill would today have recognised Britain’s diminishing ‘special relationship’ with the United States as a signal to change with the times and embrace European integration. Churchill himself, in fact, made an early attempt at European union in June 1940 when he presented General De Gaulle with an astonishing proposal for the political, economic and military merging of France and Britain. His wartime readiness to unite Britain and France as one country more than hints at how he would react to the international circumstances facing Britain today. Perhaps had this landmark proposal been made public at the time, it too would have been adopted by the British collective memory and be influencing popular British opinion today.