To the victors, the spoils?

May 5, 1995

As the nation prepares to mark VE Day, The THES asked a group of historians born after the war to describe the significance of the events of 50 years ago for Britain today.

"A characteristic feature of contemporary history is cowardice over periodisation. We still think in terms of a postwar period. If we want the term to be understood similarly in Prague, Paris and London we have to say that 1989 is the end of the period, but it is arguable that it ended much earlier. In Britain it surely ended in 1973 with entry into the EEC. What should concern us now is what makes the contemporary period different.

"But I still meet people whose perceptions are dominated by the war. The war itself is not as significant as the fact that people can't get past it in their analysis of the postwar period. This British obsession gets in the way of trying to understand what hasgone on since the war ended."

Brivati, who is of Italian descent, argues that other countries far more marked by the events of 1939-45 are nevertheless less obsessed with them. "My family do talk about their experiences. My mother remembers setting her watch by the arrival of RAF bombers, while there is a popular family anecdote about Uncle Gigi who was called to the local Gestapo headquarters to be deported for forced labour. He turned up and said 'look, I shake' which was perfectly true - he always did. The Germans thought he was trying it on and said 'enough of this, go down those stairs and turn right'. He went down the stairs, turned left into a courtyard, stole a bicycle and escaped up into the mountains to join the partisans. They tried to train him to use a rifle, but the shaking put paid to that and he spent the last two years of the war as a cook for the partisans.

"But in my family the point of the story isn't the war, but Gigi's shaking. Italy and Germany seem far more attuned to forgetting and moving on. You could say that is a consequence of defeat, but I think it is because they are more interested in the future than we are."

Brian Brivati, 28, is a lecturer in history at Kingston University.

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