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.

On the first morning of my recent Swiss skiing holiday I saw a photograph of Churchill on the front page of the Suddeutsche Zeitung magazine, a framed letter from Churchill on the wall of my hotel and up the slopes the rum tea was called "Sir Winston".

Hardly a day passes when there is no story in the papers that bears a direct relevance to the second world war, and this was true long before the 50th anniversary celebrations this month became a talking-point and, in the case of D-Day, a political issue.

When so many people have such powerful memories of such a crucial moment in our group consciousness - particularly for the period from June 1940 until June 1941 when Britain "stood alone" in Europe - it is inconceivable that the war could be anything but seminal to our national lifestyle. Long after the last Blitz-baby has left us - sometime in the 2040s - the war will continue to play a vital role in defining for Britons what being British means.

Our attitudes towards every other country are indelibly conditioned by the way they behaved during and reacted to the stresses of 1938-1945. How could it be otherwise? It has the most profound implications for our relations with the European union. Scratch a Tory like Norman Lamont or Patrick Nicholls and you will find underneath someone for whom Vichy collaboration, Spanish neutrality, Danish resistance and Commonwealth and American heroism still matter enormously.

Equally, memories of the war impel the likes of Sir Edward Heath and Sir Ian Gilmour towards a strongly held but diametrically opposite view of Europe; that "never again" means binding Germany into ever-closer union. Thus the European debate, which I believe will be the single most important political issue of my lifetime, finds its fons et origo in the second world war.

In the end for Britons, everything leads back to the war, a fact which is very comforting for someone of my profession.

Andrew Roberts, age 32, is a historian. The paperback of his Eminent Churchillians was published last week.

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