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.

Whatever you do, don't mention the war. I just did, but I think I got away with it." Not much chance of getting away with it this weekend. Our national preoccupation with the events of 1939-45, never more brilliantly sent up than in John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, will be in full swing as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of VE-Day on May 8, writes Huw Richards.

War memories and references permeate national life and culture to an extent that bemuses continental Europeans who rightly argue that it had a far more profound direct impact on their countries than on ours. Munich and Dunkirk signify much more than just places in Germany and France.

How much longer it will retain its hold is questionable. Nationally the unravelling of the postwar settlement and internationally the conclusion of the cold war have removed obvious direct links between the world of 1945 and that of today. Maybe it will take a change of generations. Those in positions of power and influence are still largely drawn from generations that remember, if not the war itself, then the postwar hangovers of rationing and national service.

But those under 40 have no such direct experience. To test if there is a generational change in attitudes underway, we asked six historians, all under 40, to answer the question "Do you see the second world war as the event which defines the world you live and work in?" and asked two others, David Edgerton and Niall Ferguson, to examine the consequences of the war for Britain.

The diversity of responses demonstrates a continuing debate over the significance of the war, with even those inclined to downplay it accepting that the national fixation - however misplaced - is in itself a significant phenomenon. Seeking further consensus is trickier. But what does seem likely is that even as the memory of war recedes the question asked by Peter Hennessy in his TV series, What Became of Us ?, will continue to excite, with competing views of the impact of war such as those of Corelli Barnett and David Edgerton underpinning wider analyses of Britain's postwar fortunes. The 75th anniversary in 2020 may be short on contemporary resonance and surviving participants, but the debates will probably still be in full swing.

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