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The Myth of the Blitz?

The Myth of the Blitz?

Since 1945, the contours of British memory have been shaped by a particular interpretation of the Second World War which gives prominence to the summer of 1940 as a transformative episode in British society.[1] According to this narrative, perhaps most succinctly explained by Richard Titmuss in his 1950 book ‘Problems of Social Policy’, 1940 was the point whereby the nation, divided by the class conflict and political in-fighting of the depression years, overcame its internal fractures and, united in defiance of German hegemony on the continent and daily bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, become the people.[2] It is this orthodox view which Angus Calder sought to confront with the publication of The Myth of the Blitz in 1991.

Calder’s main argument is that representations of the war in Britain—which he suggests are centred on the mythological triad of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz—are based upon the acceptance and internalisation of wartime propaganda. Put simply, the rhetoric of Churchill, the Ministry of Information scripted radio broadcasts of Priestly, and the staged cinematography of Jennings have been used by academics, politicians, and laymen alike as a guide to the realities of the war.[3] This has led to a truncated understanding which has excluded already marginal groups from the public discourse. This, in turn, has allowed a narrow, nostalgic, and politically malleable collective memory of 1940 to develop—one which reinforces a certain form of British identity.[4]

At the time of the book’s release, a questioning attitude towards this memory was not unique in historiographical terms. The People’s War, published by Calder in 1969, had already navigated this path, as had Clive Ponting’s 1940: Myth and Reality. These works are part of a wider European revisionism which sought to renegotiate our view of the Second World War. Calder’s most noteworthy addition to the field, then, was to highlight how memory evolves and is appropriated to define national identity and give meaning to contemporary situations.[5]

Indeed, the content and context of the ‘Myth’ are inextricably linked. The book began to take form in the early 1980s, a period of heightened class resentment and political polarisation. The myth of 1940 was regularly invoked by both sides of the divide to confer legitimacy upon their respective viewpoints. Calder is clear that the continuous politicisation of Britain’s wartime experience and the ubiquitous position of the ‘myth’ in public life motivated him to write the book, and this is evident in its focus on the continuation of social tensions in Britain throughout the war. He elaborates:

[M]y anger over the sentimentalisation of 1940 by Labour apologists, then over the abuse of ‘Churchillism’ by Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands War, led me to seek, every which way, to undermine the credibility of the mythical narrative.[6]

This has two wider consequences for understanding the development of collective memory. First, it demonstrates how the contested nature of the war’s meaning allows it to be appealed to in order to justify often diametrically opposed political visions. Second, it shows how a change in, or a challenge to, collective memory can be brought about by events and factors seemingly superfluous to the subject at hand.

Calder’s revisionism is apparent in the layout of the book. It is divided into eleven chapters, each of which analyses a different social or cultural aspect of the war and remembering more generally. Along with the impressive range of sources he drawn upon—from Mass Observation and government documents to media and secondary literature—this highlights the complexities of wartime memory. The juxtaposition of the supposedly unique British reaction to strategic bombing with parallel German and Italian responses, for instance, has important implications for the way we think about identity.[7] In addition to blurring the line between perpetrator and victim, Calder convincingly argues that if the distinctiveness of national memory is weakened its solidity and significance will also be diluted. For the most part this is not controversial in and of itself. But it does have repercussions for the widely held belief that Britons would have uniformly resisted German occupation. I would argue that such a challenge to the core underpinnings of British self-image would have as radical an impact in Brexit Britain as it did in 1991.[8]

Despite the substantial contributions made by The Myth of the Blitz to the debates around identity, memory, and the cultural significance of the Second World War, Calder’s approach is not devoid of limitations. Any author who explicitly wishes to deconstruct orthodox historiography risks replacing an established myth with an equally caricatured and inaccurate counter-myth. The growth of Plaid Cymru and increased juvenile delinquency during the war, to name but two examples, remain on the periphery of collective memory for rather mundane reasons—namely the fact that they’re not particularly important in the grand scheme of things. 

To his credit, Calder engages with the conventional scholarship on 1940, acknowledging that the dominant British view of the ‘finest hour’ would not persist were it not grounded in a reality to which a broad cross-section of society could relate. Somewhat ironically, therefore, the overriding flaw of the book is that it makes Britain’s eventual success in the face of inauspicious circumstances appear even more incredible. Calder only mentions this contradiction briefly, and when he does it seems to confuse the book’s intended narrative.

Still, The Myth of the Blitz remains an important milestone in the critical analysis of the memory of the Second World War in Britain. Its nuanced treatment of various complex and related topics, and its informative examination of the origins and uses of popular memory, set it apart from other more polemical texts.[9] Although it is questionable as to whether Calder’s literary intervention had much of an impact on prevailing political and social attitudes, it did play a central role in laying the foundations for further revisionism in academia and the media.

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[1] H Jones. ‘The Post-War Consensus in Britain: Thesis, Anti-Thesis, Synthesis?’ pp.41-49 in The Contemporary History Handbook edited by B Brivati et.al (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1996). For 1940, see: Smith M. We Can Take It: Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Pearson Education Ltd: London, 2004)

[2] Titmuss R. Problems of Social Policy (HM Stationary Office: London, 1950) p.506-538

[3] Calder A. The Myth of the Blitz p.x-xxiii and p.46-48

[4] ibid. p.65-89 and p.119-152

[5] For a comparative analysis of the historiography of the Second World War, see: Lebow N et.al. The Politics of Memory in Post-War Europe (Duke University Press: London, 2006)

[6] ibid. p.xiv

[7] ibid. p.40-43

[8] See, for instance: De Woolfson J. ‘TV Star Threatened Over His ‘Collaboration’ Series’ in The Guernsey Press and Star, November 20th, 2010. http://www.thisisguernsey.com/2010/11/20/tv-star-threatened-over-his-collaboration-series/; or Montlake S. ‘Battle of Britain’s History: How the Myth of WWII Shaped Brexit’ in The Christian Science Monitor¸ March 28th, 2019. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2019/0328/Battle-of-Britain-s-history-How-the-myth-of-WWII-shaped-Brexit

[9] Smith M. Britain and 1940: History Myth and Popular Memory (Routledge: London, 2000); Also see television series such as Foyles War (Great Productions, 2002)


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