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A People's War? World War II and the Nation

Questions to prepare for seminar:

      1. To what degree did 1939-45 see the British nation united in a ‘people’s war’?
      2. What do the MRC documents indicate about wartime unity?
      3. Did the election of the Labour Party in 1945 reflect a radicalisation of the British people as a result of the war?
      4. How has public memory of WWII acquired a political meaning and has this changed over time?

         Core Reading:

        • Steven Fielding, ‘What did the “People” want? The Meaning of the 1945 General Election’, Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 623-9
        • James Hinton, ‘The Apathy School’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), 266-72
        • See the documents under ‘The Peoples War’ on the MRC website:


         Further Reading:

        • For an overview: R. Weight, Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000 (2002), chapter 1 ‘Warriors’ & Chapter 2 ‘Citizens’.
        • For the idea of the ‘people’s war’: Angus Calder, The People’s War (1969). For an overview: Jose Harris, ‘Great Britain: The People’s War?’ in David Reynolds, Allies of War: The Soviet, American and British Experience, 1939-1945 (1994), 233-59.
        • Challenging some of the assumptions of a ‘people’s war’: Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, 1939-1945 (2003).
        • For an attempt to capture the mood of the nation in 1945: P. Hennessy, Never Again (1992).
        • For a critical examination of Britain ‘standing alone’ in 1940: M. Smith, Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (2000); and Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz (1991).
        • There are differing views of the extent of popular radicalism and social solidarity in wartime Britain, and on whether this led to Labour’s election in 1945. The conventional view of a changed environment is presented in Paul Addison, The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War (1975/1994). However there has recently been a tendency to emphasise limitations: Tony Mason & Peter Thompson, ‘“Reflections on a Revolution”? The Political Mood in Wartime Britain’ in N. Tiratsoo (ed.), The Attlee Years (1993), pp. 54-70; Steven Fielding, ‘What did the “People” want? The Meaning of the 1945 General Election’, Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 623-9; S. Fielding, ‘Don’t know and Don’t Care: Popular Political Attitudes in Labour’s Britain, 1945-51’, in N. Tiratsoo (ed.), The Attlee Years (1991); and S. Fielding, N. Tiratsoo & P. Thompson, England Arise: The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain (1995). For criticism of this position: J. Hinton, ‘The Apathy School’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), 266-72. On this theme see also: D. L. Prynn, ‘Common-Wealth - A British Third Party of the 1940s’, Journal of Contemporary History, 7 (1972), 169-79; R. Mckibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1818-1951 (1998), pp. 528-36; Ross McKibbin, Parties and People: England, 1914-1951, esp. Ch 5 ‘The English Road to Socialism’ (2010) – ebook.
        • On the social impact of war: Jose Harris, ‘War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War’, Contemporary European History, 1 (1992), 17-35; Summerfield, ‘The Levelling of Class’, in H. Smith (ed.), War and Social Change (1988).
        • On the black market which complicates analysis of wartime fairness: Mark Roodhouse, ‘Popular Morality and the Black Market in Britain, 1939-1955’, in Frank Trentmann (ed.), Food and Conflict in Europe in the Age of the Two World Wars (2006), 243-65.
        • For explorations of the way that wartime circumstances fostered new images of national identity within British culture and in particular the development of ideas of citizenship: Sian Nicholas, ‘From John Bull to John Citizen: Images of National Identity and Citizenship on the Wartime BBC’, in R. Weight & A. Beach (eds.), The Right to Belong: Citizenship and National Identity in Britain, 1930-1960 (1998), pp. 36-58; Toby Haggith, ‘Citizenship, Nationhood and Empire in British Official Film Propaganda, 1939-45’, in R. Weight & A. Beach (eds.), The Right to Belong: Citizenship and National Identity in Britain, 1930-1960 (1998), pp. 59-88; D. Matless, ‘Taking Pleasure in England: Landscape and Citizenship in the 1940s’, in R. Weight & A. Beach (eds.), The Right to Belong: Citizenship and National Identity in Britain, 1930-1960 (1998), pp. 181-204.
        • The Mass Observation movement attempted to measure the national mood in wartime and has provided valuable albeit problematic material for historians of this subject: T. Harrisson, Living through the Blitz (1976). See also the MO contemporary reports such as: People in Production (1942); War Factory (1943); and The Journey Home (1944); James Hinton, Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self (2010).
        • For thoughts on the relationship between gender, class and wartime national identity: L. Noakes, War and the British: Gender and National Identity; Rose, ‘Sex, Citizenship and the Nation in World War II Britain’, American Historical Review, 103 (1998), 1147-76; H.L. Smith, ‘The Effect of the War on the Status of Women’, in H.L. Smith (ed.), War and Social Change: British Society in the Second World War (1986); P. Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives (1998); James Hinton, Women, Social Leadership and the Second World War: Continuities of Class (2002).
        • The image of wartime national unity and radicalisation owes much to the contrasting image of the decade which preceded it. The idea of the thirties and shifting interpretations of this decade are explored in: J. Baxendale & C. Pawling (ed.), Narrating the 30s: A Decade in the Making, 1930 to the Present (1996). There is disagreement among historians as to the seriousness of social divisions in the 1930s. Some point to social misery provoking political radicalisation and building the foundations for the victory of Labour in 1945: see for instance, Charles Webster, 'Hungry or Healthy Thirties', History Workshop Journal, 13 (1982), 110-29. Others have suggested that in comparative terms there was relative prosperity, social harmony, and a lack of attraction towards political extremism: John Stevenson, Social Conditions between the Wars (1977).