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The Lasting War; Society and Identity in Britain, France, and Germany after
1945. Edited by Monica Riera and Gavin Schaffer. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
2008. xii + 277 pp. £55.00. ISBN 978 0 230 50671 2.
This is the first book I have read that begins with a discussion of an episode from the
classic 1970s television series Fawlty Towers. At first glance, it seems odd that the editors
would decide to begin an examination of the post-1945 construction of national identity
in Britain, France and Germany with a look at John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. In fact it is an

inspired selection. Fawlty’s comically catastrophic attempts to make his visiting German
guests stay at his hotel as comfortable, and hence as free of the memory of the Second
World War as possible was an important public discussion of the conflict’s place in post-
1945 Europe. As Monica Riera and Gavin Schaffer’s splendid reading of this episode
shows, the processes by which the war was remembered included a long period of
attempting to forget or put aside those calamitous six years. The collection expands on
this approach by studying the role of the conflict’s memory in the postdiluvian search for
a sense of nationality across these three key European states.
There is perhaps no better historian of twentieth-century Europe to address this issue
than Geoff Eley, the author of a number of important studies that discuss the role of the past
in national identity, particularly Germany. In his opening chapter, Eley demonstrates his
expertise as he sets out the difficulties, processes and possibilities facing the conflagration’s
survivors, be they victors or vanquished. Many of his themes return in the two sections that
follow. However, there is a key argument that reprises earlier work by Eley that does not
find much of an echo in the rest of this collection. Did the immediate aftershock of the war
bring with it a ‘“Third Way” as a possible vision of social and political change’ (p. 18)? Are
historians of the post-1989 world particularly poorly placed to conceptualize and study such
a possibility (p. 17)? These are extremely interesting questions that linger in part because
neither Eley nor the other contributors offer much detail about what constituted this
possibility. While that can be seen as a confirmation of Eley’s point about the challenges the
early post-1945 period presents twenty-first-century historians, it is a shame this question
did not suscitate more interest from the other contributors.
The second section, entitled ‘reconfiguring the self’, contains several interesting
studies of the reconstruction of national identities in the early post-war period. Of
particular note is Simon Kitson’s trenchant examination of the tremendously successful,
and rapid, French refashioning of the war in order to unify the country and erase the
humiliation of Vichy. Kitson does an excellent job of outlining how the liberation of
France allowed the country to pour a new foundation, based in large part on national
resistance, that quickly set and remained firmly in place for decades afterwards. Equally
interesting is Gerd Knischewski’s study of war remembrance in Germany. Among the
strengths of Knischewski’s work is that he follows this theme across three wars, the two
world wars as well as the Cold War and the attendant forty-five-year division of the
country. This chronological and thematic breadth makes his study of the institutional
politics of German commemoration all the more compelling. It is also worth noting the
influence of television in the process of coming to terms with post-war national identity,
a theme that is directly addressed in Penny Summerfield’s chapter on Dad’s Army. This
examination of the power and national particularities of the role of the Second World
War in the reconstruction of state’s identity is, in general, a success.
Likewise, the final section dealing with ‘reconfiguring the other’ sets out a series of
engaging studies that examine how the wartime ‘other’ was reshaped according to the
needs of post-war identity. One advantage of this theme is that it lends itself to a transnational
approach. This is a point Donald Bloxham clearly makes and other contributors take up. As
with Basil Fawlty’s disastrous encounter with his German lodgers, the power of the war’s
memory, of ‘self’ and ‘other’, to serve as an instrument to both shape identity and measure
it, has more than justified the attention it receives in this appealing collection.

Université du Québec à Montréal ANDREW BARROS

Advance Access published on April 20, 2009

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