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Brexit Political Debates in Perspective
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Mobilizing the Past: Germany and the Second World War in Debates on Brexit

Mobiliser le passé : l’Allemagne et la Seconde Guerre mondiale dans les débats sur le Brexit
Thomas Williams

Résumés

En 2018, Peter Ammon, ambassadeur sortant de l’Allemagne au Royaume-Uni, suggère qu’un sentiment d’identité nationale fondé sur la manière dont la Grande-Bretagne a « fait front seule » pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, conjugué à une perception négative de la domination supposée de l’Allemagne sur l’UE, a alimenté l’euroscepticisme et contribué au succès de la campagne « Leave » lors du référendum de 2016. Tout en reconnaissant que les usages réguliers de la mémoire de la Seconde Guerre mondiale au Royaume-Uni et les craintes de la puissance allemande dans l’UE actuelle ne sont pas des questions identiques, cet article retrace la convergence fréquente de ces deux thèmes dans la rhétorique eurosceptique au cours de la décennie précédant la sortie de la Grande-Bretagne de l’UE le 31 janvier 2020. Il révèle que les inquiétudes concernant la « domination » de l’Allemagne sur le projet européen, un thème majeur de l’euroscepticisme britannique depuis Thatcher, sont réapparues au début des années 2010, notamment dans le contexte de la crise de la dette de la zone euro. La Seconde Guerre mondiale constitue un point de référence historique central lors des débats sur le Brexit (principalement, mais pas exclusivement, du côté des eurosceptiques). Si les usages spécifiquement anti-allemands de la Seconde Guerre mondiale sont moins fréquents lors de la campagne de 2016, ils resurgissent avec une singulière amertume lors des difficiles négociations post-référendaires.

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Texte intégral

The author would like to thank the students of the Master’s degree in historical research at Angers University (M1 PRH, 2019-2020) for their reflections and insights on the topics discussed in this article.

  • 1 Patrick Wintour, “German Ambassador: Second World War image of Britain has fed Euroscepticism”, The (...)
  • 2 Andrew Buncombe, “Britons glory in the war, says German minister”, The Independent, February 15, 19 (...)
  • 3 See among others John Elledge, “Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, (...)

1In January 2018 the outgoing German ambassador to the United Kingdom, Peter Ammon, suggested in an interview in The Guardian that a sense of national identity based on how Britain had “stood alone” during the Second World War, combined with a negative perception of Germany’s supposed domination of the European Union, had fuelled Euroscepticism and contributed to the success of the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Noting the popularity of recent films about the Second World War, including Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Ammon argued that “if you focus only on how Britain stood alone in the war, how it stood against [a] dominating Germany, well, it is a nice story, but does not solve any problem of today”.1 Ammon’s remarks did not seem to be aimed at a specific target but could be interpreted as a criticism both of long-term trends in British Euroscepticism, in which concerns regarding German dominance of the European Union had regularly been articulated through references to the Second World War, and of a more specific, recent phenomenon: the mobilization of the history and memory of the Second World War during the 2016 referendum campaign and the subsequent Brexit negotiations. On the one hand, his comments recalled UK-German relations in the 1990s and early 2000s when the pervasiveness of anti-German rhetoric and wartime stereotypes, particularly in the Eurosceptic press, had drawn criticism from several prominent figures including the German Culture Secretary Michael Naumann, the German Ambassador to the United Kingdom Thomas Matussek, and Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.2 On the other hand, his remarks seemed to confirm the more recent concerns of opponents of Brexit, who accused Leave voters of having been blinded by a nostalgic longing for a glorious yet irretrievable past, in which the Second World War was a point of historical reference evoked just as frequently, and always far more explicitly, than the more problematic and often only obliquely evoked history of the British Empire.3

  • 4 See, among others, Angus Calder, The Myth of The Blitz, London: Random House, 2012; Malcolm Smith, (...)
  • 5 Ruth Wittlinger, “Perceptions of Germany and the Germans in Post-war Britain”, Journal of Multiling (...)
  • 6 Paul Lever, Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.

2Ammon’s criticisms draw attention to three closely related but nevertheless distinct phenomena: twenty-first-century Britain’s apparent obsession with the Second World War, the persistent significance of National Socialism and the Second World War in shaping British perceptions of Germany, and concerns regarding Germany’s growing power in the present-day European Union. All three issues have been mobilised by British Eurosceptics since the 1990s, and all featured in recent debates on Britain’s relationship with (and departure from) the European Union. They should not be conflated, however, and their relative importance has fluctuated over the course of this period. As a rich body of scholarship on British memories of the Second World War has underlined, narratives of Britain “standing alone” in 1940 and myths of the “Blitz spirit” or “Dunkirk spirit” have played an important role in shaping patriotic narratives of British (and particularly English) national identity, but these have often been more nostalgic and introspective than overtly xenophobic, anti-German or anti-EU.4 Meanwhile, as several studies of British perceptions of Germany and the Germans have shown, negative stereotypes based on the Second World War continue to dominate British views of Germany, but English football fans chanting “stand up if you won the war” or “two world wars and one world cup” are hardly (or only very indirectly) commenting on the respective roles of Britain and Germany within the present-day European Union5. Finally, it is possible to recognise the fundamental importance of German power and leadership in today’s EU, as the former British Ambassador to Germany Paul Lever did in 2017 in his influential study Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way, without recourse to out-dated stereotypes and crude historical parallels with National Socialism and the Second World War.6 In other words, references to the Second World War in present-day British politics are not always overtly anti-German, while criticisms of Germany’s role in the present-day European Union do not always involve harking back to the Second World War. Nevertheless, these issues regularly overlapped in Eurosceptic rhetoric before, during and after the 2016 Brexit referendum.

  • 7 Since the focus of this article is on Westminster politics and the UK-wide media, it does not aim t (...)

3Although Ammon’s remarks echoed many earlier debates, the issues he raised should not be considered as permanent features of the British political landscape, or of British popular attitudes more generally, that led inexorably to Brexit. Rather, they have been contested and frequently reinvented in response to changing circumstances in the present. This article therefore seeks not only to trace the evolution of anti-German rhetoric and references to the Second World War during the 2016 referendum debates, but also to situate these uses of the past within the wider history of British (or specifically English) Euroscepticism since the 1990s.7 Adopting a chronological approach in order to examine different uses of the past within their specific contexts, it reveals how concerns about Germany’s “domination” of the European project, which had already been an important Eurosceptic leitmotif under Margaret Thatcher, resurfaced in Eurosceptic arguments in the early 2010s in the specific context of the Eurozone debt crisis, the refugee crisis, and the EU response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. It then analyses the political uses of memories of the Second World War during the 2016 referendum campaign, revealing that explicitly anti-German rhetoric was less common (though not entirely absent) at this time, despite the fact that the Second World War more broadly became an important point of reference for both the Leave and Remain campaigns. Finally, it examines the tense period of negotiations that followed the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, when anti-German rhetoric returned with renewed vehemence in the statements of pro-Brexit politicians and in the British Eurosceptic press.

Germany and the Second World War in British Eurosceptic Rhetoric Since the 1990s

  • 8 Günther Heydemann, “Partner or Rival? The British Perception of Germany during the Process of Unifi (...)
  • 9 Sabine Lee, Victory in Europe?: Britain and Germany Since 1945, London: Routledge, 2014, 204-205.
  • 10 Hugo Young, This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, London and Basingstoke: (...)
  • 11 Ben Wellings, “Losing the Peace”, op. cit., 496.
  • 12 Gerlinde Hardt-Mautner, “‘How does One Become a Good European?’: The British Press and European Int (...)
  • 13 Nick Parker, Pete Walsh, Liz Duxbury, “Up Yours Delors”, The Sun, November 1, 1990.

4Fears of German domination of the European project, combined with a historical narrative that linked present-day opposition towards European political integration with British resistance against German expansionism during the two world wars, have been a regular feature of British Euroscepticism since the time of Margaret Thatcher and German reunification.8 Thatcher’s well-known disquiet regarding German reunification in 1989-1990 stemmed from an interpretation of German history (and of a supposed German “national character”) profoundly marked by the experience and memory of the Second World War.9 When Nicholas Ridley was forced to resign as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in July 1990 after he described plans for European Monetary Union as “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe”, claiming that unless it was prevented “you might just as well give it [British sovereignty] to Adolf Hitler frankly”, he was expressing bluntly, and in public, a view that had much in common with the Prime Minister’s own private attitude.10 The rise of Euroscepticism in British politics in the 1990s was both a response to German reunification itself, and a reaction against the rapid drive towards further European integration, including monetary union, that was intended as a means to constrain the newly united Germany within a European framework.11 Of course, not all xenophobic rhetoric in the Eurosceptic press in the 1990s was targeted at Germany, as the viscous “frog-bashing” directed at Jacques Delors personally and later at the EU ban on British beef exports more generally attest.12 Nevertheless, references to the Second World War abounded, serving either to characterise EU influence as a foreign “invasion” to be resisted or, alternatively, to accuse other EU member states of cowardice or collaboration in the face of German domination. As an example of the latter approach, The Sun’s infamous “Up Yours Delors” front page in November 1990 reminded readers, within a long list of anti-French insults, that France “GAVE IN to the Nazis during the Second World War when we [the British] stood firm”.13

  • 14 William Cash, Against a Federal Europe: The Battle for Britain, London: Duckworth, 1991, 82. On Cas (...)
  • 15 Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith, A Response to Chancellor Kohl. A European Germany or a German Euro (...)
  • 16 George Jones, “‘Euro was Nazi idea”, says Tory veteran”, Daily Telegraph, May 23, 2001. <https://ww (...)
  • 17 Guardian staff and agencies, “Tory MEP causes scandal with ‘Hitler’ slur”, The Guardian, January 31 (...)

5The combination of Second World War imagery and warnings regarding the German domination of the European project became a prominent feature in the statements and writings of Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers, including Bill Cash who published Against a Federal Europe: The Battle for Britain in 1991, warning that Germany’s “previous bids for power have been made in the name of ‘Europe’”.14 Cash went on to collaborate with future Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith in writing another publication warning of the threat of a “German Europe”, in which “a system of authoritarian and bureaucratic European government […] would extinguish the opportunity to disagree”.15 As Euroscepticism gained ground within the Conservative party under William Hague after 1997 the tendency to present European integration as a threat to British identity increased, and parallels were regularly drawn between Britain’s wartime struggle against Nazi Germany and present-day resistance to perceived EU interference. During the 2001 election campaign, the Conservative MP Sir Peter Tapsell went so far as to compare Gerhard Schröder’s vision of Europe to that of Adolf Hitler, claiming that “a single European currency was first proposed by the Nazi Reichsbank to Hitler at the time of Dunkirk as a means of perpetuating German dominance in Europe. Now it is EU policy”.16 Such comparisons between the European Union and the Third Reich were condemned as distasteful, offensive and xenophobic, but they did little to damage Tapsell’s success in the subsequent election and remained a common feature of Eurosceptic rhetoric. Drawing parallels between European integration and National Socialism also inevitably attracted media attention, as was the case in 2008 when Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, later a prominent advocate of Brexit, compared the additional powers given to the President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, to the 1933 Enabling Act that had allowed Adolf Hitler to override the Weimar Constitution, paving the way for the Nazi dictatorship.17

  • 18 This point is convincingly argued in Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pai (...)
  • 19 Andrew Roberts, The Aachen Memorandum, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995.
  • 20 Richard J. Evans, “The Myth of the Fourth Reich”, New Statesman, November 24, 2011. <https://www.ne (...)

6The tendency to draw such parallels was by no means limited to Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party. During the 1990s and early 2000s the Second World War emerged more widely as the central historical reference point in a Eurosceptic narrative of British struggle against continental domination.18 The Eurosceptic claim that an increasingly bureaucratic, expansionist and German-dominated European Union posed a mortal threat to British sovereignty was perhaps taken to its most extreme conclusion in the dystopian novel The Aachen Memorandum by the conservative historian Andrew Roberts, a novel portraying a future English resistance movement battling against a German-run European Union that is referred to in private, by its supporters, as “the Reich.19 As the historian Richard J. Evans has put it, “by the mid-1990s, Germanophobia and Europhobia on the right had become fused in a bizarre rhetorical rerun of the Second World War”.20

  • 21 See for example Gary Younge, “Bet you won’t be shouting for this lot on Sunday”, The Guardian, June (...)
  • 22 “Britain and the War: Don’t mention it”, The Economist, February 18, 1999. <https://www.economist.c (...)
  • 23 Antony Beevor, “Tommy and Jerry”, The Guardian, February 16, 1999. <https://www.theguardian.com/the (...)
  • 24 Nick Clegg, “Don’t mention the war. Grow up”, The Guardian, 19 November 2002. <https://www.theguard (...)
  • 25 Matthias Matussek, “Beethoven, Claudia Schiffer, Willy Brandt? No the British are only interested i (...)

7The fact that such Eurosceptic narratives coincided with a wider atmosphere of anti-German rhetoric relating to Nazism and the Second World War, particularly in the context of English-German football rivalry, led many pro-European commentators in both Britain and Germany to a similar conclusion: the British were unhealthily fixated on the Second World War because Britain’s post-war economic and imperial decline, combined with West Germany’s rapid recovery and international rehabilitation, had led to a resentful feeling that Germany, having lost the war, had won the peace.21 An article in The Economist in February 1999 argued, for example, that “the British, faced with inexorable post-war decline, are clinging to the memories of wartime victory as a sort of comfort blanket”.22 The military historian Antony Beevor likewise claimed that the Second World War was a kind of “security blanket” for a British population struggling to accept “that Germany should have recovered from almost total ruin and created the strongest economy in Europe in such a short time”.23 In 2002 Nick Clegg, then a relatively unknown Liberal Democrat MEP, put forward a similar argument, claiming that Britain’s relationship with the EU was being held back by “a warped view of Germany” and “a misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war”.24 German commentators, notably the journalist Matthias Matussek, brother of the German Ambassador, criticized the British public’s lack of interest in any aspect of German culture other than the history of National Socialism, and presented this apparent obsession with the wartime past as a form of nostalgic escapism to avoid the harsh reality of Britain’s reduced power on the world stage.25 Thus, even before the era of Brexit, supporters of European integration had lamented their opponents’ apparent fixation on bygone glories and wartime stereotypes.

8The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party in the early 2000s did little to dispel this image of British Eurosceptics. Indeed, frequent references to Britain’s role in defeating Nazi Germany during the Second World War, combined with a tendency to compare the European Union to a totalitarian, dystopian empire, were easily discernible characteristics of UKIP rhetoric in this period.26 Perhaps the most notorious example of such attitudes was an incident in November 2010, when the UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom was ejected from the European Parliament after having interrupted a speech by the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz by shouting the words “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”. Interviewed afterwards, Bloom justified his comments with recourse to a familiar historical narrative: “My father, as a Spitfire pilot, fought for freedom against Nazi domination of Europe”, he explained, adding that “Schulz is an unrepentant Euro nationalist and a socialist. He wants one currency, one EU state, one EU people”.27 While UKIP became increasingly prominent, culminating in its victory in the 2014 European Parliament elections, such historical parallels remained a regular feature of the party’s rhetoric. Speaking to the European Parliament on 11 March 2015, Nigel Farage evoked National Socialism in order to criticise a recent call by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, for EU member states to increase the pooling of military resources in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, claiming that Eurocorps troops had already begun “virtually goose-stepping” around in Strasbourg. Much to the amusement of his fellow UKIP MEPs, his speech included the rhetorical question “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Juncker?” a far-from-subtle reference to the wartime music-hall song “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?”, most familiar to the British public as the theme tune to Dad’s Army, a BBC sitcom on the Home Guard which ran from 1968 to 1977.28 When, in October 2015, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a joint statement to the European Parliament, Farage replied that France’s voice within the French-German relationship had been reduced to “little more than a pipsqueak” and suggested that it was ironic “that a project that was designed to contain German power has now given us a totally German-dominated Europe”.29

  • 30 Asimina Michailidou, “‘The Germans are back’: Euroscepticism and anti-Germanism in crisis-stricken (...)
  • 31 See for example Edna Fernandes, “Better to die from a bullet than working: that is the mantra of pa (...)
  • 32 David Wooding, “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Cameron?”, The Sun, June 29, 2014. <https://www (...)
  • 33 Dominic Lawson, “Is the EU just a German racket to take over Europe?”, Daily Mail, July 4, 2014. <h (...)
  • 34 Bill Cash, “The EU has become an undemocratic German-dominated Europe”, Daily Telegraph, November 1 (...)
  • 35 Brendan Simms, “Cracked heart of the old world”, New Statesman, March 14, 2013. <https://www.newsta (...)

9These examples of UKIP rhetoric should be understood within the context of rising apprehension (as well as much opportunistic scaremongering) regarding Germany’s supposed domination of the European Union in the wake of the Eurozone debt crisis, during which Germany was accused of seeking to punish Southern Europe. At this time, anti-German rhetoric and references to the Second World War were common not only among British Eurosceptics but also among other critics of EU policy, from opponents of austerity in Greece to populist politicians in Italy.30 In the Greek context, the British Eurosceptic press alternated between references to the Nazi occupation of Greece and to the EU as a “Fourth Reich” on the one hand, and disdainful stereotypes regarding the Greek population’s supposed corruption and laziness on the other.31 More generally, the period 2010 to 2016 saw the return to prominence in Britain, particularly in the Eurosceptic press, of warnings regarding a German-dominated Europe, in direct response to Germany’s (albeit reluctant) leadership during the Eurozone debt crisis, the refugee crisis, and the Russian annexation of Crimea. In 2014, when David Cameron unsuccessfully attempted to oppose the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, The Sun reported the story under the headline “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Cameron”, quoting Nigel Farage who compared Cameron’s approach to “Dad’s Army, defending us against the march of the EU enemy with pitchforks and broom handles”.32 Dominic Lawson, meanwhile, the journalist to whom Nicholas Ridley had made his infamous remarks, revisited the same old themes as twenty four years earlier in an article in the Daily Mail entitled “Is the EU just a German racket to take over Europe?”33 In another reminder of the 1990s, it was the veteran backbencher Bill Cash who introduced a debate into the House of Commons in November 2014 arguing that “an increasingly assertive German Europe is at odds with British national interests”.34 In this atmosphere, even the usually pro-European New Statesman announced the return of “The German Problem” on its front cover, accompanied by portraits of Bismarck, Hitler, Kohl and Merkel. In the leading article, the historian Brendan Simms declared that “a spectre is once again haunting Europe – the spectre of German power”.35

10In the years before the 2016 referendum, anti-German rhetoric and references to the Second World War had therefore been common features of British Eurosceptic discourse. Nevertheless, perceptions of Germany among those who advocated leaving the European Union were by no means unanimously negative. Prominent supporters of Brexit in the Conservative party, including Liam Fox and Liz Truss, expressed admiration in the years preceding the referendum for Germany’s fiscal discipline, deregulated labour market, skilled workforce and export-driven economy, arguing that Britain should “learn from Germany”.36 Indeed, the very same politicians who argued that the British economy was suffering from being “chained” or “shackled” to a stagnant and over-bureaucratic EU praised Germany’s growth, dynamism and deregulation. The ambiguous argument that “Global Britain” should both leave the European Union and seek to emulate Germany may help explain the relative infrequency of overtly anti-German rhetoric during the 2016 referendum campaign, despite the fact that supporters of Brexit regularly mobilised the history and memory of the Second World War in order to present voting Leave as an equivalent act of defiance against foreign domination.

Brexit as “The Great Escape”: The 2016 Referendum Campaign

  • 37 See Andrew Knapp, “Historians for Britain in Europe – a Personal History”, Histoire@Politique, vol. (...)

11During the 2016 referendum campaign several prominent advocates of Brexit, including Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, used references to National Socialism and the Second World War in order to insinuate that the European Union was a twenty-first-century version of the Third Reich. Even though overtly anti-German statements featured only rarely in pro-Brexit rhetoric, a discussion of the meanings and “lessons” of the Second World War became an increasingly prominent feature of debates as the date of the vote approached. Eurosceptics were not the only ones to attempt to mobilise the wartime past during the referendum campaign. Although supporters of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union emphasised above all the economic risks associated with Brexit, several attempts were made to refute Eurosceptic narratives of the Second World War. Advocates of both Leave and Remain attempted to make use of statements by surviving veterans, and to appropriate the symbolic figure of Winston Churchill, in order to argue opposing cases. As such, both campaigns used the Second World War as a central reference point for understanding Britain’s relationship to the European project: Leavers underlined Britain’s ability to “stand alone” and its history of resisting foreign threats to British sovereignty, while Remainers emphasised the role of European integration in preserving peace since 1945, and in upholding the democratic values for which Britain had fought during the war. Such uses of the history and memory of the Second World War formed a prominent part within a much wider debate, in the months leading up to the referendum, regarding the “lessons” to be drawn from British history, including campaigns by the rival groups “Historians for Britain” and “Historians for Britain in Europe”.37

  • 38 Tom Newton Dunn, “Who do EU think you are kidding Mr Cameron?”, The Sun, April 6, 2016. <https://ww (...)
  • 39 Daily Mail Comment, “Who will speak for England?” Daily Mail, February 4, 2016. <https://www.dailym (...)
  • 40 Daily Mail Comment, “Is Germany calling the shots on the EU?”, Daily Mail, May 11, 2016. <https://w (...)
  • 41 See for example Leo McKinstry, “The EU has revealed its true nature: a federalist monster that will (...)

12The Second World War had already become a point of reference during David Cameron’s unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a special status for Britain within the European Union and an “emergency brake” on freedom of movement. The Sun depicted Cameron and his supporters as a hapless “Dad’s Army” incapable of defending British interests, asking “Who do you think EU are kidding Mr Cameron?”38 Earlier in the negotiations, a front page editorial in the Daily Mail demanded “Who will speak for England?”, echoing the cry of anti-appeasement Conservative backbencher Leo Amery across the House of Commons to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood in response to a hesitant and ambivalent statement by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 2 September 1939. Though insisting, somewhat disingenuously given the choice of historical analogy, that “nobody is suggesting there are any parallels whatever between the Nazis and the EU” the Daily Mail declared that “as in 1939 we are at a crossroads in our island history” and that in the forthcoming referendum Britain’s “destiny as a sovereign nation” would be at stake.39 Since David Cameron’s negotiation strategy had focussed from the start on trying to win over Angela Merkel, Germany was held responsible when he failed to achieve any significant changes. In May 2016 Iain Duncan Smith, who had been Work and Pensions Secretary under Cameron, claimed that Germany had used its “ultimate power” to “veto” Cameron’s demand for a temporary limit on EU migration. Seizing upon Duncan Smith’s portrayal of Cameron’s “surrender” to Germany, the Daily Mail asked rhetorically whether the soldiers of the Second World War really did “lay down their lives so that a future German Chancellor could dictate terms to a British Prime Minister over who should have the right to settle in the UK?”40 Thus, while most pro-Brexit uses of the memory of the Second World War cast the EU as a whole (or “Brussels”) rather than Germany as the enemy, the Eurosceptic press rarely missed an opportunity to highlight examples of perceived German “bullying” or “arrogance”.41

  • 42 This tendency to use manufactured, post-war images of the Second World War rather than war itself w (...)
  • 43 European Parliament, Plenary Session, Strasbourg, 13 December 2011. <https://www.europarl.europa.eu (...)
  • 44 Patrick Christys, “Ukip slammed as ‘bigots’ for blasting out Great Escape theme tune from Brexit ba (...)
  • 45 Jamie Macwhirter, “Nigel Farage shuts down Remainer: ‘It’s the great escape’”, Daily Express, June (...)

13While UKIP and Nigel Farage centred their campaign on the issues of sovereignty and immigration, images related to the Second World War were never far below the surface. Revealing a common Eurosceptic tendency to make reference to the Second World War through later manufactured images rather than actual historical experiences, Farage regularly referred to leaving the European Union as “the Great Escape”, alluding to the title of a 1963 film starring Steve McQueen recounting the mass escape of British and Commonwealth prisoners from a German prisoner of war camp.42 Farage had been using this catchphrase as early as 2011, when, in what seems with hindsight to be a remarkably prophetic speech to the European Parliament, he had declared that “Britain is going to make the great escape. We are going to get out of this Union. We will be the first European country to get our freedom back […] It is going to happen”.43 During the 2016 referendum campaign, Farage played the music from the 1963 film at campaign events on his bus tour of Britain, much to the disapproval of the composer’s Remain-supporting sons, who argued that the “nativism and thinly disguised bigotry” of UKIP made the party unworthy successors to “those who liberated Europe from oppression and hatred” during the Second World War.44 Characterizing Brexit as the “Great Escape” became a regularly repeated mantra for Farage, who was still using the phrase to close down discussion about the implications of Brexit in 2018.45

  • 46 Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate, just as Hitler did”, Daily Telegraph, May 15, (...)
  • 47 Boris Johnson, “There is only one way to get the change we want – vote to leave the EU”, Daily Tele (...)
  • 48 Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson interview: We can be the ‘heroes of Europe’ by voting to Leave”, Daily Tel (...)
  • 49 Philip Oltermann, “German politicians criticise Boris Johnson for EU-Hitler comments”, The Guardian(...)
  • 50 Christopher Hope, “Brexit Tories back Boris Johnson, saying his EU Nazi Germany comparison was ‘his (...)

14While Farage’s “Great Escape” slogan relied on a familiarity with the heroic narratives of the Second World War expressed in the war films of the 1950s and 1960s, other supporters of Brexit drew more direct historical parallels. Perhaps most controversially, the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, compared the EU to Nazi-occupied Europe in an interview with the Telegraph in May 2016, claiming that both were attempts to unite the continent under a single authority: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically… The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods”.46 In fact, Johnson had relied on a similar historical narrative in the Telegraph column in which he announced his support for the Leave campaign in March 2016, presenting the EU as the latest in a long succession of continental threats to British sovereignty: “We have spent 500 years trying to stop continental European powers uniting against us”.47 In response to his mention of Hitler in May 2016 (and ignoring the reference to Napoleon) his interviewer simultaneously sought to qualify Johnson’s words and to reinforce the Second World War parallels: “While Mr Johnson is not arguing that the bureaucrats of Brussels are Nazis attempting to bring back Hitler’s Reich, his comparison is startling. Clearly, he sees parallels between the choices that confronted his beloved Churchill, and Britain, during the Second World War and the decision facing voters next month”.48 Johnson’s remarks were widely condemned in both Britain and Germany.49 Nevertheless, several Conservative Eurosceptics including Norman Lamont and Jacob Rees Mogg stood by Johnson’s comments, while Iain Duncan Smith suggested that Johnson was simply stating “a historical fact of life”.50

  • 51 Simon Heffer, “The Fourth Reich is here – without a shot being fired”, Daily Telegraph, May 15, 201 (...)
  • 52 Dan Carrier, “Brexit ‘dummies’ blamed for anti-German motorway poster”, The Guardian, May 29, 2016. (...)
  • 53 Hannah Furness, “Britain has ‘remorseless obsession with Nazi Germany, former British Museum direct (...)

15While Johnson’s reference to Hitler made no mention of the role of Germany in the present-day EU, the same historical parallels were used by others to criticize Germany directly. The day after Johnson’s comments were published, the Eurosceptic journalist Simon Heffer declared in an article in the Telegraph that “our fathers and grandfathers fought in two world wars to allow Britain the right to continue to rule itself, rather than to be ruled by Germans” and that “German domination of the EU means it has conquered without war, and signing up to the EU is signing up to the Fourth Reich”.51 Anti-German rhetoric was certainly present in discussions of Brexit and undoubtedly appealed to certain sections of pro-Brexit voters: in one notorious incident, billboards appeared on the M40 motorway bearing the slogan “Halt ze German advance!” and using the official Vote Leave logo. Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave campaign director, denied all responsibility, attributing the incident to “dummies on our side”.52 Speaking at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, Neil MacGregor, who had organised the major exhibition “Germany: Memories of a Nation” while director of the British Museum in 2014, denounced the “preposterous” and “appalling” tendency to compare the European Union with the Third Reich, suggesting that Britain’s “remorseless obsession” with Nazi Germany was a product of a school syllabus in which the only mention made of Germany was during history classes on National Socialism.53 Such examples aside, specifically anti-German rhetoric was less frequent during the referendum campaign than it would later become in the context of the Brexit negotiations.

  • 54 Richard J. Evans, “‘One man who made history’ by another who seems just to make it up: Boris on Chu (...)

16 Among several less explicitly anti-German uses of the wartime past, the figure of Winston Churchill was regularly evoked and much contested. Both sides in the debate sought to lay claim to this iconic figure, Leavers underlining his determined resistance against Nazi Germany, while Remainers emphasized his post-war statements in favour of the creation of a United States of Europe. Boris Johnson’s idolization of Churchill was well-established: while mayor of London he had found time to write a biography of Churchill in which, as Richard J. Evans has put it, he “ties himself up in knots trying to distance Churchill from the idea of European unity”.54 David Cameron, on the other hand, tried to salvage Churchill’s memory for the Remain camp. Accused by a member of a television audience of being a “twenty-first century Neville Chamberlain” for naïvely believing that he had secured guarantees for Britain, when in reality they could be overruled by “a dictatorship in Europe”, Cameron responded by summoning Churchill’s ghost:

  • 55 Henry Mance, “Cameron channels his inner-Churchill to banish Brexit foe”, Financial Times, June 20, (...)

At my office I sit two yards away from the Cabinet Room where Winston Churchill decided, in May 1940, to fight on against Hitler. The best and greatest decision perhaps anyone’s ever made in our country. He didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be fighting with the French, and with the Poles, and with the others. But he didn’t quit. He didn’t quit on Europe. He didn’t quit on European democracy. He didn’t quit on European freedom. We want to fight for those things today. And you can’t fight if you’re not in the room.55

  • 56 Richard Toye, ‘Brexit: What would Winston Do?’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2020. <https://www.c (...)

17Inevitably, given the complexity and often deliberate ambiguity of Churchill’s position towards a united Europe (and Britain’s relationship to it), it was difficult for either side to transform Churchill into an unambiguous symbol of either Leave or Remain.56

18While advocates of Britain remaining in the EU tended to concentrate on the economic and security risks posed by Brexit – a campaign strategy dubbed “Project Fear” by their opponents – several attempts were made to reclaim patriotic wartime narratives from the Eurosceptics. In a speech on 9 May 2016, David Cameron had celebrated “our lone stand in 1940, when Britain stood as a bulwark against a new dark age of tyranny and oppression” and took pains to reassure listeners that “like any Brit” his “heart swells with pride” when he hears the sound of a Spitfire. Nevertheless, he insisted that “isolationism has never served this country well” and that Winston Churchill had understood the vital importance of allies.57 In a similar attempt to re-appropriate the memory of the Second World War as an argument for Remain, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared in a short campaign video with the slogan “lead not leave”. Standing in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, Brown emphasised the role of European integration in preserving peace, placing the United Kingdom at the centre of the story, declaring that Europe was “at peace because of what Britain did to establish freedom across the whole of the continent”.58 Such attempts to mobilise the memory of the Second World War in order to make an emotive appeal against Brexit underline both the Second World War’s centrality in patriotic narratives of British history and its contested meanings.59

  • 60 Jill Treanor, “Richard Branson starts his own campaign to keep Britain in the EU”, The Guardian, Ju (...)
  • 61 See for example, Andrew Williams, “How valid is the claim that the EU has delivered peace in Europe (...)
  • 62 “Boris Johnson’s speech on the EU Referendum”, Conservative Home website, May 9, 2016. <https://www (...)

19Beyond these occasional attempts to use the memory of the Second World War to construct a patriotic narrative of Britain’s role in Europe, the most frequent use of the wartime past by advocates of continued EU membership was the assertion that European integration had laid the foundations for peace on the continent. This was one of the central arguments of David Cameron’s speech on 9 May, and the same argument was later made by the businessman Richard Branson, who recalled the wartime experience of both his father and grandfather in order to insist that “one of the EU’s greatest achievements is that it has kept its members out of conflict in Europe”.60 However, such claims were treated sceptically even in the usually pro-European Guardian and New Statesman, and were easily countered either by insisting that it was NATO rather than the EU that had guaranteed peace in Europe, or by claiming that post-war Franco-German reconciliation would have provided the foundation for peace even without British membership of the EU.61. Indeed, in response to Cameron’s speech on 9 May, Boris Johnson claimed that the idea that “we need to stay in [the EU] to prevent German tanks crossing the French border” was “wholly bogus”.62 Perhaps as a result of such inherent weaknesses within this key argument, the wartime past was used far less frequently in appeals for continued membership of the EU than it was as an argument in support of Brexit.

  • 63 Rowena Mason and Anushka Asthana, “Cameron: Gove has ‘lost it’ in comparing pro-EU economists to Na (...)
  • 64 Rowena Mason, “Tories divided by Boris Johnson’s EU-Hitler comparison”, The Guardian, May 16, 2016. (...)

20Instead, supporters of the UK remaining in the EU often simply criticized their opponents’ uses of the memory of Nazism or the Second World War as “going too far”, or as evidence of their xenophobia, desperation, or having lost touch with reality. For example, an attempt by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove to cast doubt on a group of ten Nobel prize winning economists, who had warned of the negative economic impact of Brexit, by equating them with scientists in the Third Reich who had dismissed the theories of Albert Einstein, was dismissed as laughable rather than vigorously refuted by David Cameron, who told Sky News that “to hear the leave campaign today sort of comparing independent experts and economists to Nazi sympathisers – I think they have rather lost it”.63 Remainers suggested that Brexiters were damaging their own reputation when equating the EU with the Third Reich: Nicholas Soames, a Conservative MP, opponent of Brexit and grandson of Churchill, said Johnson’s Hitler remark had “gone too far” and described Johnson as the “unchallenged master of the self-inflicted wound”.64 Judging by the result of the referendum, however, it seems unlikely that such references to National Socialism and the Second World War did any real damage to the reputation of pro-Brexit politicians in the eyes of their supporters.

  • 65 On the idea of Brexit as a nostalgic “retrotopia” see Paul Beaumont, “Brexit, Retrotopia and the pe (...)
  • 66 Lord Ashcroft, “How the United Kingdom Voted on Thursday…and Why”, Lord Ashcroft Polls, June 24, 20 (...)
  • 67 Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, London: Biteback P (...)
  • 68 Roch Dunin Wasowicz, “Britain’s wartime generation are almost as pro-EU as millenials”, LSE Blog, A (...)

21While there is abundant evidence of the memory of the Second World War being mobilized in debates on Brexit, quite what influence these uses of the past had on the result of the referendum is extremely difficult to assess. Analyses of the 2016 Brexit referendum result rarely draw attention to either such intangible factors as anti-German sentiment or the influence of wartime myths and memories. However, even though few opinion polls raised these questions specifically, some surveys have pointed to the influence of nostalgia and a general sense of Britain’s decline, particularly among older Leave voters.65 According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll of over 12,000 voters on 24 June, those who voted Leave tended to view the past more positively than the present or the future, and were considerably more likely to agree with the statement “overall, life in Britain today is worse than it was 30 years ago”.66 The fact that 56% of voters over 45 and 60% of those over 65 had voted for Leave has led some to the conclusion that attitudes towards Europe and towards Britain’s place in the world forged during the early post-war decades had an impact on the result. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, for example, characterize the older generation of Leave voters as “too young to have served in the Second World War but imbued with the idea that the British (rarely the Allies) had won that war simply because they were great”.67 Some tentative attempts have even been made to suggest that the generation that experienced the war first-hand was less likely to support Brexit than the post-war generations raised on such heroic narratives.68 Whatever the precise influence of references to the Second World War on the result of the referendum, it was a significant feature of the language and symbols through which the referendum campaign was conducted, which would remain present in different and often more antagonistic ways over the course of the subsequent Brexit negotiations.

Wars of Words: The Post-Referendum Negotiations, 2016-2020

  • 69 “Brexit memo to Boris Johnson: Don’t mention the war”, BBC News website, 18 January 2017 <https://w (...)

22When, in January 2017, Theresa May finally set out her objectives for the Brexit negotiations in a “Plan for Britain”, the German-born Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who had chaired the Vote Leave campaign, felt it necessary to remind her fellow Brexiters to tone down the Second World War rhetoric. “At least for the next two years”, she pleaded, repeating the much-quoted advice of Basil Fawlty in the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers: “don’t mention the war”.69 The reality, however, could hardly have been further from what Stuart had hoped. Anti-German rhetoric and Eurosceptic references to the Second World War converged with renewed animosity after the start of UK-EU negotiations in June 2017 (following the formal triggering of Article 50 on 29 March), and Eurosceptic rhetoric became even more bellicose after tensions within the Conservative Party were exposed following the failed Chequers agreement of July 2018 and the publication of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in November 2018. The Brexit negotiations would be marked by an increasingly hostile language of “appeasement”, “surrender” and German “bullying” until Eurosceptics celebrated the “victory” of the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January 2020. Meanwhile, particularly in discussions of a potential “no-deal” Brexit, references to the Second World War began to focus above all on Britain’s supposed ability to overcome adversity by drawing on the “Blitz spirit” or “Dunkirk spirit”. Thus, as Brexit was revealed to be far more complex and challenging than its advocates had been willing to admit during the campaign, the focus shifted away from the symbols of victory and liberation in 1945 towards gloomier, more embattled recollections of appeasement in 1938 and of British defiance in the face of overwhelming adversity in 1940.

  • 70 A notable exception was the extraordinary claim by Peter Hargreaves, a billionaire backer of the Le (...)
  • 71 David Maddox and Macer Hall, “We WON’T be bullied by EU: Britain’s top Brexit team invokes WW2 as t (...)
  • 72 Jon Stratton, “The language of leaving: Brexit, the second world war and cultural trauma”, Journal (...)
  • 73 Zoe Williams, “Dunkirk offers a lesson but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks”, The Guardian, July 3 (...)
  • 74 See among others Max Hastings, “Splendid Isolation”, The New York Review of Books, October 12, 2017 (...)

23Given the tendency of supporters of Brexit to underline the simplicity of leaving the EU and to downplay its potentially disruptive nature, references to 1940 had been relatively rare during the referendum campaign.70 By January 2017, Brexit Secretary David Davis, who had regularly stressed how quickly and easily Britain would be able to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal, was looking to the Second World War for reassuring parallels: “if our civil service can cope with world war two it can easily cope with this”.71 The fact that such an atmosphere coincided with the release of films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour was partly coincidental, both films having begun production before the 2016 referendum, but heroic narratives of Britain standing alone against all odds appealed to supporters of Brexit.72 Nigel Farage, for instance, urged “every youngster to go out and watch Dunkirk”.73 Critics of the decision to leave the European Union, meanwhile, interpreted the films as evidence that support for Brexit had been nourished by a distorted historical image of 1940 in which Britain’s weakness was downplayed, social tensions and public dissatisfaction overlooked, and the desperate need for allies ignored.74

  • 75 Michael Safi and Patrick Wintour, “No. 10 defends Boris Johnson over ‘Brexit punishment beatings’ q (...)
  • 76 David Davis, speech at the Institute of Chartered Engineers, February 4, 2016. <https://www.davidda (...)
  • 77 Justin Huggler and Christopher Keller, “David Davis fails to convince German business leaders over (...)
  • 78 “Brexiter Tory MP Mark Francois accuses Airbus boss of ‘German bullying’”, BBC News Website, Januar (...)
  • 79 Philip Stephens, “Thatcher’s Fear of an Overmighty Germany lives on in Brexit”, Financial Times, Oc (...)
  • 80 Nigel Farage, “Welcome to Vichy Britain, where the Brussels bully boys can do what they like to us” (...)
  • 81 Phillip Inman, “Mervyn King: Theresa May’s Brexit deal is like appeasement”, The Guardian, December (...)
  • 82 Matthew Weaver, “Theresa May will not be flying to Brussels in Spitfire, BBC clarifies”, The Guardi (...)

24As the promises of the Leave campaign, that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union could be negotiated swiftly, easily and to Britain’s great advantage, proved illusory, an acrimonious atmosphere developed in which the Second World War metaphors became increasingly palpable. Reacting to the suggestion by an advisor to François Hollande that Britain should not expect a better trade relationship outside the EU than it currently enjoyed inside, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson claimed that the French President was trying to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [from the EU], in the manner of some world war two movie”. While Johnson’s comments were condemned as “abhorrent and deeply unhelpful” by the EU’s Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, Johnson was defended by his cabinet colleagues, Michael Gove claiming that he was simply using “a witty metaphor” and that those who took offence were “humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes”.75 With specific regard to Germany, meanwhile, much of this post-referendum animosity stemmed somewhat ironically from the fact that the UK’s Brexit negotiators had overestimated Germany’s “domination” of the EU, falsely assuming that the German government would put its own economic interests, and particularly those of its own car industry, above the collective interests of the EU-27. David Davis had assumed that “within minutes” of a vote for Brexit, German car manufacturers would be “knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door” demanding a free-trade deal with Britain, a naïve hope that was soon revealed as illusory.76 A speech by Davis to German business leaders in November 2017 was met with disbelief and incredulous laughter.77 Predictably, frustrations at the lack of German compliance to Britain’s wishes were expressed through references to the war. When the German CEO of Airbus, Tom Enders, criticized the May government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, the pro-Brexit Conservative MP Mark Francois accused Enders of “Teutonic arrogance”, drew attention to the fact that Enders had been “a German paratrooper in his youth” and declared: “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son”.78 As the ire of Brexiters turned increasingly against the negotiating efforts of the Prime Minister, metaphors of capitulation, appeasement, treachery and collaboration abounded.79 Nigel Farage claimed, for example, that Theresa May’s concessions to the EU over the course of the Brexit negotiations amounted to “surrender” and that Britain had been reduced to the status of “Vichy Britain”.80 When May’s withdrawal agreement was finally announced in November 2018 she was accused of “appeasement” by former Bank of England governor Mervyn King.81 In a more comic episode, when May travelled to Brussels in January 2019 to try to renegotiate her much-criticized deal, the BBC inadvertently broadcast black-and-white footage of spitfires rather than images of the Prime Minister: even if this was done in error it did little to dispel the feeling that Britain was obsessed with the Second World War.82

  • 83 Jack Maidment, “German ambassador accused of talking ‘rubbish’ after suggesting Second World War in (...)
  • 84 Leo McKinstry, “Germans hate us celebrating our glorious victory against Nazism because it reminds (...)

25Such was the political climate in which Peter Ammon made his comments in January 2018. These comments touched a nerve among Eurosceptic politicians and journalists leading to further anti-German rhetoric. The Conservative MP Peter Bone dismissed Ammon’s remarks as “a load of rubbish”, while the long-standing Eurosceptic Conservative backbencher Bill Cash took issue with that fact that Ammon had described the notion that Germany dominated the EU as “a horrible story” by insisting that, during the referendum campaign, he had heard “many, many people constantly referring to the fact that ultimately this will be a German Europe”.83 Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the journalist Leo McKinstry went even further, decrying Ammon’s “Teutonic bleating” and asking “what could be more offensive than the sound of a German official lecturing us on how we should feel about the war?” McKinstry’s conclusion, somewhat ironically, provided a textbook example of the kind of Eurosceptic and Germanophobic historical narratives that Ammon had denounced: “Britain has never received sufficient gratitude for saving Europe in the past from German dictatorship. The bitter irony is that we have ended up being bullied, mocked, and hectored by the Germans. That is why we will be better off out of the Berlin-led EU empire”.84 McKinstry’s rancorous comments sum up an anti-German attitude which, combined with a feeling of resentment that victory in 1945 had not secured Britain a permanently exceptional status in European affairs, had long been a feature of British Euroscepticism, but which had reached new heights in the post-referendum period.

26The issue of Britain’s final contributions to the EU budget, often characterised as a “divorce payment”, led to further anti-German references to the Second World War in June 2018. The Conservative Eurosceptic MP Daniel Kawczynski, writing in the parliamentary magazine The House complained that “Germany is very keen to inform us about the £40bn we supposedly owe them for Brexit” but added that “they are seemingly quick to forget that the cost of the damage caused to Britain during the war was an incredible £120bn – equivalent to £3,620bn today”.85 Kawczynski went further in February 2019, declaring on Twitter: “Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eyeballs in [the] process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember”.86 As several historians and even some school children on Twitter were able to point out, the United Kingdom had in fact been the largest recipient of Marshall Plan funds, receiving $2.7 billion to Germany’s $1.7 billion. Kawczynski apologised for the factual error but insisted that his “own personal conviction” was that British loans taken out during the war “outweighed the benefits of the aid received”.87

27Anti-German rhetoric reached its peak in October 2019 in reaction to leaked reports of a recent phone conversation in which Angela Merkel had supposedly suggested to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that Northern Ireland should remain part of the European customs union after the United Kingdom had left the European Union. In response, the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, founded by the millionaire businessman and UKIP donor Arron Banks, posted an image on Twitter showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel with her right arm raised in a rough approximation of a Nazi salute, accompanied by the words “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a kraut”. While Arron Banks conceded the following day that his “team went too far” in publishing this tweet, he was far from alone in conjuring up images of the Second World War to condemn Merkel’s proposal.88 The Conservative MEP John Longworth, for example, took to Twitter to declare that “if reports are to be believed, Merkel appears to have mistaken Northern Ireland for the Sudetenland”.89 Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, speaking on his LBC radio show, was hardly more subtle, claiming that he was astonished by “the thought of a German Chancellor telling a British Prime Minister that part of his territory would effectively be annexed”, adding gleefully “you know, of course, all the historical connotations that that is going to lead to”.90 In an article published in the Daily Telegraph, Farage admitted that it was “unclear” to what extent “Merkel really did demand the annexation of Northern Ireland” but nevertheless called on Boris Johnson to stand up to “German bullying” by backing a “no deal” Brexit, and warned that the EU was “an empire that seeks to expand and use force”.91 The new Prime Minister, in a somewhat uncharacteristic display of diplomacy, refrained from drawing historical comparisons on this occasion.

  • 92 Rowena Mason and Peter Walker, “‘Surrender Act’: Johnson ignores calls to restrain his language”, T (...)
  • 93 Camilla Tominey, “The war may have been won, but the question Brexiteers are now asking themselves (...)
  • 94 Jim Pickard and Sebastian Payne, “‘The war is over, we have won’, declares jubilant Farage”, Financ (...)
  • 95 Steve Anglesey, “‘All the lies about Leavers’ are painfully true, The New European, February 9, 202 (...)
  • 96 < https://twitter.com/ByDonkeys/status/1223175366421946369>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

28Although Johnson was careful to maintain positive relations with Germany, the first six months of his premiership saw no reduction in the use of Second World War imagery to describe British domestic politics. Johnson himself repeatedly and unapologetically referred to the 2019 Benn Act, through which parliament obliged his government to seek an extension of the Brexit deadline in the event that no deal had been reached, as the “Surrender Act”.92 When the UK finally left the European Union at 11pm GMT on 31 January 2020, public attitudes towards Brexit remained as polarized as ever, a fact recognised even in the Eurosceptic Telegraph, which insisted (in typically bellicose language) that it was now time to “win the peace” now that the “war” had been won.93 Events marking “Brexit Day” underlined these divisions, including divisions over the meanings of the Second World War. On the one hand, supporters of Brexit adopted the symbols of VE Day to celebrate their “victory”, Nigel Farage declaring to a flag-waving crowd in Parliament Square: “the fact is the war is over, we have won!”94 As the BBC reported on celebrations in Lincolnshire, one reveller even appeared on camera wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Two World Wars, One Referendudum” (sic).95 On the other hand, the anti-Brexit campaign group Led by Donkeys chose to mark the occasion by projecting a short film, in which Second World War veterans expressed their sadness regarding Brexit, onto the white cliffs of Dover.96 The memory of the Second World War therefore remained as contested as ever, even though it was once again the supporters of Brexit who mobilized this wartime past most vocally, and in a way that seemed to call into question the patriotism of their opponents.

Conclusion

  • 97 Critical interpretations of this rhetoric by British historians include Richard Overy “Why the crue (...)

29The Second World War was certainly the most frequently evoked point of historical reference during debates on Brexit, yet it was constantly being reinvented and contested, and it was mobilized both for overtly anti-German or anti-EU purposes and in more nostalgic, introspective ways. Supporters of Brexit were certainly drawing on familiar historical themes, considering that memories of the Second World War, combined with concerns regarding German power within the EU, had been part of British Eurosceptic discourse since the 1990s. They were doing so, however, in response to new and ever-changing circumstances. Peter Ammon was undoubtedly right to suggest that the British public, or at least certain sections of the Eurosceptic press, seemed fixated on the Second World War, but it should be recognised that this is an issue that goes far beyond questions relating to Germany or to the European Union, as the regular references in the British media to the “Blitz spirit” during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic attest.97

30Nevertheless, there is also abundant evidence of anti-German rhetoric and wartime stereotypes being used by British Eurosceptics during the decades preceding Brexit. While it is important to situate such statements in their precise historical context, in order not to conflate the poisonous anti-German rhetoric of 2018-2019 with the opinions of all those who voted Leave in 2016, it is nevertheless significant that criticisms of the supposed German “domination” the EU have been expressed time and again through the same collection of crude historical analogies since the 1990s. Given the fact that, over the course of several decades, Eurosceptics had repeatedly mobilized the history and memory of the Second World as an argument against European integration in general, and against German leadership in particular, it was understandably difficult for opponents of Brexit to provide, during the 2016 referendum campaign, a convincing alternative narrative that stressed Britain’s wartime commitment to its continental allies or its influence in shaping Europe’s destiny after 1945. Yet this failure to challenge the dominant Eurosceptic uses of the Second World War seems to be symptomatic of a more general failure by pro-EU politicians in the UK to put forward a positive case for EU membership, in the face of a deeply Eurosceptic popular press, and to underline the very real influence of the United Kingdom in shaping the process of European integration.

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Notes

1 Patrick Wintour, “German Ambassador: Second World War image of Britain has fed Euroscepticism”, The Guardian, January 29, 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/29/german-ambassador-peter-ammon-second-world-war-image-of-britain-has-fed-euroscepticism>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

2 Andrew Buncombe, “Britons glory in the war, says German minister”, The Independent, February 15, 1999. <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/britons-glory-in-the-war-says-german-minister-1071016.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Elizabeth Day, “German ambassador’s VE Day message: the war ended 60 years ago – get over it”, The Daily Telegraph, May 8, 2005. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1489578/German-ambassadors-VE-Day-message-the-war-ended-60-years-ago-get-over-it.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Richard Beeston, “For you British the war has never ended, says Fischer”, The Times, October 21, 2004: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/for-you-british-the-war-has-never-ended-says-fischer-6h3wgx8ghrx, accessed on April 16, 2021.

3 See among others John Elledge, “Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics”, New Statesman, August 18, 2017. <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2017/08/britain-has-built-national-myth-winning-second-world-war-it-s-distorting-our>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Gary Younge, “Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit”, The Guardian, February 13, 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/03/imperial-fantasies-brexit-theresa-may>, accessed on April 16, 2021. On the influence of imperial memory on Britain’s earlier relationship to the EU see Anne Deighton, “The past in the present: British imperial memories and the European question”, in Jan-Werner Müller, Memory and Power in Post-War Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, l00-120.

4 See, among others, Angus Calder, The Myth of The Blitz, London: Random House, 2012; Malcolm Smith, Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory, London: Routledge, 2014; and the collected essays in Lucy Noakes and Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

5 Ruth Wittlinger, “Perceptions of Germany and the Germans in Post-war Britain”, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, (2004) 453-465; Ruth Wittlinger, “British-German Relations and Collective Memory”, German Politics and Society 25.3 (2007): 42-69; Jonathan Grix & Chantal Lacroix (2006) ”Constructing Germany’s Image in the British Press: An Empirical Analysis of Stereotypical Reporting on Germany”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 14:3, 373-392. On football rivalry see Andreas Helle, ‘Worthy Opponents. Football Rivalry as Ersatzkrieg? in Jeremy Noakes, Peter Wende and Jonathan Wright, Britain and Germany in Europe, 1949-1990, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 365-378; and Peter J. Beck, “The Relevance of the ‘Irrelevant’: Football as a Missing Dimension in the Study of British Relations with Germany”, International Affairs, vol. 77, no. 2, 2003, 389-411.

6 Paul Lever, Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.

7 Since the focus of this article is on Westminster politics and the UK-wide media, it does not aim to explore variations between the component parts of United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Ben Wellings has underlined Euroscepticism’s connections with a particular form of introspective, nostalgic English nationalism, albeit a form of English nationalism “that still characteristically speaks the language of Britishness”. Ben Wellings, “Losing the Peace: Euroscepticism and the Foundations of Contemporary English Nationalism”, Nations and Nationalisms, vol. 16, no. 3, 2010, 503.

8 Günther Heydemann, “Partner or Rival? The British Perception of Germany during the Process of Unification 1989-1991”, in Harald Husemann (ed.), As Others See Us. Anglo-German Perceptions, Frankfurt am Main and Bern: Peter Lang, 1994, 132-148.

9 Sabine Lee, Victory in Europe?: Britain and Germany Since 1945, London: Routledge, 2014, 204-205.

10 Hugo Young, This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998, 361-362.

11 Ben Wellings, “Losing the Peace”, op. cit., 496.

12 Gerlinde Hardt-Mautner, “‘How does One Become a Good European?’: The British Press and European Integration”, Discourse & Society, vol. 6, no. 2, 1995, 177-205. George Wilkes and Dominic Wring, “The British press and European integration”, in David Baker and David Seawright (eds) Britain for and against Europe: British Politics and the Question of European Integration, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 185-205.

13 Nick Parker, Pete Walsh, Liz Duxbury, “Up Yours Delors”, The Sun, November 1, 1990.

14 William Cash, Against a Federal Europe: The Battle for Britain, London: Duckworth, 1991, 82. On Cash’s attitude to Germany see Young, This Blessed Plot, op. cit, 394.

15 Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith, A Response to Chancellor Kohl. A European Germany or a German Europe? London, The European Foundation, 1996, 96.

16 George Jones, “‘Euro was Nazi idea”, says Tory veteran”, Daily Telegraph, May 23, 2001. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1331326/Euro-was-Nazi-idea-says-Tory-veteran.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

17 Guardian staff and agencies, “Tory MEP causes scandal with ‘Hitler’ slur”, The Guardian, January 31, 2008. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2008/jan/31/politicalnews.uk>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

18 This point is convincingly argued in Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, London: Head of Zeus, 2018, although the book’s more speculative, psychological conclusions regarding Britain’s “masochistic fantasies of defeat” should be taken with a pinch of salt.

19 Andrew Roberts, The Aachen Memorandum, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995.

20 Richard J. Evans, “The Myth of the Fourth Reich”, New Statesman, November 24, 2011. <https://www.newstatesman.com/europe/2011/11/germany-european-economic>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

21 See for example Gary Younge, “Bet you won’t be shouting for this lot on Sunday”, The Guardian, June 28, 2002. <https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/jun/28/race.germany>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

22 “Britain and the War: Don’t mention it”, The Economist, February 18, 1999. <https://www.economist.com/britain/1999/02/18/dont-mention-it?zid=310&ah=4326ea44f22236ea534e2010ccce1932>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

23 Antony Beevor, “Tommy and Jerry”, The Guardian, February 16, 1999. <https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/feb/16/features11.g22>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

24 Nick Clegg, “Don’t mention the war. Grow up”, The Guardian, 19 November 2002. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/19/eu.germany>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

25 Matthias Matussek, “Beethoven, Claudia Schiffer, Willy Brandt? No the British are only interested in Germany when it involved Nazis”, The Guardian, May 23, 2006. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/may/23/germany.comment>, accessed on April 16, 2021. See also Matthias Matussek, “British Obsessions: My Personal VE Day”, Spiegel International, May 11, 2005. <https://www.spiegel.de/international/british-obsessions-my-personal-ve-day-a-355605.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

26 Catherine MacMillan, “Reversing the Myth? Dystopian narratives of the EU in UKIP and Front National Discourse”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 2018, 117-132.

27 Ian Traynor, “Ukip MEP ejected for ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ jibe”, The Guardian, November 24, 2010. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/24/ukip-mep-ejected-godfrey-bloom>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

28 European Parliament, plenary session, March 11, 2015. <https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/CRE-8-2015-03-11-ITM-006_EN.html >, accessed on May 1, 2020.

29 European Parliament, plenary session, October 7, 2015. <https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/CRE-8-2015-10-07-ITM-013_EN.html>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

30 Asimina Michailidou, “‘The Germans are back’: Euroscepticism and anti-Germanism in crisis-stricken Greece”, National Identities, vol. 19, no. 1 (2017), 91-108; Eleonora Poli and Mark Valentiner, “From Albertini to Anti-Europeanism: Shades of Euroscepticism in Italy”, L’Europe en Formation, vol. 373, no. 3, 2014, 66-78.

31 See for example Edna Fernandes, “Better to die from a bullet than working: that is the mantra of pampered, lazy Greek rioters used to living off the state”, Daily Mail, May 10, 2010. <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1275454/Better-die-bullet-working-That-mantra-pampered-lazy-Greek-rioters-used-living-state.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Richard Littlejohn, “Springtime for Merkel”, Daily Mail, November 18, 2011. <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2062957/European-debt-crisis-Springtime-Angela-Merkel-starring-particular-order.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

32 David Wooding, “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Cameron?”, The Sun, June 29, 2014. <https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/politics/942654/who-do-you-think-you-are-kidding-mr-cameron/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

33 Dominic Lawson, “Is the EU just a German racket to take over Europe?”, Daily Mail, July 4, 2014. <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2680183/Is-EU-just-German-racket-Europe-Nearly-25-years-ago-Tory-minister-told-DOMINIC-LAWSON-lost-job-firestorm-followed-right-along.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

34 Bill Cash, “The EU has become an undemocratic German-dominated Europe”, Daily Telegraph, November 18, 2014. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/11237986/Bill-Cash-MP-The-EU-has-become-an-undemocratic-German-dominated-Europe.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

35 Brendan Simms, “Cracked heart of the old world”, New Statesman, March 14, 2013. <https://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/europe/2013/03/cracked-heart-old-world>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

36 Liam Fox, “Britain must learn from Germany”, Financial Times, May 15, 2012. <https://www.ft.com/content/22c1df7c-9e75-11e1-a24e-00144feabdc0>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Elizabeth Truss, “A decade of gains – Learning lessons from Germany”, Free Enterprise Group policy paper, 2012. <https://www.freeenterprise.org.uk/learning-lessons-from-germany/>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

37 See Andrew Knapp, “Historians for Britain in Europe – a Personal History”, Histoire@Politique, vol. 31, no. 1, 2017, 27-35.

38 Tom Newton Dunn, “Who do EU think you are kidding Mr Cameron?”, The Sun, April 6, 2016. <https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/politics/275289/who-do-eu-think-you-are-kidding-mr-cameron/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

39 Daily Mail Comment, “Who will speak for England?” Daily Mail, February 4, 2016. <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3430870/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-speak-England.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

40 Daily Mail Comment, “Is Germany calling the shots on the EU?”, Daily Mail, May 11, 2016. <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3584018/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-Germany-calling-shots-EU.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

41 See for example Leo McKinstry, “The EU has revealed its true nature: a federalist monster that will not stop until nations are abolished”, Daily Telegraph, April 7, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/07/the-eu-has-revealed-its-true-nature-a-federalist-monster-that-wi>/, accessed on April 16, 2021.

42 This tendency to use manufactured, post-war images of the Second World War rather than war itself was noted by Antony Beevor in 1999: “Tommy and Jerry”, The Guardian, February 16, 1999. <https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/feb/16/features11.g22>, accessed on April 16, 2021. On the influence of war films in shaping British “memory” of the war, see Geoff Eley, “Finding the people’s war: Film, British collective memory, and World War II”, The American Historical Review, vol. 106, no. 3, 2001, 818-838.

43 European Parliament, Plenary Session, Strasbourg, 13 December 2011. <https://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=CRE&reference=20111213&secondRef=ITEM-005&language=EN>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

44 Patrick Christys, “Ukip slammed as ‘bigots’ for blasting out Great Escape theme tune from Brexit battle bus”, Daily Express, May 30, 2016. <https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/675020/Ukip-Great-Escape-Brexit-bus-Europe-EU-Nigel-Farage>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

45 Jamie Macwhirter, “Nigel Farage shuts down Remainer: ‘It’s the great escape’”, Daily Express, June 12, 2018. <https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/972843/Brexit-news-Nigel-Farage-shuts-down-Remainer-brilliant-point-LBC-European-Union>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

46 Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate, just as Hitler did”, Daily Telegraph, May 15, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/14/boris-johnson-the-eu-wants-a-superstate-just-as-hitler-did/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

47 Boris Johnson, “There is only one way to get the change we want – vote to leave the EU”, Daily Telegraph, March 16, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2016/03/16/boris-johnson-exclusive-there-is-only-one-way-to-get-the-change/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

48 Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson interview: We can be the ‘heroes of Europe’ by voting to Leave”, Daily Telegraph, May 14, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/14/boris-johnson-interview-we-can-be-the-heroes-of-europe-by-voting/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

49 Philip Oltermann, “German politicians criticise Boris Johnson for EU-Hitler comments”, The Guardian, May 16, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/16/german-politicians-criticise-boris-johnson-for-eu-hitler-comments>, accessed on April 16, 2021. For a later, damning analysis see Richard J. Evans, “How the Brexiteers broke History”, New Statesman, November 14, 2018. <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/11/how-brexiteers-broke-history>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

50 Christopher Hope, “Brexit Tories back Boris Johnson, saying his EU Nazi Germany comparison was ‘historical analysis’”, Daily Telegraph, May 15, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/15/brexit-tories-back-boris-johnson-saying-his-eunazi-germany-compa>/, accessed on April 16, 2021.

51 Simon Heffer, “The Fourth Reich is here – without a shot being fired”, Daily Telegraph, May 15, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/15/the-fourth-reich-is-here---without-a-shot-being-fired/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

52 Dan Carrier, “Brexit ‘dummies’ blamed for anti-German motorway poster”, The Guardian, May 29, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/29/brexit-dummies-blamed-for-anti-german-motorway-poster>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

53 Hannah Furness, “Britain has ‘remorseless obsession with Nazi Germany, former British Museum director says”, Daily Telegraph, May 29, 2016. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/29/britain-has-remorseless-obsession-with-nazi-germany-former-briti/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

54 Richard J. Evans, “‘One man who made history’ by another who seems just to make it up: Boris on Churchill”, New Statesman, November 13, 2014. <https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2014/11/one-man-who-made-history-another-who-seems-just-make-it-boris-churchill>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Johnson himself was regularly compared to Churchill in the Eurosceptic press. See for example Steve Hawkes, Lynn Davidson, Harry Cole, “Boris Johnson urges Sun readers ‘with history in their hands’ to back Brexit”, The Sun, June 22, 2016. <https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1326774/boris-johnson-urges-sun-readers-with-history-in-their-hands-to-back-brexit/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

55 Henry Mance, “Cameron channels his inner-Churchill to banish Brexit foe”, Financial Times, June 20, 2016. <https://www.ft.com/content/c3aa9d28-3653-11e6-a780-b48ed7b6126f>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

56 Richard Toye, ‘Brexit: What would Winston Do?’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2020. <https://www.chronicle.com/paid-article/brexit-what-would-winston-do/144 >, accessed on 1 May 2020.

57 David Cameron, Speech on the UK’s strength and security in the EU, May 9, 2016. <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-on-the-uks-strength-and-security-in-the-eu-9-may-2016>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

58 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPX9MLALjAE>, accessed on May 1, 2020; see also Gordon Brown, “Leading not Leaving”, New Statesman, June 9, 2016: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/leading-not-leaving-gordon-brown-makes-poisitive-case-europe, accessed on April 18, 2021.

59 For a further example see Mirror Editorial, “Make the EU Referendum victory in Europe Day and vote Remain”, The Mirror, June 18, 2016. <https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/make-eu-referendum-victory-europe-8227505>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

60 Jill Treanor, “Richard Branson starts his own campaign to keep Britain in the EU”, The Guardian, June 20, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/20/richard-branson-starts-his-own-campaign-to-keep-britain-in-the-eu>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

61 See for example, Andrew Williams, “How valid is the claim that the EU has delivered peace in Europe?”, New Statesman, May 9, 2016. <https://www.newstatesman.com/world/2016/05/how-valid-claim-eu-has-delivered-peace-europe>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Ewen MacAskill, “Is David Cameron right that leaving EU could increase the risk of war?”, The Guardian, May 9, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/09/is-david-cameron-right-leaving-eu-brexit-increase-risk-war>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

62 “Boris Johnson’s speech on the EU Referendum”, Conservative Home website, May 9, 2016. <https://www.conservativehome.com/parliament/2016/05/boris-johnsons-speech-on-the-eu-referendum-full-text.html>, accessed on March 1, 2021.

63 Rowena Mason and Anushka Asthana, “Cameron: Gove has ‘lost it’ in comparing pro-EU economists to Nazis”, The Guardian, June 22, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/22/cameron-gove-has-lost-it-in-comparing-anti-brexit-economists-to-nazi-experts>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

64 Rowena Mason, “Tories divided by Boris Johnson’s EU-Hitler comparison”, The Guardian, May 16, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/16/tories-divided-by-boris-johnsons-eu-hitler-comparison>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

65 On the idea of Brexit as a nostalgic “retrotopia” see Paul Beaumont, “Brexit, Retrotopia and the perils of post-colonial delusions”, Global Affairs, vol. 3, no. 4-5, 2017, 379-390.

66 Lord Ashcroft, “How the United Kingdom Voted on Thursday…and Why”, Lord Ashcroft Polls, June 24, 2016. <http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/>, accessed on May 1, 2020. (Poll of 12,369 voters)

67 Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, London: Biteback Publishing, 2019.

68 Roch Dunin Wasowicz, “Britain’s wartime generation are almost as pro-EU as millenials”, LSE Blog, April 5, 2019 <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2019/04/05/britains-wartime-generation-are-almost-as-pro-eu-as-millennials/>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

69 “Brexit memo to Boris Johnson: Don’t mention the war”, BBC News website, 18 January 2017 <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38670349>, accessed on May 1, 2020. Journalist Frederick Studemann made a similar appeal: “Don’t mention the war in Britain’s Brexit negotiations”, Financial Times, April 8, 2019. <https://www.ft.com/content/41221714-59e1-11e9-9dde-7aedca0a081a>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

70 A notable exception was the extraordinary claim by Peter Hargreaves, a billionaire backer of the Leave campaign, that “insecurity is fantastic” and that Brexit would be wonderful as it would “be just like Dunkirk” Guardian Staff and agencies, “‘Like Dunkirk’: Brexit donor trumpets ‘fantastic insecurity’ of leaving EU”, The Guardian, May 12, 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/12/billionaire-brexit-donor-leaving-eu-like-dunkirk>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

71 David Maddox and Macer Hall, “We WON’T be bullied by EU: Britain’s top Brexit team invokes WW2 as they warn Brussels”, Daily Express, January 19, 2017. <https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/755985/david-davis-says-uk-wont-bullied-eu-brexit-team-invokes-ww2-warn-brussels>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

72 Jon Stratton, “The language of leaving: Brexit, the second world war and cultural trauma”, Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 23, no. 3, 2019, 225-251.

73 Zoe Williams, “Dunkirk offers a lesson but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks”, The Guardian, July 30, 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/30/dunkirk-lesson-nigel-farage-brexiters-war-stories-british>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

74 See among others Max Hastings, “Splendid Isolation”, The New York Review of Books, October 12, 2017. < https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/10/12/dunkirk-churchill-splendid-isolation/>, accessed on April 16, 2021. James Cooray Smith, “Nigel Farage’s love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII”, New Statesman, July 26, 2017. <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2017/07/nigel-farages-love-dunkirk-shows-how-brexiteers-learned-wrong-lessons-wwii>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Martha Gill, “British Wartime ‘Pluck’ is a modern invention: using it for Brexit is ludicrous”, Evening Standard, August 1, 2019. <https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/british-wartime-pluck-is-a-modern-invention-using-it-for-brexit-is-ludicrous-a4203336.html>, accessed on April 16, 2021. Christopher Smith, ‘Brexit is not World War Two. Politicians should Stop Comparing them’, The Conversation, February 14, 2019. <https://theconversation.com/brexit-is-not-world-war-ii-politicians-should-stop-comparing-them-111286>, accessed on May 1, 2020. Richard Davis, “Brexit and the lessons of history”, The Conversation, March 20, 2018. <https://theconversation.com/brexit-and-the-lessons-of-history-93513>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

75 Michael Safi and Patrick Wintour, “No. 10 defends Boris Johnson over ‘Brexit punishment beatings’ quip”, The Guardian, January 18, 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/18/boris-johnson-world-war-two-punishment-beatings-brexit-francois-hollande>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

76 David Davis, speech at the Institute of Chartered Engineers, February 4, 2016. <https://www.daviddavismp.com/david-davis-speech-on-brexit-at-the-institute-of-chartered-engineers/>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

77 Justin Huggler and Christopher Keller, “David Davis fails to convince German business leaders over Brexit free trade deal”, Daily Telegraph, November 17, 2017. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/11/17/david-davis-derided-german-business-leaders-british-gentleman/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

78 “Brexiter Tory MP Mark Francois accuses Airbus boss of ‘German bullying’”, BBC News Website, January 25, 2019. <https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-47004688/brexiter-tory-mp-mark-francois-accuses-airbus-boss-of-german-bullying>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

79 Philip Stephens, “Thatcher’s Fear of an Overmighty Germany lives on in Brexit”, Financial Times, October 24, 2019. <https://www.ft.com/content/fda99cbe-f576-11e9-b018-3ef8794b17c6>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

80 Nigel Farage, “Welcome to Vichy Britain, where the Brussels bully boys can do what they like to us”, Daily Telegraph, February 7, 2018. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/02/07/welcome-vichy-britain-brussels-bully-boys-can-do-like-us-brexit/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

81 Phillip Inman, “Mervyn King: Theresa May’s Brexit deal is like appeasement”, The Guardian, December 4, 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/dec/04/mervyn-king-theresa-may-brexit-deal-mark-carney>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

82 Matthew Weaver, “Theresa May will not be flying to Brussels in Spitfire, BBC clarifies”, The Guardian, January 31, 2019. <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/31/theresa-may-will-not-be-flying-to-brussels-in-spitfire-bbc-clarifies>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

83 Jack Maidment, “German ambassador accused of talking ‘rubbish’ after suggesting Second World War influenced Brexit vote”, Daily Telegraph, January 30, 2018. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/01/30/german-ambassador-accused-talking-rubbish-suggesting-second/> , accessed on April 16, 2021.

84 Leo McKinstry, “Germans hate us celebrating our glorious victory against Nazism because it reminds them of their own shameful past”, Daily Telegraph, January 30, 2018. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/01/30/german-ambassador-accused-talking-rubbish-suggesting-second/ >, accessed on April 16, 2021.

85 Daniel Kawczynski, “We need to talk about war reparations from Germany”, The House, June 4, 2018. <https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/we-need-to-talk-about-war-reparations-from-germany>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

86 < https://twitter.com/DKShrewsbury/status/1091728290337959936>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

87 Colin Drury, “Daniel Kawczynski: Tory MP finally admits being wrong about Britain not receiving US aid after Second World War”, The Independent, February 15, 2019. <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/daniel-kawczynski-second-world-war-us-aid-marshall-plan-twitter-apology-brexit-a8781361.htm>l, accessed on April 16, 2021.

88 Mattha Busby, “Arron Banks apologises for xenophobic tweet targeting Merkel”, The Guardian, October 9, 2019. <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/09/arron-banks-apologises-for-xenophobic-tweet-targeting-merkel>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

89 <https://twitter.com/john4brexit/status/1181833015338639367>, accessed on March 30, 2020.

90 <https://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/presenters/nigel-farage/nigel-farages-reaction-to-uk-and-eus-talks/> accessed on March 30, 2020.

91 Nigel Farage, “The only way to get Brexit done now is for Boris to back no deal”, Daily Telegraph, October 9, 2019. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/10/09/way-get-brexit-done-now-boris-back-no-deal/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

92 Rowena Mason and Peter Walker, “‘Surrender Act’: Johnson ignores calls to restrain his language”, The Guardian, September 29, 2019. < https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/29/ex-minister-rejects-allegations-rebels-colluded-with-eu-to-stop-no-deal>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

93 Camilla Tominey, “The war may have been won, but the question Brexiteers are now asking themselves is who will win the peace?”, Daily Telegraph, February 1, 2020. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/02/01/war-may-have-won-question-brexiteers-now-asking-will-win-peace/>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

94 Jim Pickard and Sebastian Payne, “‘The war is over, we have won’, declares jubilant Farage”, Financial Times, February 1, 2020. <https://www.ft.com/content/fd3df9ba-4480-11ea-abea-0c7a29cd66fe>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

95 Steve Anglesey, “‘All the lies about Leavers’ are painfully true, The New European, February 9, 2020. <https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/brexit-day-nigel-farage-leavers-true-colours-68182>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

96 < https://twitter.com/ByDonkeys/status/1223175366421946369>, accessed on May 1, 2020.

97 Critical interpretations of this rhetoric by British historians include Richard Overy “Why the cruel myth of the ‘Blitz spirit’ is no model to fight Coronavirus”, The Guardian, March 19, 2020. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/19/myth-blitz-spirit-model-coronavirus>, accessed on April 16, 2021. David Edgerton, “Why the coronavirus crisis should not be compared to the Second World War”, New Statesman, April 3, 2020. < https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2020/04/why-coronavirus-crisis-should-not-be-compared-second-world-war>, accessed on April 16, 2021.

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Thomas Williams, « Mobilizing the Past: Germany and the Second World War in Debates on Brexit »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 19-n°51 | 2021, document 2, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2021, consulté le 23 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/13019 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.13019

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Thomas Williams

Thomas Williams est maître de conférences en civilisation britannique à l’université d’Angers. Docteur en histoire contemporaine de l’université d’Oxford, il est membre du Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur les Patrimoines en Lettres et Langues (CIRPaLL, EA 7457). Ses recherches portent sur les usages politiques du passé, l’histoire du tourisme, et les relations entre la Grande-Bretagne et l’Europe continentale.

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