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   ©Cercles Feb. 2004


Great Britain, the United States, France and the two World Wars

Kenneth O. Morgan**

In a famous speech to the French National Assembly, Winston Churchill declared: ‘Prenez garde: je vais parler français’. In fact, Churchill’s command of the French language was stronger than he liked to pretend. But I borrow his observation in Rouen this morning. This is the first time that I have ever given a lecture in French. After hearing it, you may hope it would be my last! Nevertheless I would wish to say what an honour it is to be asked to give the inaugural lecture of the Rouen graduate school. It is a distinction for me, and also, I would like to think, an honour for the historians of Wales. Much imaginative historical work has been done in Wales in the 45 years since I became a university lecturer. In some ways it is rather different from history that is written in England. Some of it draws on the work of French social historians, for instance of the Annales school, as mediated by that remarkable English historian of France, Richard Cobb. At any rate I feel privileged to be here, formally linked with your university and scholars like my old friend, that unique symbol of the Entente Cordiale, Antoine Capet.

In this lecture, I thought I would focus on aspects of importance to all historical researchers everywhere. I wanted to underline the value of comparative approaches, national, social, cultural, to give depth and context to one's historical inquiry. I also wanted to look at the intrinsic quality of history, its relationship with memory, legend and myth, in contrast to its secure positivism when I began work nearly half a century ago. After some thought, it seemed to me that an ideal starting-point would be the famous project of a French historian, Pierre Nora, setting down in seven massive volumes the notion of 'lieux de mémoire' ('sites of memory' in English). This is not because I am lecturing to a French audience, but because Nora's seminal work, which has attracted a great deal of interest amongst British scholars, raises issues central to my concerns. He has written on how sites of memory, perhaps the remembrance of places or locations or events, of traditions, conflicts or political or cultural symbols, settle and colonize among a people, to the extent that received memory tends to fragment or even displace the actual history and the archival and other material on which it is based. Nora talks of 'the acceleration of history' as memories of all kinds advance and contend. The sites may be memories of people, places or events, of traditions, conflicts or symbols. They may range from the Jansenists to Marcel Proust, from the Marseillaise to the Tour de France. Memory serves to validate the present day; it relates as much to a society's present and future as to its past. It illustrates the famous paradoxical observation that you remember the future, and imagine the past.

I want to focus Nora's analysis particularly on three great nations in the 20th century – Great Britain, on which I have largely focussed in my books; the United States, on which I have also done research and taught extensively in several countries; and – with trepidation – a little on France. I have never done primary research or written on French history, but I always found it exceptionally fascinating as a teacher at Oxford. So, to adapt Churchill again, 'prenez garde – je vais parler de l'histoire française'.

The sites of memory in all three countries are distinct and operate at various levels, including the sub-conscious. In the four nations of Britain it includes both images of empire and legends of the liberties of free-born Englishmen – like trial by jury, sanctified in Magna Carta in 1215 and now under some threat from our government. In the United States, there are images of individualism dating from the earliest colonial experience and the expanding frontier, and, externally, myths of Manifest Destiny which help to shape distinctively American sites of memory. In France, one overriding site of memory, of course, is the Revolution and the many-sided loyalties and tensions that it continues to leave – although people in 1789 had their own sites of memory going back to Merovingian Gaul, just as French children later cherished the saga of Asterix.

But in the twentieth century the dominant image in all three countries is the image of war. Great Britain, a comparatively peaceful country since the 'Glorious' bloodless Revolution of 1688 has been dominated by memories of two world wars. Its two most famous prime ministers are those of 1916 and 1940, Lloyd George and Churchill. The first world war especially is still an inspiration for novelists like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. Remembrance Day in November, when the dead of two world wars are commemorated with a minute of silence, retains a unique emotional appeal. The United States has reacted more indirectly to its involvement in world war. In 1917 and 1941 it joined in when the conflict was well under way. But the second world war, memories of Pearl Harbour and Omaha beach are still powerful in the American consciousness in a way not replicated elsewhere. France was shaped, almost redefined in some ways, by images of Verdun in the first war, and its liberation from foreign occupation in the second. The cults of Pétain and of de Gaulle in each war were an enduring force.

I believe that these sites of public memory (far more than military sites, of course) go a long way to illuminating the recent histories of each country, the mobilizing of their past to shape the future. This is evident even in this year of 2003. During the war in Iraq, each nation interpreted its role in different terms. The British (or rather the Blair government since two-thirds of public opinion was opposed) saw it as a renewal of the Anglo-American 'special relationship' in freeing the world from a tyrant; the Americans saw it as a kind of action replay of Pearl Harbour and used their public memory to justify a kind of moral unilateralism; the French saw it as an occasion for reasserting their philosophy of international law and European leadership – it is instructive that the French foreign minister, M. de Villepin, is the author of a historical work on Napoleon. While the British government saw the US alliance as the precondition for being a bridge to Europe, the French from de Gaulle onwards have seen this as a contradiction. All three countries responded in different ways to episodes in the Iraq conflict. When the statues of Saddam Hussein were destroyed in Baghdad, the Americans recalled the liberating experience of the smashing of the Berlin wall. The French were less impressed, perhaps recalling episodes such as the destruction of Napoleon's statue in the Place Vendôme in Paris in 1871; after this, the painter Gustave Courbet was prosecuted for desecrating 'a nation's memories' – under the Commune, two sites of memory, the Bonapartist and the internationalist, were in conflict. The British were simply bemused – nobody tries to destroy public monuments in Britain, unless one includes the young art critic who decapitated an exhibited statue of Mrs. Thatcher.

The First World War as a site of memory is overwhelmingly powerful in all three countries. The impact has been negative in all three, in ways that go far beyond the appalling impact of the loss of human life. It is symbolized by those thousands of moving memorials in tiny French communities, and has generated new historical works on public 'sites of mourning' in England and Wales. In the United Kingdom, the war left memories not of military success, but of sorrow, shame and disgust. Indeed the American literary historian Paul Fussell has asked whether we do not have to recast our language in order to do justice to its horror. This mood of revulsion has continued over the decades from the impact of war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon during the Great War itself to Joan Littlewood's satirical production, Oh, what a Lovely War, in the 1960s.

It is seen as a war without heroes. The Generals have been condemned for inhumanity and stupidity – the British soldiers in the famous phrase were 'lions led by donkeys'. No British general or admiral comes well out of the war, save perhaps for General Allenby, who commanded not in France but in Palestine and under whom my own father served in 1917-18. The politicians also came badly out of the war. Churchill was tarred for twenty years with the disaster of Gallipoli. Lloyd George, the victorious prime minister, was linked with public crookedness and a punitive peace. The tide of opinion turned against war, even during the peace conference in Paris in the spring and summer of 1919. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were condemned by Keynes that autumn in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which saw in Versailles the product of crude vengeance, and the root cause of post-war economic instability and national conflict. The main histories after 1918 were written by anti-war critics in the Union of Democratic Control, men like Norman Angell, Lowes Dickinson, G.P. Gooch and Bertrand Russell, and they set the tone for a generation.

Doubts about the war were reflected in the debates over its public monument. In the end, Edwin Lutyens, the architect who designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, as he did the arch of remembrance at Thiepval, insisted that it should be 'a cenotaph, not a catafalque', not a triumphalist memorial to unknown soldiers in general but a tribute to individual tragedy and suffering. The Cabinet was forced to locate the Cenotaph not in a central square like Piccadilly Circus but in a working street like Whitehall, the home of British government. Hundreds of war memorials up and down the land offered their own individual statement on the tragedy of 1914 - 1918 for the missing generation of British young men.

After the war, the Great War was almost universally unpopular in public recollection. The Labour Party, saw it as marking the triumph of capitalism, 'hard-faced men' (as Keynes described them, quoting Stanley Baldwin, profiteers and industrialists who betrayed the dreams of a land fit for the returning heroes to live in). Conversely, Conservatives saw in the war not the triumph of capitalism but of state socialism, with a semi-presidential adventurer like Lloyd George flouting the constitutional system. In practice, the war may not have been quite as bad as that. I have argued in my own book, Consensus and Disunity, that the Lloyd George coalition government in 1919-22 had in some ways a reasonable record, with some social reform, and a sustained attempt to bring peace to Ireland, India and continental Europe. It helped ensure public stability between the wars. But the prevailing mood, even before Lloyd George fell from power in October 1922, was one of failure, betrayal, class war.

The appeasement policy pursued by the British government in the thirties down to Munich and beyond, was testimony to received memory of the Great War. Munich, A.J.P. Taylor has suggested provocatively, was 'a triumph for all that was best in British life', namely the influence of the anti-war radicals of 1919. There were, of course, variations in the different nations of the British Isles. For Wales, memories of war combined pride in the first Welsh prime minister with a social and political disestablishment which saw the old landed society and the pre-war Liberal ascendancy give way to a new Labour hegemony. In Scotland, the Clydeside group of left-wing MPs was testimony to the transfer of Irish voters in Glasgow from Irish Nationalism to the Labour Party. In Ireland, of course, the war saw a new era – the rise of Sinn Fein and the IRA, southern Ireland gaining self-government. But in all three the prevailing feeling was one of disgust also. In Ireland, for instance, the war which brought home rule for 26 of the 32 counties also brought the 'troubles', war between the British army and the Irish Republicans, a last violent manifestation of imperial rule by the master race. Roy Foster has called the historical neglect of those Irishmen who enlisted in the British army in 1914 a case of 'therapeutic voluntary amnesia', as in the case of W.B. Yeats.

In the United States, the negativity of war memories became even more marked. The entry into war was seen as a great aberration, just as the annexation of Cuba and the Philippines had been in 1898 for a supposedly anti-imperialist country. The Americans rejected 100 years of non-intervention only reluctantly in 1917. They fought as an 'associate power' distanced from their European allies. The war was sold to Americans as a war for universal values, a war to end war. Their meagre satisfaction at victory was emphasized when Woodrow Wilson's Democratic Party lost control of Congress in the mid-term elections of November 1918. At Paris and Versailles, Americans felt their country was being cheated by the old European imperialists, led by Clemenceau and Lloyd George, and deceived into undertaking new international obligations. After bitter debate, the American Senate rejected the League of Nations, and America largely committed itself to a fringe role in world affairs for the indefinite future. On all sides, the image of the first world war in the national memory was overwhelmingly negative. It led to a reaffirmation of the old Anglo-Saxon values to safeguard the American people against new immigrants and new ideas. Two major domestic consequences were the huge restriction of immigration through racial quotas, to keep out Catholics, Jews and Orientals, and the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic drink. Both were victories for the old rural America against the new. Similarly, pre-war radicals like the Progressive 'Fighting Bob' La Follette or the Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, were proscribed or imprisoned in the ‘Red Scare’ mentality of the post-war years. War had threatened social change and the American people did not like it. The 1920s were a deeply conservative era, marked in foreign policy by an outlook of extreme isolationism towards Europe. Nor was this confined to Republican presidents like Coolidge and Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt began his presidency in 1933 by torpedoing the World Economic Conference, a clear sign that the US would pursue its own route to economic recovery by raising prices.

In the thirties, the hostility of the United States to everything that the war represented reached new heights. The US Senate's Nye Committee of 1935 claimed that the American people had been deceived into joining a foreigners' war by economic interests, and by 'merchants of death' who wanted war to boost profits from manufacture and sale of armaments. Their arguments were endorsed by the historian Charles Beard, denouncing the war (which he supported at the time) as an plot by big business to save the US economy by military spending, and ridiculed the notion of 'the national interest'. He saw Franklin D. Roosevelt as showing dangerous tendencies to deceive the people in the same way.

In the 1930s, the American people drew on sites of memory to rejoice that their boys were no longer 'Over There' . A series of Neutrality Acts kept the US safely isolated from conflicts in Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. As in 1916, the American people were 'too proud to fight'. Even after war broke out again in 1939 there was no expectation that the Americans need be involved. Indeed, Roosevelt won a third term as president in the 1940 election by promising that American troops would never again fight in 'foreign wars' (as he carefully phrased it). Nobody came well out of the first world war, according to American commentators – not the generals, not president Wilson, regarded as an impractical idealist, certainly not perfidious allies across the ocean. There was only one war hero in 1919 and he was a civilian – Herbert Hoover, in charge of the European Food Programme, and praised by no less a critic than John Maynard Keynes. But Hoover's temporary fame did not survive the slump. I recall seeing him appear on an old newsreel in a Manhattan cinema in 1963 – and the audience of New Yorkers rose up and booed.

In France, the images of the first world war were perhaps the most negative and painful of all. A sense of cultural disillusion took sharply political form. There was, of course, deep pride in the nation and in the citizen army which had saved the republic. The republic itself had gained new legitimacy as a symbol of unity, after painful battles over Dreyfus or the Church. But the dominant public image, the ultimate site of memory, was that of Verdun. It was a battle for self-defence, as the Somme or Passchendaele could not be for the British. But it was also a universal symbol of senseless slaughter, exemplified by the 'ossuary' of anonymous piled-up bones on the field of battle, without reason and without dignity. The legend of Verdun continued to grow after 1945, not least because de Gaulle himself was a survivor of Verdun (like de Lattre de Tassigny). The one hero of the years after 1918 was the leader at Verdun, Marshal Pétain, custodian of 'La France profonde' and its traditional values, and also the voice for a defensive stance behind the security of the Maginot line. Beyond him, the war conveyed images of a divided and self-destructing people. French workers rebelled against the capitalist order the war had reinforced, and created the most powerful Communist Party outside Russia. French patriotism gave way to workers' solidarity; for a time the Marseillaise lost its symbolic popularity in favour of the Internationale. The Popular Front was ambiguous over attitude to wartime sites of memory. While Blum spoke of republican solidarity, Thorez declared how the post-war spoils had gone to the hated 'two hundred families'. Charles Péguy wrote of things beginning in 'la mystique' and ending in 'la politique'. One sometimes feels that in France during the inter-war years it was almost the other way around.

Meanwhile writers like Barbusse, Giraudoux, or Céline preached a pacifist/socialist revolt against war, to which even a young intellectual like Raymond Aron subscribed. A generation of French schoolteachers, most of them on the left and members of a profession who had lost a uniquely high proportion of casualties on the battlefield, taught their pupils about the futility and wickedness of war, the first world war in particular. On the political right, polemicists like Maurras spoke of postwar betrayal, and the failure to defend France against the kind of invasion which had taken place in 1870. Eugen Weber has spoken of the 1930s in France as 'the hollow years' in which social energies were largely paralysed, in which political leaders embraced the appeasement of the Munich period, and in which right-wing financiers declared 'better Hitler than Blum.' In defending the nation so badly in 1940, when political considerations helped determine how men felt towards generals like Gamelin or Weygand, France revealed to the world the abiding influence of memories and myths of twenty years earlier. A tormented nation could only turn back to the 84-year-old hero of Verdun to invent and celebrate different memories, not of ‘Liberty, Equality or Fraternity’, but of ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’.

The Second World War occupies a wholly different site of memory. In Britain it was always contrasted with the 1914 war as a good war in which the people were united and had faith in their leaders. Wartime images are central to the British psyche and the sense of national identity. 1940 in particular has become a kind of national apocalypse, when Britain fought alone against fascism, and continental Europe capitulated or collaborated. Dunkirk in particular, a great defeat, is identified with Britain's will for victory by a versatile people who used fishing boats and pleasure steamers to get the boys back home. It is ironic that Dunkirk, a heroic concept in Britain, is widely regarded in France as a symbol of perfidious Albion leaving the French to their own devices and the mercies of the Wehrmacht.

The Battle of Britain is an even more evocative symbol – the pilots (many of whom were Canadian, Polish or Czech) are seen as clean-cut British boys, their Spitfires the heirs of Drake's galleons repelling the Spanish Armada. The Battle of Britain – along with epics such as the battle of the River Plate, the bombing raids of the Dambusters or the Desert Rats at Alamein – has become a staple of the film culture. I do not know what French families look at on television at Christmas, but in Britain people settle down after their large lunch (and the Queen's Christmas broadcast) to enjoy seeing their boys sink the Bismarck, defend the bridge over the River Kwai or escape from Colditz. The most popular long-running comedy serial was Dad’s Army, a humorous account of the amateurism of the British Home Guard. Also popular was Allo, Allo, an account of the absurdities of the comic French and Germans during the wartime occupation.

The war has been handed down in memory as in every sense as a good war. The people were supposedly united as never before after the class divisions of pre-war unemployment. The evacuation of schoolchildren from cities to other parts of the country, the common suffering of the London Blitz, are seen as marking a new sense of community. Henry Moore's sketches of citizens huddling together in wartime underground stations to escape the Luftwaffe's bombing at night vividly evoke that feeling. I understand and share that memory. I recall the night in October 1944 when our little home in North London was damaged by a V1 rocket. It makes my own reactions to, say, September 11th somewhat different from those of American friends, though I hope not less human.

The war was also thought to embody the best of British values, enduring, perhaps mainly English values. Vera Lynn sang of bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover, or nightingales singing in Berkeley Square. Both in south-east England, you may note – not too many of those birds seemed to make it to Clydeside or the Rhondda valley, which may be why Scottish and Welsh feelings about the war mood sometimes diverge. On the radio, the playwright J.B. Priestley voiced a new populism. The mood is exemplified, of course, by the wartime titan, Winston Churchill, the subject of biography after biography, increasingly uncritical, and recently voted the greatest ever Briton, leaving Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin trailing in his wake. It is embodied also in the socialist patriot George Orwell, whose Lion and the Unicorn evokes the British countryside and village green, later plagiarized in a speech by John Major. The art of the war – paintings by John Piper or Graham Sutherland, Eliot's Four Quartets – testify to enduring rural images. The war artist Paul Nash, whose paintings in 1917 evoked the muddy misery of the trenches, focussed in 1940 on the mystical beauty of the English countryside, almost enhanced by the warring aeroplanes manoeuvring overhead. Another cult figure was the elderly social scientist William Beveridge, whose famous report on Social Insurance in 1942 sold 630,000 copies. It implied that this time there would a better world and the heroes would not be betrayed. The materials used in the Army Bureau of Current Affairs classes, to instruct servicemen at the front or on the high seas reveal a land at ease with its own sites of memory – a peaceful neighbourly country proud of Queen and imperial Parliament, strong in its sense of national identity, secure in its civil liberties (including trial by jury).

The war was almost universally hailed from that time as a unique moment in history, a war for all seasons and for all parties. Conservatives, of course, treasured the ambiguous cult of Churchill and saw Britain as perhaps for the last time one of the 'big three', victorious against foreign enemies as in the days of Wellington or Nelson. Centrist Liberals could celebrate Beveridge and my old friend Sir Oliver Franks, provost of Queen's College, a key wartime civil servant and later the most important British ambassador to the United States. But the war was even more important for the Labour Party in creating a new sense of social citizenship, of the general will. The fact that Labour under Clement Attlee triumphed over the warlord Churchill in the 1945 general election confirmed that here indeed, unlike 1914-18, was a 'people's war'. Labour continued to exploit wartime memories under successive leaders from Wilson (a bureaucrat under Beveridge) through Callaghan (a serving naval officer) to Michael Foot (a wartime editor famous for the tract Guilty Men).

As with all sites of memory, myth and misinterpretation intermingled. The war had other, harsher aspects. Its patriotic citizenship cannot be easily reconciled with private profiteering on the 'black market'. There was reluctance to modernize the economy or reform the unwritten constitution. Above all – a theme to which I shall return – the memory of the war emphasized a sense of distance from Europe, a pride in isolation evident in a coolness towards the continent from the Schuman Plan down to Maastricht. Memories of war (like memories of football) are commonly used to fan Europhobia, especially anti-Germanism. This is a highly negative aspect of the war in defining the British self-image. More positively, this self-image created a new vision of British women – real women not the cult of womanhood in general. The only female icon in 1914-18 was Nurse Cavell, executed by the Germans for aiding prisoners to escape, a symbol for the nursing profession and for women's traditional role. In 1939-45 there were other icons – Dame Vera Lynn, the radio 'forces sweetheart', and the Queen Mother, whose funeral provoked national mourning last year. To understand the mysterious survival of the royal family in modern Britain, one need only look at old newsreels of the Queen Mother striding through the rubble of Buckingham Palace after an air-raid. 'Now we can look the East Enders in the face', she observed. Our royal family, unlike the Belgian, are remembered for having stayed at home and faced danger.

These, then, are components of the site of memory embodied in the Second World War – national unity and (to use a Marxist term) historic necessity. In trying to persuade the British people how to respond to Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair focussed repeatedly on Churchill and the war, Munich, comparisons of Saddam with Hitler, and winning victory with our historic American allies.

Britain is the most obvious example of the second world war colonising its present and future. The Americans have done so, more belatedly. Even in mid-1941 most Americans had no wish to participate in the war, though a wartime film like Mrs. Miniver – a saga of a British family during the blitz, with the heroine played by an American actress, Greer Garson – helped to generate a new mood amongst citizens of Anglo-Saxon stock. But this time things were different. Pearl Harbour had a shock effect in kindling a sense of national vulnerability to outside attack, quite absent in 1917. A new generation of military heroes was created – MacArthur, the ruler of post-war Japan; Marshall, a great Secretary of State; and of course Eisenhower, who became president. He maintained personal links with his British allies, even though he studiously ignored all Churchill's pressures for a summit conference with the Russians and was later much irritated by Montgomery's war memoirs. Presidential candidates drew attention to their wartime exploits – Kennedy and destroyer PT109, Jimmy Carter in the navy, George Bush senior in fighter aircraft. The first ex-serviceman not to refer particularly to his war service was a genuine hero, Robert Dole, the Republican candidate in 1996 because this would draw attention to his great age!

Unlike after 1918, the view prevailed that involvement in world war was essential for America's long-term national interests. As long as the Soviet Union and international communism were deemed to be threats, then overseas commitment, via NATO or the Marshall Plan, was inevitable, to defend America. There was no reversion to isolationism after 1945; indeed America's international commitment seemed to many unduly aggressive, especially in Vietnam. After that, figures like Henry Kissinger still endorsed international collaboration, especially with Britain. Even George Bush junior, who had avoided conscription during the

Vietnam War, keeps ancestral memories warm with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk.
By the 1990s, however, war memories were pulling the US in a different direction. The emphasis now was on Americans saving the world on their own. The film Saving Private Ryan ignored the presence of British and Commonwealth, let alone French troops, in the landings on the Normandy beachheads. The feeling now was that the Europeans these American GIs had liberated were not very grateful about it. Unilateralism in defence of national interests had always been a theme in post-1945 American foreign policy – note Eisenhower's attack on the Lebanon in 1957 or the war in Vietnam. By the time of the Iraq war this year, with the cold war a distant memory, memories of 1941 were being used to justify unilateral policies by the one superpower, over the environment, biological weapons or an international criminal court. The second world war had been used by American governments to keep in touch with Europe after 1945. Now it was used as a reason for steering clear of it and the UN. Even the alliance with Britain was more and more marginal. It is instructive that the segment of American opinion least in favour of a war with Iraq was the generation which could remember the second world war, including those who had fought in it.

In France, memories of the war were the most mixed of all. Whereas the war for Great Britain, and for a long while for the Americans, was seen as fount of unity, it left France unhappy and divided. Vichy, one of Nora's key 'lieux', was an ambiguous concept for French people, perhaps seen as a way of safeguarding the integrity of part of the nation against collaboration, but also with a much darker side including anti-semitism. The political history of France in 1940-44 was left for long unexplored in France. It became increasingly clear that Vichy contained a myriad of themes and tensions, as perhaps the complex career of François Mitterrand, or even in some ways a martyr like Jean Moulin demonstrates. The veil was removed most dramatically in France not by historians but by Ophuls' film Le Chagrin et la Pitié shown on television in 1981, twelve years after it was made.

The site of memory embodied in the second world war left two inspirational traditions for the French people. They were in basic conflict with each other, and yet each saw the liberation of France as essentially achieved by the French themselves as a united people, rather than by the Anglo Saxon powers. There is the populist, mainly left-wing memory of the Resistance, especially of the Maquis to whom the Communists have laid sole claim. There was a strong tendency to equate the resistance to the Nazis and Vichy with them alone. The Maquis were a new site of civic republican memory to which the radical background of a revered intellectual like Péguy could be attached. A historian like Henri Michel, the biographer of Jean Moulin, was prominent in this. Alternatively, there was the memory of de Gaulle and of the Free French, the latter a somewhat complicated memory since they had operated outside the territory of France itself. If this appealed also to the memory of Péguy, it was to Péguy the Catholic nationalist and disciple of the values of the eternal France.

De Gaulle himself was for long reluctant to acknowledge the role of the Resistance or its leaders. The two memories of wartime liberation were kept carefully apart. It was thus part of de Gaulle's quest to build a new, contemporary unified French nation in that in 1964, despite criticism on the right, he had the remains of Jean Moulin transferred to the Panthéon. De Gaulle and his followers kept the memory of war alive, but less as an inspiration than as a warning. Not for him fond recollections of alliance with the Americans. When he was kept hanging around in Washington by Roosevelt in 1940, someone suggested that he might like to visit General Pershing, the US commander in France in 1918, who was now in an old people's home. When he met de Gaulle, his old eyes lit up. 'What', he asked, 'is my old friend Marshal Pétain doing nowadays?'. Not a successful meeting. For de Gaulle the moral of war was totally different, a hymn not to the traditional values of an introverted France, but to a dynamic France modernized by economic growth and technocracy, not to a France cowering behind a Maginot line but one seeking geopolitical leadership. For de Gaulle, 'vive la République' was a contemporary message. The logic of war for de Gaulle and his successors was an effective, united Europe, which unlike NATO, was not under American domination. Hence the almost total mutual lack of comprehension between the British and French governments in the Iraq war. It was a conflict of memories as well as of strategies.

It is clear that Great Britain, the United States and France all reflect different images of war, and that this continues down to the present time. But where precisely do they come from? Of course, they embody a variety of elements drawn from the distinct historical experience of the three nations. But they are also in part the work of historians. They show the possible pitfalls as well as the opportunities for the historian. It may not be the most obviously appropriate note for my address today. But the mixed memories generated by world war, often with dubious hints about 'the lessons of history' in England, are partly the work of historians themselves. History, in my opinion, is absolutely essential to human self-understanding – but, like cigarettes, it should come with a government health warning.

In Great Britain, history after 1918, as we have seen, was largely dominated by writers associated with the anti-war Union of Democratic Control. Books like Norman Angell's International Anarchy or H.N. Brailsford's War of Steel and Gold dominated the reading-matter on the great war for almost a generation. They denounced 'secret treaties' or the 'system of Versailles'. A negative view of the war was also fostered by the memoirs of those who took part in it, especially those of Lloyd George, who was much helped by that trenchant critic of generals, Liddell Hart. If history writing after 1918 was inspired by guilt, history after 1945 was shaped by triumphalism – the sub-Napoleonic epics of Arthur Bryant (an Honorary fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, like me, though, alas!, an anti-semite and a sympathizer with Franco), the social history of G.M. Trevelyan, hailing the eternal values of the English yeoman, and of course the works of the warrior hero himself, Winston Churchill. With his rich, if romantic, sense of British history and the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Churchill as author did more than any man to paint the war in bold, simplistic colours. Appeasers like Baldwin and Chamberlain are damned for ever; his own role as a man of destiny is emphasized in language of prophetic majesty. Tony Blair, who has no interest in history, was much affected by Churchillian rhetoric. Last March, he spoke of Neville Chamberlain and the historic choices confronting Britain in the thirties. 'History will be our judge' declared this postmodernist premier during the Iraq war. This was popular with traditional Labour audiences since Labour was not only custodian of the idea of a 'people's war' in 1939, but also of the idea of a 'special relationship' which dated, after all, really from the time of Attlee in 1945.

In the United States, as we have seen, left-wing or perhaps merely isolationist historians helped to perpetuate negative images of the first world war. Charles Beard, a leading authority on the making of the constitution-makers in 1787, led the way in furious assaults on US involvement in 'foreign wars', actual under Wilson and prospectively Roosevelt, whom he later accused later of inciting the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour which the government had actually anticipated. After the war, Beard claimed that Truman was seeking another Pearl Harbour in Palestine. But equally, while they have included great war historians like Arthur Marder, American historians have latterly played a part in glamorizing the second world war as a site of memory.

A key author here is the late Stephen Ambrose, whose studies of President Eisenhower led him on into writing patriotic and emotional studies of American participation in the second world war. His 36 books included many repetitive works on the US army in wartime (he was later accused of plagiarising the work of other historians – certainly he plagiarised himself). His Band of Brothers (1992) was made into a popular television series. His D Day (1994) was the basis for Stephen Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan, for which Ambrose acted as historical consultant. His books celebrated the young GIs (oral testimony acted as a major source for Ambrose's writings). 'The GIs believed in their cause. They knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it', Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers (1997). Ambrose also spread a view that the Americans won the war largely on their own, with little help from their allies. Saving Private Ryan is a hymn to the American soldier alone; Citizen Soldiers contains just four index references to British forces in the Normandy invasions. His impact on American politicians was immense. George Bush senior called him 'one of the greatest historians of his or any other time'. Ambrose was compared with Thucydides. His writings, widely cited during the Iraq war, fuelled a mood of unilateralism. From Bayeux to Baghdad, the message has been the same as some American historians offer their historical vision via the prism of the present.

French historians have also been influential here, indeed perhaps more rooted in the conflicts they describe than those of Britain or the US. Historians and left-wing teachers played a powerful role in kindling a negative view of the first world war, the image of Verdun as a moment of metaphysical unity, but also of a futile betrayal. After 1945, much historical effort focussed on the Resistance through the Comité d'histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale in works of sustained scholarship. They emphasized a Manichean view of the Vichy regime, the anti-republican 'other' against which resistance partisans took up arms. Objective and detailed examination of the Vichy regime itself took longer. In part, foreign historians led the way, as in the American Robert Paxton's Vichy France of 1972 (which sold 60,000 copies) and latterly British historians like H.R. Kedward, Robert Gildea and Julian Jackson in his The Dark Years. More recently, the role of de Gaulle has been an overarching theme, seen as linking the historic destiny of 'a certain idea of France' with moral leadership in Europe. M. de Villepin as a student of Bonapartism no doubt adds his own perspectives. In the 1990s historical attention switched back to the Resistance once again. The ongoing debates on wartime France have resulted in perhaps the 1940s replacing the 1790s as the most intensely researched era of modern French history.

The work of French historians shows the role that historians, as scholar-citizens, can play in driving memory on, linking the received past and the future. But perhaps it should also show how historians can play a key public role by harnessing their professionalism to a sensitivity for public memory. Some may promote stereotypes, but many more are now educating their nation on the realities and the complexities of wartime France. Indeed, work on both world wars is important in Pierre Nora's own massive achievement. In France and elsewhere, historians are helping their fellow citizens to think beyond the self-perpetuating, self-referencing images of war, striking a new balance between memory and history. As Nora puts it, 'Memory dictates and History writes'.

I finish with the case of Britain. Beyond the propaganda, the first world war also produced real history – those documentary resources published by the Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. Second world war historiography is bypassing Churchillian triumphalism with new archival scholarship, as with my old Queen's colleague and friend, Alastair Parker, in his studies of Chamberlain, Churchill and appeasement. Historians are using new approaches to challenge and confront folk memory, creating new 'lieux d'histoire' perhaps, as an alternative. Across the Irish Sea, historians have opposed turning pivotal sites in Irish history into a kind of prophetic pageant, as in the celebration in 1995 of the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine, the phenomenon ironically known as 'faminism'. In Britain, scholars are helping us to re-assess, to refine memory with fact, and thereby to come to terms with victory as other peoples have come to terms with defeat. The British have long prided themselves, perhaps with justice, on a record of liberating other peoples. Maybe, with intellectual help from friends in the Entente Cordiale, they can now turn to liberating themselves.

*A French version (available on-line on Cercles http://www.cercles.com/actors/morgan.html) was given by Lord Morgan as the Inaugural Lecture of the Arts & Humanities Graduate School, Rouen, Maison de l’Université, 29 November 2003. An abbreviated oral presentation of this English text was made in the ‘Cross-Channel Perceptions of 20th Century Conflicts’ Workshop, Annual Conference of the Social History Society, Rouen University, 10 January 2004.

**Kenneth O. Morgan (Baron Morgan of Aberdyfi), D.Litt. (Oxon.), D.Litt (Wales), Fellow of the British Academy, Honorary Fellow of The Queen’s and Oriel Colleges, Oxford, Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales.