“A terribly difficult decision to make”: The memory of Second World War conscientious objection in Britain since 1945
University of Brighton
Year of enrolment: 2019
As the historian Linsey Robb recently observed, “the Second World War British conscientious objector has, to a remarkable degree, been omitted from both the popular narrative and the historiography of Britain’s war experience” (2018). The 60,000 who refused to fight do not fit with the British public memory of the ‘Good War’, in which the country pulled together to defeat an evil fascist dictatorship. According to popular memory theorists, this dominant representation of the war has resulted in the muting on the public stage of alternative memories. (Dawson and West, 1984). The main focus for my project will thus be: in what ways has conscientious objection been remembered since 1945?
The critical literature on Second World War conscientious objection is scarce, but the historiography has recently changed in complexion. Although it is accepted that conscientious objectors (COs) were shown greater tolerance than their predecessors in the First World War, recent work has highlighted the challenges they still faced, both external, such as negative press treatment (Luckhurst, 2015) and internal – ‘caught in a web of moral obligations’ (Kelly, 2015). However, no study has explored the cultural memory of Second World War conscientious objection in Britain.My project will draw upon COs’ life histories in two forms: published autobiographies and oral history interviews held at the Imperial War Museum. Both are significant pools of source material that have not been subject to sufficient critical analysis. I will also undertake interviews with descendants of COs. From this research, I will assess the long-term and continuing impact of the decision to refuse to fight. Taking a cultural memory approach, I will also explore the interrelationship between the dominant narrative of the war and the personal memories of COs. Overall, this will be radical history project, which recognises the political implications of memory.