The Use and Abuse of History: Why the 1940s Remain the Go-To Decade of Choice for Western Political Actors

30 01 2017

I’ve been fascinated to see how the past has been used (and abused) by political actors in the Age of Trump. I suspect that this fascination is shared by many use-of-the-past/social memory scholars. History has been used by both Mr. Trump and his allies and his opponents: Trump’s supporters in the US and the hard, pro-US right in the UK were pleased when Trump restored a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. (The fact that Churchill supported British membership in a United States of Europe was conveniently ignored). As I showed a few days ago, there were many historical references in the first wave of anti-Trump marches, which were led by women. While some of these historical references related to earlier periods of history (such as the struggle for women’s suffrage in the 1910s) many have focused on the years surrounding the Second World War. Consider how the memory of this period is being used:

  1. Churchill’s bust is in the White House because of his wartime leadership, not because of anything he did before or later
  2. Theresa May’s appeasement of Trump has been associated, via Photoshop, with the policies of Neville Chamberlain in the #TheresaAppeaser meme
  3. Sales of 1984, a book written  in the 1940s, surged in the days following the Trump administration’s open admission that it was embracing alternative facts.
  4. The US policies towards Jewish refugees in the late 1930s has been invoked frequently in the wake of Trump’s refugee policy



Why does the Second World War continue to loom large in the historical consciousness of the West? Partly it is because this period is objectively important– at least as measured by the body count. Partly it is because references to it are omnipresent in Hollywood films and popular culture more generally, so people have a common frame of reference. Moreover, the conflict is universally regarded as a “just war” by political actors in the English-speaking countries. That shapes how its memory is used.

It’s important to note, however, that neither the Second World War nor the Holocaust dominate the historical memories of people outside of the North Atlantic countries, as the late Peter Novick observed. In much of the rest of the world, the 1940s are not the go-to decade for historical sensemaking. I suspect that observers from East Asia who are unfamiliar with Western historical culture would be mystified by the frequency with which Western political actors mention the war.









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