- Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, 1939–1945
Which People’s War? analyzes the tensions and contradictions of home fronts in a time of war, in this case Great Britain during World War II. Professor Rose acknowledges the ability of British society to subsume its many tensions and temporarily bury many of its contradictions in the greater interest of winning the war against Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, this book demonstrates that the tensions were never fully resolved and that the contradictions remained, causing many unintended problems for British society. Rose aims to flesh out the many complexities hidden by the national “Myth of the Blitz” that depicts a unified nation rallying behind the national cause and subsuming individual interests and needs to a higher national goal.
The book’s best chapters analyze the issues of gender and regionalism. While the problem of femininity has received considerable attention in the literature of societies at war, that of masculinity has not. Here Professor Rose makes her most valuable contribution. She argues that notions of British masculinity were constructed in opposition not only to the obvious category of British femininity, but to German hyper-masculinity as well. As a result, British masculinity was constructed as a controlled, temperate ideal type. British men could demonstrate their masculinity simply by donning the uniform, but they had to be careful not to display the unnecessarily martial masculinity of German males in uniform. In this way, British men could prove that they were serving the nation while avoiding the excesses of virility so patently obvious in their enemies.
This process placed additional strain on men not in uniformed service. Civilian males had to prove their masculinity and thus their value to Britain in wartime without the obvious symbol provided by active service. As a result, she argues, farmers and war workers struggled with images of masculinity, especially [End Page 1121] as women moved into their traditionally male workplaces and career fields. The feminization of shirkers and conscientious objectors in public discourse helped to masculinize male war workers and farmers. It also underscored the importance, understood in gendered terms, not only of soldiers, but of the men who worked to provide weapons to the fighting front and food to the home front.
Questions of nationalism invariably arose for a multi-national empire whose power structure all too often made the terms “England” and “Britain” synonymous. Professor Rose focuses on the experiences of the Scots and the Welsh, two minority groups that saw themselves as having separate identities from the English but nevertheless contributed to Great Britain’s war work and uniformed services. The war, and the government’s portrayal of it in “English” terms, she argues, actually increased regional sentiment when one might expect the experience of wartime to have had the opposite effect. Thus the war promoted dual identity and transferable ethnic affiliations.
Despite these strengths, the book’s focus on the home front at the expense of the armed services occasionally clouds the larger picture. The military had long served as a unifying institution in Britain, notwithstanding the numerous locally-raised regiments. Even today, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, and English citizens are willing to serve in the same army, but will not play on the same World Cup soccer teams. The military traditionally offered men from various regions (historically including Catholic Ireland) a chance to demonstrate not only their personal masculinity, but the value of their region to the larger entities of Great Britain and the Empire. Thus Professor Rose reads Scottish soldiers’ desire to wear a kilt in battle as an anti-English statement. Perhaps it was, but it was also a demonstration of the men’s pride in their long-time military service to the same British Empire so dominated by Englishmen.
The absence of the war itself and the contexts it provided creates other confusions for the book. Professor Rose reads the enthusiasm with which Britons greeted a Soviet Youth Delegation in November, 1942 as an expression of working...