The theory of popular memory and the contested memories of the Second World War in Britain

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter


This chapter examines the theory of popular memory proposed by the Popular Memory Group at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1983), and developed in the work of, amongst others, the oral historian Alistair Thomson (1994) and the cultural historians Ashplant, Dawson and Roper (2000/2004). Central to this approach is a distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ constructions of memory; the former involving representations of the past that circulate within the arenas of public culture, the latter describing memories restricted to and shared within private arenas of family, community and other social groups. Cultural power - exercised by the state, by political movements, by organizations within civil society, and by individuals within interpersonal relationships - is understood to operate within both public and private arenas, but also, crucially, to determine interactions between these arenas. This approach offers a complex and subtle model for understanding the politics of memory, in which competing narratives contest the past and vie for recognition within a field structured by dominant public memories and involving processes of subordination and marginalization, silencing and forgetting. The paper identifies some of the key propositions in popular memory theory and explores various modes of interaction between public and private remembering, making reference to popular memories of the Second World War in Britain. Its particular focus will be on the afterlife of memory within private arenas, and the ways in which narratives emerge ‘from below’ to contest dominant meanings of war many decades after the event. This phenomenon raises important questions for our understanding of ‘silencing’ and ‘forgetting’, but also invites reflection about the potential for connection, dialogue and reconciliation across divided pasts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMyths, gender and the military conquest of air and sea
EditorsKatharina Hoffmann, Herbert Mehrtens, Silke Wenk
Place of PublicationOldenburg, Germany
PublisherBIS Verlag
ISBN (Print)9783814223360
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

Publication series

NameOldenburger Beiträge zur Geschlechterforschung


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