The Second World War, VJ Day and Imperial Amnesia

Neil Fleming

Even with the cancellation of public commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of both VE Day and VJ Day, the former remains larger in the national consciousness. Indeed, this year, during the global health crisis resulting from the coronavirus, VE Day was held by some to possess a special resonance with its message of triumph over adversity.

Why not VJ Day? There could be a number of explanations. The war in Europe was physically much closer to home, as was the threat posed by Great Britain’s main adversary, Nazi Germany. The bulk of Britain’s defence forces were concentrated in the European theatre. The war in the Pacific was dominated by the United States. And it was the Americans who brought it to a conclusion by introducing a new and highly destructive weapon that confirmed its economic, scientific and technological superiority over the old powers, including the United Kingdom.

Whatever the reason, the tendency to focus on VE Day, which did not represent the end of the Second World War, rather than VJ Day, which did, is partly bound up with ‘imperial amnesia’. In focussing largely on the conflict (and its conclusion) in Europe, it becomes possible to forget about the vital assistance given to Britain during the war by millions of people in its far-flung colonies. It also means ignoring the difficult relationships and tensions between the British and their colonial subjects. It must be said that contemporaries understood that it was the British empire that was at war with the Japanese empire. It was an idea drummed into them by the wartime government, not least the prime minister, Winston Churchill.

The explanations for imperial amnesia are several. The fact that the empire was largely decolonised by the late 1960s is an obvious explanation. The reluctance of schools and museums to tackle the subject is another. There is wariness too of doing anything that has the potential to glorify or excuse imperialism; this has certainly served as a restraint on public commemoration in many former colonies.

However well-meaning, ‘imperial amnesia’ has had unintended consequences. In the 1960s, opponents of non-white immigration to the UK claimed that the Welfare State was meant to reward the nation’s wartime sacrifice, and that it was therefore unfair that South Asian, Caribbean, and African immigrants also benefitted. As historians demonstrate, the significant expansion of welfare after 1945 was not a ‘reward’ but a means of addressing the urgent need for post-war reconstruction. It was also a direct response to the intractable economic and social problems that had scarred communities across the UK in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rather than late comers, imperial networks of employment and trade meant that non-white communities had been present in Britain for several centuries. They were often subjected to racism, such as the infamous 1919 ‘race riots’, but their established presence in the country meant that they were an integral part of the UK’s war effort in 1939-45. Moreover, almost as many non-white men as white men volunteered to serve in the ‘British’ armed services during the war. By far the largest contingent came from British India (present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), though Africans and West Indians also enlisted in significant numbers.

Indeed, in the wake of the recent ‘Windrush scandal’, it is worth recalling that many of those on board the Empire Windrush in 1948 were Jamaican ex-servicemen. As such, they had already experienced living in wartime Britain and they were not alone. Lesser known examples include the hundreds of Caribbean workers in British munitions factories, and the almost thousand-strong workforce of Honduran foresters stationed across Scotland.

It is also important to recall the wartime role of Muslims, especially as Britain’s Muslim community is today the target of extreme right-wing groups that have appropriated iconic imagery associated with the Second World War. As Muslim leaders have asked, why is it not better known that over a million Muslims volunteered to serve in the armed forces of the British empire, just as an equally large number had served in the First World War?

Wartime mobilisation involved far more than recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen. Civilian work was vitally important, in agriculture, industry and transport, and women and men were mobilised across the empire to keep the wheels of production turning. Canada’s role in the Atlantic convoys is still remembered in Britain, but almost completely forgotten is the presence on board many British-registered ships of large numbers of South Asian and African sailors.

In relaying all of this it is important not to replace one myth with another. It is true that the British empire was more cohesive in its response to the war than some had previously predicted. But there were still tensions between Britain and the self-governing ‘dominions’—Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—over wartime strategy and organisation. More significantly, the image of a united front was undermined by nationalist opposition to participation in the conflict. The Indian National Congress chose to boycott the war effort despite being sympathetic to its aims. It was frustrated that Indian politicians had not been consulted by the British before putting their country’s vast resources on a war footing, despite years of reassurances that India was moving towards self-government. Ireland (excepting Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK), had become a dominion in 1922, and during the 1939-45 ‘Emergency’ it determinedly demonstrated its sovereignty by remaining neutral.

These examples of nationalist opposition were not completely effective. 43,000 Irish citizens joined the British forces, including deserters from the Irish army, and many Irish women and men moved to Britain to perform civilian war work. In the case of India, a staggering 2¼ million men served in the armed forces, playing a crucial strategic role in South Asia, the Middle East, and the Far East.

The motives of volunteer recruits and war workers varied, from the need to escape poverty to seeking a new life. But not everyone was a volunteer. In Nigeria and Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), the colonial authorities were so determined to extract certain resources that they used techniques of forced labour.

As this suggests, racism remained a marked feature of the British empire despite waging a war against the Nazis. There was nevertheless some progress. The ‘colour bar’ preventing non-white men serving as commissioned officers was removed in October 1939. Non-white participation in legislatures was advanced in Nigeria, the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and British Guiana (present day Guyana). In 1944 Jamaica was granted a House of Representatives elected on a universal franchise. Still, these latter developments should not disguise the fact that the British were determined to remain in control of the pace of constitutional reform; that they were willing, during the war and for almost two decades after it, to use coercion in resisting those actively challenging their authority.

That determination reminds us that the Second World War did not herald the end of the British empire, at least not immediately. The independence granted to India and Pakistan in 1947 was part of a process of constitutional reform dating back to 1919. The displacement of Britain during the war by the United States, especially in the Caribbean and Pacific, reflected the shifting balance of global power, but it did not eliminate completely Britain’s influence in either region.

‘Imperial amnesia’ is understandable given that racism, violence, and oppression were features of imperialism. Equally, a determination to avoid repeating Europe’s destructive wars has encouraged precious habits of reconciliation and cooperation among former foes. Yet, it has meant that Victory in Europe Day looms larger in the British imagination than Victory over Japan Day, despite most of those fighting in the service of George VI (as King, or for his Indian soldiers, as Emperor) having to carry on until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. If this preference for VE Day over VJ Day is unlikely to change, let us hope that Britain’s multicultural society can at least remember that Asian, African, and Caribbean men and women contributed to the victory marked this year.


Neil Fleming is Principal Lecturer in Modern History, University of Worcester. He is the author of Britannia’s Zealots, Volume I: Tradition, Empire and the Forging of the Conservative Right (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), and co-editor of Histories, Memories and Representations of being Young in the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

Political Extremes: Too Hot to Handle?

Neil Fleming

Politicians and commentators regularly talk about ‘political extremism’ and ‘extremist politics’, often in response to violent outrages, but also to justify new laws and policies of surveillance. Yet, despite their regularity, public accusations of political extremism tend to take the form of general statements and condemnations rather than precise definitions. Legal proscriptions on extremism are targeted at specific groups, language and behaviour. But extremist beliefs are considerably harder to define and police, and any attempt to do so risks undermining a state’s liberal democratic credentials. What’s more, there is a reluctance among Western politicians to acknowledge that definitions of extremism are contested, and that they have shifted considerably over time.

What has remained constant, however, is the idea that ‘extremes’ are bad and the ‘middle’ good. Plato and Aristotle are seldom cited in today’s media coverage of extremism, yet they established some of our most basic assumptions. Both equated the middle with virtue and the extremes with degeneration and barbarism. Plato believed that the ‘middle’ could only be achieved through a mixed constitution of monarchy and democracy. Aristotle advanced the idea that different types of constitution existed on a continuum, and that a powerful middling class was the best guardian of the political centre. These ideas were neglected until the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas applied them to commend virtuous rulers and warn against tyrants.

When translations of these works first entered England in the 1590s, they were regarded as a direct threat to the Tudor state. Within half a century, however, royalists and parliamentarians competed with one another to associate their respective causes with mixed government. In the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the virtues of constitutional monarchy became widely celebrated, and supplied a model for dissidents in Europe’s absolutist monarchies. The founding fathers of the United States developed this further to advocate a mixed constitution which ensured moderation through the division of power and the balance of opposing social forces.

This might have settled the matter but for the French Revolution. It established the now familiar left-right political division and cast both ends of the political spectrum as extremes. In France and elsewhere, liberals came to regard revolution and reaction as extremes, with some advancing the innovative idea that both extremes were alike. They applied the label ‘ultra’ to politicians who adopted an exaggerated political position, and the suffix ‘-icide’ to mark a destructive, murderous tendency. Reactionaries initially cast democracy as extreme, but over time they instead harnessed it for their own ends. For Marxists, the clash of extremes served as the motor of history and the means of achieving dictatorship of the proletariat. This led liberals to worry that extremist parties called forth one another in a never-ending struggle, and that the political middle could be shifted as a result. The danger seemed to be demonstrated by the US Civil War, which many held to be the result of extremism on both sides of the slavery debate. Not for the last time, liberals considered illiberal legislation to suppress extremism.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the extreme left and extreme right were readily identified with Communism and Fascism. The Italian politician and priest, Luigi Sturzo, argued that both systems were similar, in that they denied legitimacy to other parties and sought to determine public and private lives. Others took a more partisan approach, with conservatives viewing Fascism as a bulwark against Communism, and socialist governments adopting constructive relations with the Soviet Union.

Claims and counter-claims about extremism continued after the Second World War. Divided between East and West, the two German states denounced each other as extremist. The East’s criticisms of survivals from the Hitler era was later taken up by student radicals in West Germany. The Bonn authorities at first reacted harshly, but over time came to accept that many critics were not necessarily anti-constitutional or even extremist. This led some to express concern that the partial accommodation of erstwhile extremists might lead to relativism and weaken the basis of liberal democracy. This type of anxiety was not confined to Germany, and continues to exercise commentators today on a range of controversial issues.

The reaction to violent outrages such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, the protests in 2017 about the Confederate imagery in the United States, and the alarm expressed about the recent rise of populist parties on the right and left in Europe and beyond, demonstrate that debate about the acceptable bounds of political behaviour is normal in healthy democracies. It can of course lead to illiberal responses, and knee-jerk reactions risk depicting people with reasonable grievances as extremists. But some kinds of extremism have been progressive forces in politics. As long as debate about extremism is encouraged, and set in a historical context, we might better avoid or move on from simply unreflective and unconstructive condemnation.

An earlier version of this post was published originally by History Matters, run by the Department of History, University of Sheffield.


Dr Neil Fleming is Principal Lecturer in Modern History, University of Worcester, and the author of Britannia’s Zealots, Volume I: Tradition, Empire and the Forging of the Conservative Right (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).