Second World War bombing.

Exeter at the forefront of World War Two analysis

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

The impact of WW2 and subsequent peace is fertile ground for historians. Richard Overy, a Professor of History at the University of Exeter is a world-renowned historian and expert on the history of the Second World War. 

Professor Overy has been contributing to current debates and examining recent analysis of how Europe became embroiled in major conflicts just two decades after the trauma of the Great War. On the 3rd September, the same date that Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in 1939, Professor Overy will be debating with a Cambridge scholar Nigel Knight about the pros and cons of Churchill’s leadership at the Central Hall in London to mark the historic date.

He has recently completed the final volume of a four-volume series in association with the Imperial War Museum which charts the World War Two experience from 1939 to 1945. The books include a CD of veterans’ memories and extensive photographs and facsimile documents. They describe the slow spiralling to war, the early Axis victories, the turn of the tide in 1942-4 and the final struggle for victory, the title given to volume 4, published in August 2009.

In addition to these volumes, Professor Overy has also published two critically acclaimed books this year, ‘The Morbid Age: Britain between the wars’ and ‘1939 Countdown to War’.

Professor Overy is leading an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project ‘Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1944’ in conjunction with the universities of Newcastle and Reading. The major new research looks at the experience of bombing in Britain, France, Germany and Italy with particular emphasis on the political and cultural responses to bombing between 1940 and 1945. It focuses on the ideas, attitudes and culture generated by the experience of being bombed rather than on the social and economic effects or strategic consequences.

During the Second World War the political and cultural reactions to bombing were never uniform or consistent. Within the UK, the prevailing image of bombing is still that of the Blitz in which British people all pulled together, their moral stiffened by their shared experiences, until the storm was over. Professor Overy explains, ‘The purpose of this project is to put the Blitz into a broader comparative frame work by examining the political and cultural effects of bombing during the Second World War in Germany, France, Italy, as well as Britain. The research is designed to test common assumptions about political solidarity, strengthened morale and a popular determination to win the war, which the conventional image still sustains.’

He added, ‘In France and Italy populations had to come to terms with the paradox of being bombed to be liberated, the same situation that faced Iraqis in the recent war there.’

The research intends to open up new ways of looking at the relationship between state and population and the willingness of populations to endorse or understand the conflict in which they are involved.

As part of the three year project there is an international conference at the University of Exeter 10 – 13 September where scholars from France, Germany, Italy and Britain will explore the themes raised in the research. The keynote address will be given by Professor Jay Winter from the University of Yale.

Date: 27 August 2009

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