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Conference Report – The Peoples’ War? The Second World War in Socio-Political Perspective

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Dr Alexander Wilson

Editorial Note: On 14-15 June 2018, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘The Peoples’ War? The Second World War in Socio-Political Perspective.’ Over the coming weeks, we will be posting short blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters. In this first post, Dr Alexander Wilson provides a report on the conference.

The Second World War Research Group has grown substantially since its creation in 2014. During its first three years, the Group made great progress towards enlisting members and staging events. Indeed, by the start of 2018, the membership stood just short of 200, while attendance of its annual conferences had grown yearly from 18 to 40, to 75 participants. The two principal purposes of the 2018 Annual Conference, 'The Peoples’ War? The Second World War in Socio-Political Perspective' was to drive debate amongst existing members towards fresh aspects of the war and to use the event to encourage more scholars to join.

A nurse with young child evacuees in the gardens of Tapeley Park, at Instow in North Devon, October 1942. The house was used to accommodate 50 children evacuated from Plymouth after a series of Luftwaffe bombing attacks in March and April 1941. (Source: © IWM (TR 248))

Both intentions were realised when the conference convened at King’s College London’s Strand Campus on 14 and 15 June. The line-up of speakers comprised academics and research students from nine countries and 41 institutions. Ticketed attendance brought the total number of participants close to 100 across the two days. The subjects discussed made substantial progress towards realising the stated theme of the conference, namely to assemble a broad array of scholars addressing the social and political dimensions of the conflict.

The tone was set by keynote addresses from Professor Nicholas Stargardt (Magdalen College, Oxford) and Dr Daniel Todman (Queen Mary’s London). First up was Professor Stargardt’s insightful examination of why Germans fought during the Second World War. It is no small measure of the quality of this speech that another professor was heard to remark, ‘I’ve been studying the Second World War for over twenty years, yet I realise how much more I’ve still got to learn.’ Dr Todman provided a superbly iconoclastic survey of the historiography and myth-making which has come to define the prevailing British image of the war, shaking many consensual perspectives to the core. Both of these keynotes speeches have been made available as podcasts on our website here and here.

General Erwin Rommel, the Commander of the German Afrika Korps, inspects his troops with General Garibaldo of Italy shortly after their arrival in North Africa, 21-31 March 1941. (Source: © IWM (HU 39482))

Beyond the keynotes, attendees were treated to 47 individual papers addressing a range of social and political aspects of the Second World War. In line with the Group’s objective to provide a broad and inclusive forum for researchers of all backgrounds and career stages, we are delighted to report that fifty-one percent of these speakers were postgraduate students or early career researchers (within five years of completing their doctorates). Furthermore, in line with our balanced panels policy, we are extremely pleased to report that for the second year in a row every single panel had a mix of male and female scholars. Forty percent of our panel chairs and a third of our speakers were female. All scholars offered a dazzling array of fresh research, across which three key themes emerged. First, many researchers challenged classic national narratives of the war by presenting wide-ranging papers which favoured international, regional or even global approaches, which they deemed more suitable for comprehending a complex, global conflict. Second, other historians emphasised wartime tensions within nations as a means of questioning the concept of cogent national war efforts. The third strand of scholars addressed informal relations between foreign nationals to blur the boundaries between national blocs. Examples of this work included interactions between occupying troops and occupied populations in France, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Japan, tensions between contingents of Allied troops, and sexual relations between German women and Allied prisoners of war. All told, these papers added substantial nuance to our collective appreciation of societies at war during the mid-twentieth century, stressing the shortcomings of familiar national epics as simplistic and leading the charge for a far deeper outlook. If you would like to listen to some of these papers, please follow this link. A series of blogs based on the papers presented at the conference will also follow shortly on our website.

The Research Group is committed to creating an inclusive, international community of scholars interested in researching the Second World War. If you would like to become a member or contribute to the Group in any way, please contact us at

The Group would like to extend our gratitude to King’s College London for providing support and a venue.

This post also appeared at Defence-in-Depth here.

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