The psychological legacy of 1945: 60 seconds with Keith Lowe

The Second World War was perhaps the greatest collective trauma in the history of the world. At our Winchester History Weekend this October, Keith Lowe will explore the personal, communal and global mythologies we have constructed in order to make our memory of the war easier to face…


Ahead of his talk, ‘The Psychological Legacy of 1945’, we caught up with Keith Lowe to find out more… 


Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: I always think that the best way to engage an audience’s attention is to tell them a story. But in this talk I want to go a step further. Rather than tell someone else’s story, I want to get the audience to think about a single grand story that involves all of us. The psychological legacy of the Second World War had a massive impact on our lives – not only in the 1940s and 50s, but ever after. In fact, it continues to affect us today, whether we realise it or not. I want to reveal some of the ways that the war still drives the way many of us think and feel – as individuals, as a nation, and on a global scale.

Q. Why are you so fascinated by this topic?

A. I am continually astonished by how often the Second World War comes into everyday conversation. References to it pop up in the newspapers and on the radio almost daily. And yet we rarely stop to analyse what exactly the war did to us. I think it’s about time we stopped telling ourselves the same comforting myths we’ve been nurturing over the past 70 years and actually look the subject square in the face.


Conscripts queue up to register for the army at King’s Cross, London. (J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty)

Q. Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.

A. I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but visions of Utopia appeared all over the world after 1945. Scientists began to imagine a time when we would all be driving nuclear powered cars, and nobody would have to work anymore. Architects and planners dreamed of perfect cities. Politicians and religious leaders began talking about how they had discovered the secret to world peace – they really believed that some kind of earthly paradise was within their grasp. Their dreams were so beautiful and so naïve – it’s one of the most poignant aspects of this period I can think of.

Q. What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?

A. Any question that expects a definitive answer! If there’s one thing I have learned about post-war history it is that it almost doesn’t matter what you say, because in one respect or another you will always be wrong! It’s sometimes difficult to get people to understand that, once you look at events on a large scale, there are rarely such things as objective facts. The best that historians like me can do is to accumulate whatever we can prove, and then weigh up probabilities about what it all means in the long term.

Q. If you could go back in time to witness one moment in history, what would you choose and why?

A. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the Tehrān Conference between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the end of 1943. It would be fascinating to witness first-hand how Stalin negotiated, and how he so successfully concealed such a monstrous personality behind his famous charm.


Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Tehrān conference, 1943. The three leaders met to discuss the opening of a ‘second front’ in western Europe. (UIG/Getty Images)

Q. What historical mystery would you most like to solve?

A. I could tell you, but then I’ve have to kill you! I’m trying to solve it at the moment. My investigations will probably end up nowhere, but if not, they may form the basis of a future book.

Q. What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a historian/author?

A. Easy: I’d work in history publishing. That was where I first started out, and I only left reluctantly because I couldn’t balance the demands of the job with those of my own writing. I do miss publishing. It’s a very civilised industry.


Keith Lowe is the author of the international bestseller, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize in 2013 and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize in 2015. He will be speaking about the psychological impact of the Second World War at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend on Sunday 8 October.