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A history lesson that explains Britain’s aloofness from Europe

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
The Victory returning from Trafalgar, by J.M.W. Turner.
  • Kabir Chibber
By Kabir Chibber


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“Nations have characters, as well as individuals.”
Benjamin Disraeli

The shortest distance across the English Channel is a mere 33.1 km (20.6 miles). In the run-up to Britain’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Union on June 23, a few choice words can make the continent seem a world away.

Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, recently made the gap a bit wider when he compared the European project to Adolf Hitler’s attempts to conquer Europe. Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford and wrote several popular histories, said:

The whole thing began with the Roman Empire… The truth is that the history of the last couple of thousand years has been broadly repeated attempts by various people or institutions—in a Freudian way—to rediscover the lost childhood of Europe, this golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans, by trying to unify it. Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically.

Johnson is the most prominent cheerleader for leaving the EU. His words brought a furious reaction from eurocrats. “When I hear the EU being compared to the plans and projects of Adolf Hitler I cannot remain silent,” European Council president Donald Tusk replied. “Boris Johnson crossed the boundaries of a rational discourse, demonstrating political amnesia.”

But Johnson’s memory is just fine, at least viewed from his side of the English Channel, or La Manche. The British have an altogether different history of the continent.

From Napoleon to Hitler

How can countries so close to each other view things so differently? One place to start is a naval battle fought 211 years ago that lasted a mere five hours and forever changed Britain’s relationship with Europe.

In the early 1800s, as he rose from the ashes of the French Revolution to become the emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte dreamed of becoming the first person to successfully invade England since William of Orange in 1688 (who at least had an invitation).

“We must have a European legal system, a European appeal court, a common currency, the same weights and measures, the same laws,” Napoleon said in 1805. “I must make of all the peoples of Europe one people.” It was not a dream that Britain wanted to be a part of. (Many otherwise pro-European Brits still don’t want those things.)

In 1804, the French emperor told a general that he only awaited “a favorable wind in order to plant the imperial eagle on the Tower of London.” Napoleon referred to the English Channel as a “ditch” to be crossed. It was not to be. On Oct. 21, 1805, Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships was bested off the Cape of Trafalgar by Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 27 ships. Napoleon lost 22 ships; England lost none.

The National Gallery
Turner’s depiction of the scrapping of a famous Trafalgar warship, 1839.

After finally vanquishing Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, ending one dream of European hegemony, Britain didn’t send an army into Europe again until 1914.

A land apart

A lot can happen in 99 years. While Britain took to the seas and built a far flung empire, Europe experienced a century of turmoil. France went through the restoration of the monarchy, two republics, and another Napoleonic dictatorship. A variety of city-states came together as Italy. Prussia morphed into a unified Germany under Otto von Bismarck. The continent’s complex web of alliances and conflicts came to a head in the First World War.

The British narrative of Europe is defined by those first tentative steps back into European warfare. The “war to end war,” which lasted four years and took the lives of almost nine million soldiers, is very special to the Brits, even though Germany, France, and Russia all lost more men than Britain, where one household in three suffered a casualty. The war was the first time Britons were conscripted to fight, and the first time they died in such large numbers overseas.

Says Robert Tombs, author of The English and Their History:

The First World War is remembered in England as a uniquely poignant and traumatic tragedy, bearing many meanings. In no other European combatant country does it occupy this place in national culture, even though most suffered more severely. Some other reasons are plain. England has never made another military effort on this scale; the only events that approach it are the Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars, which also left long memories.

Imperial War Museums
An official depiction of going “over the top,” by John Nash.

German boots also never touched British soil during WWII two decades later. While Hitler caused chaos across the continent, he couldn’t do much better than Napoleon when it came to invading Britain; Hitler’s Operation Sealion was abandoned in 1940. Though Britain suffered through the Blitz, it didn’t experience the devastation that befell Germany and France. Tombs cites a Gallup poll from 1941 that says Londoners were more depressed by the weather than the bombing. He adds:

England and Britain are unique amongst the European combatants in never having undergone a subsequent trauma—revolution, civil war, tyranny, defeat, foreign occupation—devastating enough to push 1914-18 into the background, or even efface it from popular consciousness. For England, the First World War remains the most appalling event in three centuries.

The rest of Europe wasn’t so lucky—more appalling events came 20 years later. France was occupied as recently as 1944 and Germany from 1945 to 1949 (partially by Britain). The Battle of Trafalgar was the last time that the island was seriously threatened with invasion—and this has shaped the attitudes of British people towards their neighbors ever since. The events of World War II brought the rest of Europe together. The events of the First World War kept Britain apart.

Detachment issues

Imperial War Museums
More war art, by C.R.W. Nevinson.

These experiences aren’t quirks of history—they are the sorts of things that shape the national character and allow men like Johnson to wrap the Roman empire, Napoleon, and Hitler together into one sweeping arc of history.

But it’s precisely that shared history of cyclical violence that unites the Europeans together in “ever closer union.” And the absence of it that keeps Britain apart.

And so now, as we count down to a vote on whether the perennial outsider stays on the inside, the “Leave” camp is also giving the world a history lesson. Europe is hearing its own story—but this time from the point of view of its powerful and detached neighbor.

It’s appropriate, then, that the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU comes around the centenary of two of the worst events of World War I. Recently, France and Germany marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Verdun with a call for more European unity.

The British were not there. They will commemorate their own bloody Battle of the Somme in July—only a few weeks after the EU poll.

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