do not mention the war

Our Weimar? Britain in the 1970s

In Britain, England, Germany, History, Identity, Literature on April 5, 2011 at 11:11

is how Andy Beckett opens his account of Britain’s seventies in his excellent When the Lights went out. Now this certainly requires some questions to be answered. First, did Britain in the seventies have anything in common with the Weimar Republic? Second, were the British seventies the prelude to a period of war and disaster like the Weimar time was in Germany? These questions are not easy to be answered.

The seventies in Britain have been a time of industrial action and has seen the emergence of punk. The hippies had their heydays as had club football. The country appeared to be in a continuous state of emergency reaching its climax in 1976 when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) almost refused to give a loan to Britain unless it cut its public expenditure. Had such controlling bodies been existent in the twenties, who knows what might have happened in Germany. However, it is weak to argue that Weimar was to be repeated in the seventies in Britain. We need to remember, Germany had no democratic tradition at that point which made life for the Weimar Republic and its supporters incredibly difficult if not impossible. Britain meanwhile was a democracy, or at least a democracy by title, and therefore there was never a similar level of threat when Britain entered the state of turmoil. Germany between 1918 and 1932 saw a hyperinflation, something similar has been experienced in Britain but in the first case it sharpened the crisis of the young German republic while Britain in the mid-seventies had one of its best times as Beckett argues. Many remember with fondness the hot summer of 1976. There were a number of political assassinations during that time in Germany which further shook the believe in any republican structures. The arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin in early 1933 was the final stroke Hitler and his aides were waiting for to seize power. Thatcher did not need that. And it would have been unthinkable in Britain although there was a fascist movement led by Oswald Mosley. The very existence of this movement and their lack of any success which differentiates Germany during the first half of the twentieth century and Britain during the seventies. The German society during the post-war period until 1932 was traumatized and as a result was radicalized. Therefore the argument of Beckett does not hold ground.

What came after the Weimar Republic does not an explanation. The period from 1933 to 1945 is the darkest hour of German history as well as of mankind. Historians worldwide have worked and still work tirelessly to explore this period, so therefore no further explanation will be given here. However, again it appears to be lacking strength to compare the British 1980s with the Third Reich. Britain has changed during that time, no doubt. It depends on the political standpoints whether these changes are considered good or bad, yet the eighties left their mark on British politics in that they helped to forge New Labour. Germany went from bad to worse and finally towards total and deserved defeat. This led to the foundation of a new country within new borders and with a new constitution. This was not necessary in Britain. New Labour was simply new paint on old walls but the British state did not need to reinvent itself.

In summary, the comparison is of a metaphorical nature and highlights the dramatic changes Britain underwent in the 1980s under Thatcher. That the comparison needed such a strong example remains debatable but certainly helped to visualize the problem. However, one has to be careful to take this too serious and consider Britain a state on the verge of Fascism at the end of the 1970s. That this was not the case, should be clear to any one.

The book by Andy Beckett, When the lights went out. What really happened to Britain in the 70s is available at or any other good book shop of your convenience.


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