This lecture will show how, during the lifetime from the 1940s to the present, British, American and many European cultures have (in revealingly different ways) rebased their moral currency on the secular narrative of the anti-Nazi struggle.
The story has played out differently in the Anglophone world and in formerly occupied Europe, and differently again in Germany’s far more painful and sophisticated reckoning with its past. And yet across the western world, the Second World War has become our Trojan War and our Paradise Lost: a shared cultural point of reference; the source of the only moral absolutes which pluralist societies recognise; a rich and complex set of events which have an unparalleled grip on our collective imaginations and emotions, and which we find ourselves perpetually retelling and reinventing (and, often, trivialising). In the Anglophone world, in particular, the war and its moral lessons have become pervasive in the fictional narratives on which generations of children have been raised, from Tolkien to Star Wars and Harry Potter. The practical foundation of post-1960s secularism is that we may still believe that God is good, but not with the same ironclad certainty with which we know that Nazism and all it stands for is evil.
The lecture will conclude by arguing that this western moral consensus is now unravelling. The war itself is falling off the edge of living memory; new crises are disrupting old certainties; a war between professedly Christian European powers no longer resonates so powerfully in plural societies and in a postcolonial world. Or perhaps it is simply that the inherent tensions of a value system built on the anti-Nazi narrative can no longer be contained. In recent years it has become plain that our age’s moral consensus is fracturing, with old truisms being questioned and new ones being asserted. Even anti-Semitism, the old horror that the anti-Nazi era defined itself against, is re-emerging on both the Left and the Right. The postwar moral world is coming to an end: the question is what will come next.