We spent our first Friday in Bletchley Park, where the weather was perfect for an outside discussion about the British collective memory of the People’s War and more specifically who “the people” were. We came to the conclusion that those who are considered “the people” now may not have been considered as much during the war. The prime example of our conversation was the women who worked at Bletchley. Our guide made sure to emphasize the important work that the women of Bletchley did and how critical they were to success in operations such as Overlord. Of course, during the war women were seen as only temporary assets or assistants to the men who ran the show.
This conversation really resonated with me as we began discussing what it meant to be one of “the people” and what the qualifications were. I began to think about applying what that meant outside of a British framework and to think about the research that I conducted over the semester on the African Imperial Soldiers who fought to liberate France under General Charles de Gaulle. These men made up nearly 50% of the Free French Army, and their families and villages were exploited for labor that supplied the Allied war effort. Women at Bletchley, while seen as inferior, were still considered human. The Africans fought and labored for a national that merely saw them as bodies who were expendable. Hitler, too, saw Jews, Gypsies, and other undesirables” as cogs in his machine; they were less than human and therefore only worth the amount labor they could offer.
The suffering of the victims of the Holocaust is incomparable to the suffering of Africans subjected to colonial oppression – they are two very different sets of circumstances. But what this shows is how tailored the idea of a People’s War was to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant experience, of which Winston Churchill was the perfect symbol. It is an experience that has only recently been able to account for the work that women did at Bletchley or even Alan Turing, who was gay. The framework, while unifying in Great Britain, has obvious limits that almost undercut the core ideas of what we would consider a People’s War today.