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Understanding Brexit

Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century


19–20 April 2018

Conveners: Andreas Wirsching, Martina Steber (both IfZ), Andreas Gestrich and Michael Schaich (both GHIL)
Venue: Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich


The outcome of the Brexit referendum sent shockwaves through continental Europe and also through parts of the UK. While some believe that the end of British EU membership will lead the UK into economic and social decline, others rejoice in national independence and predict a shining future for Britain in the world. However that may be, the Brexit decision underlines Britain’s rejection of further European integration. It is highly significant and marks a historic turning point in British and European history.

For many this monumental decision came as a surprise. Since then, intellectuals and commentators have been searching for an explanation. For historians the Brexit decision was no less of a surprise than it was for other intellectuals, and they are no less challenged by it. It fundamentally questions common assumptions of twentieth-century history: about globalization, Europeanization, the power of neoliberalism, the welfare state, nationalism, identity, and democracy. This applies to interpretations of European history in general and of British history in particular, and above all to the understanding of Britain’s place in Europe.

This conference will take up the challenge. It asks how Brexit changes our views of twentieth-century British history. Do we have to revise established narratives about how Britain developed since 1945? How can we conceive of Britain’s place within European history? What does Brexit mean for our understanding of European integration?

The conference will discuss these questions by placing the British case into a wider European and transatlantic context. It will integrate political, social, economic and cultural history approaches to unfold the complexities and ambiguities of British twentieth-century history. Finally, it will think about historical trajectories and contingencies in Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours.

If you should be interested in participating at the conference, please contact


Conference programme (PDF file)

Conference report (PDF file), published in: GHIL Bulletin 40 (2018), Vol 2