The memorial to the Gatow air disaster of 1948 is easy to overlook in a city with more than its share of 20th century ghosts. A simple plaque in Berlin’s Westend district commemorates the midair crash that claimed the lives of 15 people during the early days of the Cold War. The stone inscription may be inconspicuous, but its location in St. George’s Anglican Church reflects a long-standing British presence in the German capital, and the events it marks are a window onto the U.K.’s pivotal role in shaping the postwar European order.
With Brexit now final, the U.K. may discover that it’s not so simple to shed a European identity anchored in history and geography. Indeed, that reality—and a political culture perennially dogged by questions over the relationship with its European neighbors—seems destined to bind Britain to the Continent for years to come, despite all the government’s efforts to rebrand the nation as the globetrotting champion of international free trade.
After striking a trade deal with the European Union on Christmas Eve, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was time to move on. The U.K. must leave “old, desiccated, tired, super-masticated arguments behind” and “keep Brexit done,” he told the House of Commons on Dec. 30 as he rushed the accord into law.
Given Britain’s postwar history, that finality may be wishful thinking. Indeed, the pro-Brexit camp has been playing down the European dimension of the country’s past, according to Helene von Bismarck, a German historian who studies Britain’s role in 20th century international relations. It presents “a highly selective view of British history,” she says. “This whole idea that now we’re free to return to who we really are— history really doesn’t substantiate that.”
Britain’s role in postwar Germany affords a sense of the extent of those Continental ties. Berlin in 1948 was a city on edge when, in April, a Vickers aircraft flying from London to Berlin via Hamburg was involved in a collision with a Soviet Yak fighter on its approach to the British airfield at RAF Gatow, killing all 14 passengers and crew as well as the Soviet pilot. Each side blamed the other for an international incident that contributed to the rapid deterioration of East-West relations.
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