The Blitz: a police officer and a soldier inspecting the aftermath of a German air raid in London, 19th September 1940. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Covid pandemic has shown us that Britain’s obsession with World War II is in rude health. Public figures have consistently framed Britain’s current public health crisis in reference to those historic moments of tragedy, courage and deliverance.
The latest iteration of this is Iain Duncan Smith’s exhortation to the British people to stop working from home, in the spirit of those London office workers who supposedly stayed at their desks in 1940 even as the Luftwaffe’s bombs were falling.
Of course, this bizarre assertion ignores both the fact that tens of thousands of civil servants were relocated from London to much safer rural and coastal locations during the war, and also the rather dramatic transformation in working life occasioned by the development of the Internet.
As this latest comparison suggests, dramatic history can imbue our present with a similar sense of significance and is a powerful tool when facing adversity, but we should draw lessons from history cautiously.
The Second World War and the Britain that waged it are as different from Covid and the Britain of today as to be essentially incomparable.
Nevertheless, since the onset of Covid, mainstream interpretations of the War have repeatedly emphasised three key elements.
First, the stoicism of wartime Britons, the ‘Blitz spirit’ epitomised in the ‘keep calm and carry on’ posters and images of shopkeepers hanging ‘business as usual’ signs in their bombed-out premises. Covid too has supposedly required a stiff upper lip to weather both the virus and the public health measures deployed to combat it.
Second, a sense of unity, equality of sacrifice and everyone pulling together. This is most clearly represented by the civilian mariners who sailed to Dunkirk to rescue the British Expeditionary Force. As government messaging has repeated, we all need to show personal responsibility to save lives and protect the NHS.
Third, a sense of heroic exceptionalism, attributed to individuals and the nation, encapsulated by the figure of Churchill and the vision of Britain ‘standing alone’ against Nazi tyranny.
The pandemic has revealed no shortage of heroes, from Captain Tom Moore, to the diverse groups of key workers who keep the country running, while post-Brexit Britain has also looked to ‘stand alone’ and forge its own response to the virus.
The attractiveness of these parallels are evident, but these interpretations are not accurate:
- The Blitz caused widespread emotional and psychological distress, as well as massive physical damage. The notion of a pervasive British stiff upper lip was as much a propaganda tool as a genuine reality.
- Equality of sacrifice was also illusory as poorer residents of London’s East End were much more likely to be killed by bombs than those in the more affluent West End.
- The Dunkirk evacuation was a colossal logistical effort by the military, with civilians playing a marginal role.
- Churchill was a complex figure who made a major contribution to victory, but who was removed from office by the electorate before the war was over.
- Britain did not stand alone in 1940, backed as it was by a global empire, European governments-in-exile, and the tacit support of the United States.
Once we address these inaccuracies, the lessons change too. For example, keeping calm and carrying on has not helped beat the virus; recognising its severity and making drastic changes has achieved that.
In addition, while a collective spirit and caring for others are important in response to Covid, it is a global problem that can only be solved with internationally co-ordinated policies and massive government intervention.
Standing alone and relying on individual responsibility is never sufficient, a fact that applies to other modern world challenges such as climate change. Additionally, equality of sacrifice has been absent during the pandemic, just as during the War. The virus affects some more than others, as do the social and economic impacts of the crisis.
Moreover, there are vital lessons from WW2 that have been ignored during the pandemic. For example, soldiers were rarely sent to battle in inadequate kit, and yet doctors and nurses were expected to treat Covid patients whilst wearing bin-bags in lieu of proper PPE.
There was no ‘clap for munitions workers’, as these well-meaning gestures would have been no substitute for providing wartime key workers with the tools and conditions necessary to do their jobs.
Most importantly, the conditions exposed during WW2 led to the modern welfare state, implemented in the years after 1945 with the hope of creating a more just society.
While similar inequalities have been identified in Covid Britain, the chances of measures being taken to address them seem slim. The NHS – cornerstone of that post-war welfare package and an organisation that has proven its worth a hundred times over during the pandemic – now looks more likely to be dismantled and privatised than bolstered and rejuvenated.
Britain’s experiences of the Second World War do teach us about how we face contemporary challenges, but this is only possible if we have an accurate understanding of history.
We must also be cautious about the lessons selected by those in positions of power, as there may be alternative interpretations that are far more appropriate.
Dr Charlie Hall is Lecturer in Modern European History, School of History, University of Kent, with particular focus on Germany, Russia and Britain in the 20th century. His chapter, ‘Global Threats to an Island Story: Covid-19 and the British “Foundation Myth” of 1940’, appears in a new book, Covid-19, the Second World War, and the Idea of Britishness, edited by Joanne Pettitt, and published by Peter Lang in September 2021.
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