Why the cruel myth of the ‘blitz spirit’ is no model for how to fight coronavirus | Richard Overy | Opinion

Whenever there is a crisis in Britain, we are treated to invocations of the “blitz spirit”. The term has had a long shelf-life. After the London bombings in 2005, even journalists abroad claimed to see the spirit at play among the gritty Londoners who chose to walk miles to work rather than stay panic-stricken at home. Few slogans from the second world war have flourished so much in the 75 years since its end, save perhaps for “Keep calm and carry on”, a poster that was never in fact released for public display during the war, but one that captures what is now understood to lie at the core of Britain’s wartime stoicism.

What the term means has never been accurately defined, then or now. It suggests resilience in the face of unexpected adversity, sustaining a common bond between citizens facing a shared threat and remaining calm or cheerful despite calamity. All of these were sentiments the authorities hoped would define the popular British reaction to enemy bombings during the second world war, just as they will no doubt be cited again as British society wrestles with the challenges of the virus.

The “blitz spirit” was nevertheless an invention at the time. There was doubtless evidence of stoic behaviour during the second world war. Psychiatrists at the time worried that there would be an epidemic of “air-raid phobia” and hospitals prepared for an influx of psychiatric casualties, but there were fewer admissions to psychiatric hospitals in 1940 than in 1939. One leading psychoanalyst, Edward Glover, published a Penguin Special in 1940 on how to conquer fear. His recipe was a simple pat on the shoulder and some firm words. He suggested carrying a packet of sweets or some biscuits, or a flask of brandy, to cheer up those unnerved by the bombs.

These banal solutions masked the reality of being bombed night after night. In the heavily bombed cities – Plymouth, Southampton, Clydebank – tens of thousands of people trekked out of the city into the countryside or neighbouring villages for shelter and food. Their understandable reaction was fear. Endurance was unavoidable, and survival their chief priority. Exhibiting the “blitz spirit” was not. Government researchers found that what people wanted most was sound information, the promise of welfare and rehabilitation, and somewhere to sleep. The sight of destroyed buildings, corpses and body parts was utterly alien to daily life. The trauma this produced was largely unrecorded, and certainly untreated.

The one exception was the city of Hull, where the government sent a team of psychiatrists and psychologists to study why the populations apparently panicked after heavy raiding. The subsequent report, The Mental Stability of Hull, was based on interviews with hundreds of survivors. These case studies showed that people developed serious psychosomatic conditions, including involuntary soiling and wetting, persistent crying, uncontrollable shaking, headaches and chronic dizziness; men were found to indulge in heavy drinking and smoking after a raid, and prone to developing peptic ulcers. One woman was bombed out of three different houses, and watched the death of her sister and her five children. Her symptoms indicated an exceptional level of nervous collapse.

Nevertheless, the conclusion from Hull was that its mental stability was nothing to worry about. The government papered over the evidence of the physical and psychological effects of being bombed and focused instead on the stories of British resolve. The propaganda film London Can Take It! reinforced the view that British people were not to be terrorised into submission. The famous photograph of a milkman picking his way through the ruins to deliver the milk was widely distributed, but it was a fake – the milkman was in fact the photographer’s assistant, wearing a white coat. The public face of the “blitz spirit” concealed the awful reality of being bombed.

The British people have never been subjected again to anything like the blitz, or the V-weapon campaign later in the war. Over the years, trauma subsided. Yet the history of the blitz is remembered in the terms the authorities had originally wanted. “Blitz spirit” is an instantly recognisable commodity today, but it has become divorced from historic reality. Perhaps it serves a useful function in the current crisis in stemming panic and encouraging collaborative action to minimise the danger. Perhaps the prime minister sees himself in Winston Churchill’s shoes, combating this time germs rather than Germans. But perhaps not, as the empty supermarket shelves have shown, and as the government stumbles from one set of directives to another. The blitz is part of a bitter, violent past, not an appropriate metaphor for the problems of the 21st century. Now more than ever, we should reflect upon the true history of the blitz spirit – and lay its sentiment to rest.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of The Bombing War

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