Frances Williams looks at the historic concept of ‘Blitz Spirit’ and its evocation during this period of pandemic
Themes of resilience and strength have been drawn from the Second World War and put to use in the current pandemic – including the psychological defence, ‘Blitz spirit’. Yet a risk is run when nostalgia distracts us from important differences between the past and present. They can further skew historical accuracy, too.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock stated in early 2020: ‘Our generation has never been tested like this … Our grandparents were, during the Second World War, when our cities were bombed during the Blitz. Despite the pounding every night, the rationing, the loss of life, they pulled together in one gigantic national effort.’
Working directly with the older generation, palliative care doctor, Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) said they certainly seemed to have taken the ‘Blitz spirit’ to heart, thinking themselves stoic and resilient. Dangerously – and sometimes tragically so – some of over 70s weren’t washing their hands or taking lockdown measures seriously enough, even though the pandemic deaths were mostly among their own age group.
(Photo: Aldwich Tube station 1940, Imperial War Museum)
The ‘Blitz spirit’ has always been a disputed phenomenon, reflecting contested post-war histories of ‘morale’. Certainly, in the lead-up to war, the government was worried about the likelihood of ‘bomb neurosis’, a form of shell shock that civilian populations might suffer if subjected to prolonged bombing.
A new era of ‘total war’ fed a perception of the vulnerability of citizens to ‘knock out’ blows from the air, that might lead to febrile mental states. A network of specialist hospitals – called ‘neurosis clinics’ – was set up outside UK cities, but ultimately little used.
In his 2012 work, War on Fear: Solly Zuckerman and civilian nerve in the Second World War, Ian Burley cites a visiting commentator from the US who observed the British public’s capacity for ‘pluck’ and such outsider reflections were fed back to the public in the form of propaganda. A prominent psychologist of the day advocated biscuits and nips of whiskey to allay ‘nerves’ during bombing raids, reported by Edward Glover in 1940 in The Psychology of Fear and Courage.
In her new book, Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, Rebecca Brown re-visits the ‘alleged phenomenon’ of the Blitz spirit, delving into diaries from The Mass Observation Archive, daily diaries kept by hundreds of people during the war. These cast fresh insight into our current pandemic, she proposes, because they show the nuance and diversity of everyday feeling.
Many popular descriptions of our of states of mind in lockdown now are anecdotal: a ‘corona coaster’ of high and low moods, sleeplessness and vivid ‘pandemic dreams’. Speculations centre on how we might arrive at the right level of panic – especially given we get much of our information from internet sources of variable reliability.
Professor Nikolas Rose in Mental Health and Social Change in the Time of Covid-19 points out that the pandemic and the measures taken in response, such as severe restrictions to physical interactions and our daily routines, are discrete and separate. Added to this are widespread uncertainty and distress about the virus, loved ones, education, work and money. Increased anxiety and fear are normal in the circumstances. ‘We need be wary of rushing to frame them in terms of mental health,’ he warns.
As the NHS staff operate on ‘the front line’ of our current battle, it may be that they bear the longer term psychological cost – including diagnoses of PTSD – than the wider ‘civilian’ population on the ‘Home Front’. For now, these are speculations.
In the interim, it is important to consider the ways in which the pandemic is not like a war, and the risk that ‘nostalgic framings’ might distract us from our own mistakes, as says Martha Lincoln in her blog On Memory’s Battlefield: The Pandemic as Our Next Forgotten War (2021).
Frances Williams completed her PhD in arts, health and devolution in 2019 and is currently Visiting Researcher at Glyndwr University.
Jones, E. et al (2020) The psychology of protecting the UK public against external threat: COVID-19 and Blitz compared. The Lancet Psychiatry. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(20)30342-4/fulltext