The “Blitz Spirit” has been regularly referenced during the current pandemic, and the School of History's Dr Charlie Hall has examined what this really means. He said:
‘It has long been the case that, in times of crisis or hardship, Britain looks back to the moment in its history where it overcame supposedly its greatest challenge – the Second World War. This has certainly been the case during the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, the British public have frequently been exhorted to demonstrate the “Blitz spirit” – a heavily mythologised attitude of resilience, stoicism and camaraderie which ostensibly emerged during the heavy bombardment British cities by the German Luftwaffe.
‘The traditional narrative tells us that in this most challenging and historic moment, when Britain ”stood alone” against the rampaging belligerence of Nazi Germany with Hitler hoping to knock Britain out of the war by crippling civilian morale, the British public rose to the occasion and showcased their famous stiff upper lip. By refusing to crumble and by carrying on largely as normal, they kept Britain fighting until the Soviet Union and the United States could join the conflict, therefore indirectly helping to win the war.
‘The problems with falling back on this story in more modern times of crisis – especially the coronavirus outbreak – is that the “Blitz spirit” is a more complex phenomenon than the conventional myth would have us believe.
‘For example, the notion of continuing life as normal despite the massive upheaval is deeply problematic. We’re familiar with the never-released but now ubiquitous “keep calm and carry on” poster and the enduring wartime image of a milkman continuing his deliveries amidst the rubble of bombed-out London houses. However, many people’s lives did not continue as normal during the Blitz. Children and other vulnerable people were evacuated to the countryside, whilst death and destruction became a nightly occurrence as major cities suffered air raids.
‘And these are just the observable aspects; the toll on many citizens’ mental health was enormous though this rarely features in the traditional story and is rarely mentioned to this day.
‘In addition, the idea that Britain “stood alone” during this period is also deeply misleading. Britain was backed by the world’s largest empire and was supported by the powerful United States. Bombed-out Londoners may have borne the brunt of Nazi aggression, but this was as part of a growing international response to the crisis. Something similar can be seen with coronavirus, where only global solutions offer a realistic prospect of ending the pandemic.
‘Therefore, the aspects of “Blitz spirit” that should be made use of in the current coronavirus pandemic are twofold.
‘Firstly, carrying on as normal is exactly what we should not do in the face of coronavirus. It is only by grasping the seriousness of this crisis and adjusting our lifestyles in response to it, as was done during the Blitz, that we stand a chance of limiting its spread and weathering the storm.
‘Secondly, the reality and success of the response to the Blitz was in part due to the British people adhering to government restrictions, supporting one another where possible, and considered themselves part of an international community facing a common threat.’
Dr Hall’s research centres on military technology and the diplomatic, political, social and cultural contexts in which it exists. He is also interested in the transnational movement of ideas and individuals, and in the aftermath of conflict.
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