It’s been used to describe the response to everything from snow storms to terrorist attacks to, of course, Brexit. So it’s no surprise that as coronavirus cases mount in the U.K., the country is appealing to an 80-year-old historical event to calm panic: the Blitz.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of a “national challenge” to fight the outbreak of the virus, as the U.K. government released a paper on its plans to manage the spread. It was a speech the Sun tabloid newspaper quickly cast as “evoking Blitz spirit”—referring to the legendary tale of national resolve, calm, and unity displayed by the British people during the bombing by German forces during World War II.
Of course, the U.K. is not at war. But as cases mounted—by late Friday morning, there were 116 cases reported in the country, with one fatality, a wave of event cancellations including the London Book Fair, and closures of entire offices in the business centre of Canary Wharf—there were both appeals to a British sense of “keep calm and carry on” (another wartime slogan) and jibes at it.
“People go on about the blitz spirit, but in 1940 they did not have videos beamed into their homes of people panic buying toilet roll,” tweeted one user.
“Blitz spirit innit,” tweeted another. “Nothing says 1940 like arms full of alcohol gel.”
The Blitz myth?
The idea behind ‘blitz spirit’, as a particularly British responses to crisis, emerged far before World War II, says Holger Nehring, a professor of contemporary European history at University of Stirling in Scotland.
It was a kind of appeal to a “bottoms-up, community spirit” approach that advocates doing it yourself, and not waiting for the state to step in. It was an ideology that solidified and gained a name during the intensive bombing of British cities during World War II, particularly the period between September 1940 and May 1941 officially known as the Blitz, which killed over 43,500 people across the country.
But in recent years, the concept of ‘blitz spirit’ has often been used in much more mundane ways.
“‘Blitz spirit’ is always brought up when something doesn’t quite work in the way it should work,” said Nehring. “Like when it snows, and people can’t get out, and then you’ve got all these stories about ‘blitz spirit’”, with people being forced to clear their own roads, he said.
The coronavirus spread is slightly more applicable to the blitz than a snowstorm—”that’s a real leap,” Nehring quipped—but the idea is really about tapping into a larger narrative that during the Blitz, at least for a while, class differences and other divides were wiped away.
“In Britain, it’s seen as a positive thing that can be mobilized over and over again,” said Nehring. “There’s a huge debate among historians about whether it’s a myth or not a myth. But I would personally say it is a myth, because all these differences—class, religion, culture, north versus south, Scotland versus England—all that remained in place. It didn’t go away.”
The divides in the idea of ‘blitz spirit’ have only been widened in the years leading up to Brexit, as it has become a popular wartime metaphor for both sides of the divide. The phrase has been repeatedly used by pro-Brexit campaigners as an appeal to British greatness—and the British ability to handle any food shortages that were predicted to result from a “no deal” Brexit. In turn, that use has been mocked by Remain supporters weary of paeans to the past.
‘Life has to go on’
If there is such a thing as ‘blitz spirit’ remaining in British public life, it probably comes from people who actually survived it.
Janet Happarle was a toddler when Manchester was bombed during the Second World War.
Now 81 and living in Darlington, in County Durham, she still has memories of visiting the family’s air raid shelter, including the time a bomb fell in the back garden. The force blew out all the downstairs windows, she said, even though the bomb itself didn’t explode.
Between bombing raids, the neighborhood grew much of its own food, bonding together to provide whatever anyone needed, she says.
“It was a good community,” Happarle said.
At the time, and even in the years after the war, she says there was an attitude that “you just sort of accepted it. These things just happened and you just picked yourself up and got on with your life.”
When it comes to coronavirus, she’s also unfazed: “I think once you’ve survived something like that, you think, nothing could be that bad again.”
To that end, Hepperle has some particularly low-key coronavirus advice for Britons who are stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitizer: wash your hands, avoid crowded places if you can, and practice “general hygiene.”
“Be careful what you do,” she said, “but life has to go on.”
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