As a historian of the Second World War, I have been thinking about such comparisons since the Covid-19 crisis in the UK escalated late last week. Discussing the topic with students and colleagues, while trying to move teaching online, we agreed that it was difficult to identify precedents and concluded that comparisons often fall down in practice. The scariest thing about the crisis is that it all seems so unknown.
Although commonplace, comparisons with the Blitz are fraught with difficulty as they invoke an event that was mythologised as it happened. This is not to say outright that there was no Blitz spirit; rather, that people’s reactions were shaped by a variety of factors. The government, the media, people’s families and friends, pre-war expectations, and personal experiences all shaped the way that bombing was experienced and understood.
Despite this, I remain convinced that there are things we can learn from the example of the Second World War.
If we take the comparison at face value, the UK has not yet reached its Blitz. In the past week, we have moved from appeasement, through re-armament, into a period of phoney war, and are now in a situation broadly equivalent to the early summer of 1940. We can see what’s coming and we are not sure yet sure how prepared our defences will be.
It is worth noting that even Winston Churchill’s government faced criticism for a lack of leadership and poor crisis communication
. In response, the government sought to provide citizens with a sense of purpose. It encouraged volunteers to join organisations like the Home Guard, expanded a drive for National Savings, and even called on housewives to donate aluminium cookware to make planes. It is here that the analogy starts to fall down.
What can we take from this? For me, at least, the most important lesson is that the Second World War will not hold all the answers. Instead of invoking a Blitz spirit and hoping for active citizenship, we need to define a Coronavirus spirit of our own. There are examples of people doing this for themselves
. Boris Johnson’s government – like Winston Churchill’s – would be well-advised to validate and scale these activities while the impetus is there.