Historical Notes: Propaganda and the London Blitz

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS the job of historians to re-examine traditional assumptions about the past, and to test them (sometimes to destruction) by means of rigorous modern scholarship. Sometimes, however, this process creates a new orthodoxy which is less truthful than the one it displaces.

Take the story of Londoners' reaction to the Blitz of 1940-41. The traditional view was that Londoners faced unprecedented danger with remarkable courage and composure. The new view, loosely based on Angus Calder's The Myth of the Blitz (1991), seems to be that the story of London's courage was scripted, filmed and virtually invented by wartime propagandists for domestic and American consumption, and that post-war generations have mistaken a propaganda myth for historical truth. If Londoners behaved courageously, Calder's dustjacket claimed, this was because "people performed, by and large, as their own `myth' told them they should".

It is worth repeating that some stories, even those upon which patriotic "myths" are based, are true. The attitudes and behaviour of Londoners during the Blitz were recorded, reported and analysed in unprecedented and honest detail by Mass Observation and the Home Intelligence division of the Ministry of Information. Secret and well-researched reports, produced daily from 18 May 1940 and weekly from 30 September, presented an unequivocal picture of steadiness and pragmatism in the period of heaviest raids, at a time when the Government was on the alert for signs of hysteria, and expecting a breakdown in civilian morale. After a brief panic, an oddly humdrum attitude to danger developed. Risks and privations which once would have seemed intolerable were soon being treated with the irritation or glum resignation induced in normal times by a cancelled train.

In retrospect, the resilience of Londoners in 1940-41 was not unbelievable, and it was certainly not unique. The citizens of Berlin, Hamburg, Tokyo, and even Nagasaki showed similar endurance in the face of much greater devastation later in the war. Londoners were simply the first to demonstrate the error of the pre-war belief that only soldiers (and only men) could accustom themselves to danger and death, and that women, children, old people, shop assistants and bank clerks were generally incapable of sustained courage.

In many ways, civilians had an advantage over soldiers in coping with bombs. If they felt afraid, they could seek safety in shelters or in the countryside without being condemned as shirkers or shot as deserters. Those who stayed in London, like those who left, did so of their own free choice. The chances of death or injury were not very high. The vastness of London, which pre-war experts had believed would intensify the effects of air raids, in fact ameliorated them. Raids and casualties were scattered over a very wide area, and although the cumulative destruction in London was great, Londoners never felt (as those in heavily bombed provincial cities might have felt) that they were living in a devastated or defeated city.

Mass Observation records show that Londoners were strengthened by a sense of individual value, common purpose and historic destiny. The myth, the pre-written story, was a tale of mass hysteria and headlong flight. Londoners had been told that this is what they would do often enough in the 1930s, but for their own reasons they behaved altogether differently, and the story had to be changed in recognition of this surprising fact. It is not time yet to change it back.

Stephen Inwood is the author of `A History of London', to be published on 1 September (Macmillan, pounds 30)