They thought it would be worse than it turned out to be. In the years leading up to World War II, British planners estimated the effects a German bombing campaign would have on England. They figured that London would be flattened, 200,000 Brits would die in the first barrage, and millions would go insane. In The Splendid and the Vile, his gripping history of the period, Erik Larson quotes one military planner: “London for several days will be one vast raving bedlam. The hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be a pandemonium.”
The Blitz did turn out to be pretty bad. The bombing went on for months, sometimes by day, always by night. Hundreds or more than a thousand were killed each night—occasionally dozens in one blow, when a bomb would hit an underground shelter. There were scenes of horror: a dog walking down the street with a child’s arm in its mouth; a young girl tossed into a neighboring backyard by a blast that decimated the rest of her family. Early in the Blitz, a man named Len Jones emerged from his shelter and found two heads protruding from a mass of rubble. One was his neighbor’s. “He had one eye closed and I realized he was dead,” Jones recalled in an interview with The Telegraph. “I just convulsed. I was shaking all over. I thought, well, I must be dead because they were, so I struck a match and tried to burn my finger. I kept doing it to see if I was still alive. I could see, but I thought, I cannot be alive. This is the end of the world.”
But the worst-case projections did not come to pass. People generally did not lose their mind. Few called for surrender, and only a handful criticized the government. Social solidarity was not shredded—it was enhanced. During the months of the bombings, war production actually increased.
Government censors found that morale was actually highest in the most badly hit places. When you read through diaries and letters from during the Blitz, you do come across some passages that describe raw terror—but mostly they are filled with descriptions of surreal circumstances, rendered in a quotidian, unemotional, and matter-of-fact tone.
People felt they were achieving moral victory merely by staying alive. “Finding we can take it is a great relief to most of us,” one woman wrote. “I think that each one of us was secretly afraid that he wouldn’t be able to, that he would rush shrieking to shelter, that his nerve would give, that he would in some way collapse, so that this has been a pleasant surprise.” A man wrote, “I would not be anywhere in the world but here, for a fortune.”
Britain during the Blitz has gone down in history as the exemplar of national resilience—a role model for any nation going through a hard and stressful time, whether a war, terror attack, or pandemic. How did the British do it? What can we learn? What exactly are national resilience and social solidarity made of, and how are they built?
One popular cinematic explanation for British resilience is that they had Winston Churchill, who gave rousing speeches that unified the nation. But Churchill’s buoying effect may have been limited. Larson reports that Churchill’s now-famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech was not treated as a major news event at the time. When public-opinion experts conducted a survey after one of Churchill’s radio addresses, they found that as many people were dispirited by it as were encouraged. (Nor can we attribute British pluck to those iconic Keep calm and carry on posters—because while millions were printed, they were not distributed during the war, according to the historian Anton Rippon.)
So if it wasn’t Churchill’s soaring rhetoric that bolstered Britain’s national spirit under siege, then what was it?
If you want to list the factors that contributed to the country’s indomitable resilience, start with a sense of agency. Brits needed to feel that they were not helpless or passive, that the nation was taking positive action every second of every day. Churchill set a frenetic pace for his whole government, showering his aides with “Action This Day” memos. Londoners could look up and see Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots fighting on their behalf against German planes. Rooftop artillery units fired anti-aircraft guns throughout the nighttime raids. These guns had almost no chance of actually bringing down an enemy plane, but citizens wanted to see the folks on their side doing something, so the guns blazed.
The second element of British resilience was intense social connection. People were forced together every night in tightly packed group or family shelters. They sat shoulder to shoulder and lay in crowded bunks with heads touching heads. They coped with hardship together. Some of the shelters created little newspapers to record the personal news of those who slept there.
The pressure of the situation induced people to be frenetically social. Singers offered free concerts, which were packed. Larson reports that young women would set up dates for every night, planning weeks in advance, so as to never be alone. The histories and novels from the period talk about the rampant sexuality that prevailed. People had sex multiple times a day, for release, comfort, and fun. Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair is just one of the many cultural examples from the time depicting how strictures on adultery were temporarily loosened
Third, laughter. Brits credit themselves, accurately, for being a comic people. During the war, every disaster was turned into an occasion for humor, dark or otherwise. A sign on one bombed-out London store read: This is nothing! You ought to see what the RAF have done to our Berlin branch!
I recently read through an entire book of purportedly funny stories people told one another during the Blitz. Many of them seemed to involve one fellow or another running out of a bathroom with his pants around his ankles during a bomb attack and diving under a table. I confess that I found the stories painfully unfunny. But they were evidently hilarious to people under those circumstances; you literally had to be there, amid the stress and the dread. This is the kind of laughter produced when social tension is resolved, when people feel themselves experiencing the same event in the same way. Shared moments of hilarity under duress produce needed social harmony.
The fourth factor in British resilience was moral purpose. Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that “he who has a why to live for can endure any how.” The Brits had a firm sense of the moral rightness of their cause, the unique evil Hitler represented, and the reason they had to endure all this. Churchill’s private secretary, John Martin, wrote that, under Churchill’s leadership, Brits came to see themselves as “protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause, for which the stars in their courses were fighting.”
Finally, there was equality. During moments of threat and crisis, people are intensely sensitive to inequality, to the feeling that some people are being treated better than everybody else. During the bombings, members of the working class would occasionally storm luxury hotels, figuring they had as much right to the sumptuous restaurants and bomb shelters as anyone. The government did what it could to foster an egalitarian spirit. Rationing was mostly equitable. Most adults got 66 coupons to use for new clothing each year. The Queen was delighted when Buckingham Palace was bombed, because she didn’t want it to seem like she was being spared. One evening, Churchill was driving into the country when a major bombing campaign began to hit London. He had the car turn around so that the people could see their prime minister sharing the danger. His visits to bomb-devastated neighborhoods were among his most important public acts, along with his occasional bouts of openly weeping among the people.
The lessons from Britain’s experience during the Blitz are pretty clear. In national crises, a sort of social and psychological arms race takes place. The threat—whether bombings or a pandemic—ramps up fear, unpredictability, divisiveness, fatalism, and feelings of weakness and meaninglessness. Nations survive when they can ramp up countervailing emotions and mindsets. This happens when countries take actions, even if only symbolic ones, that make frightening situations feel more controllable and predictable. This happens when they foster social solidarity by paying extreme attention to fairness. This happens when they intensify social connection and create occasions for social bonding and shared work.
Societies that build resilience do not hide behind a wall of happy talk or try to minimize the danger. Resilience does not come from mindless optimism, or from people telling one another to be calm amid the turmoil. Resilience is built when people confront a threat realistically, and discover that they have the resources to cope with it together.
Resilience is built when people tell a collective story about the danger that places the current terror they are facing within a larger redemptive context. When all this is over, we’ll be better because of it. What was once a scary threat to be avoided, releasing a surge of destructive cortisol, becomes a challenge to be met, releasing a cascade of adrenaline.
During the Blitz, the British told a story about themselves that shaped their reaction to the experience and that shapes their self-perception to this day: They are at their best when their backs are to the wall, they are at their best when they are alone as a nation, and their national strength comes from their ability to be funny and phlegmatic during a crisis.
When I began researching the Blitz, my sense was that Americans today have it much easier than the Brits did then, despite the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t have to deal with bombs ripping into citizens’ bedrooms every night.
But in some ways, COVID-19 is on par with the Blitz. Like the bombing campaign, the virus induces cascades of fear—the fear of possible death, the fear of the random extinction of our neighbors and loved ones, the fear of job loss and economic collapse, the fear that our future may be altered in unknowable and terrible ways.
Evolution equipped us to deal with short bursts of terror, such as getting chased by a lion, not to cope with long, unrelenting months of stress. Nor did it equip us to remain cooped up for extended periods like this. And we’re not spiritually equipped to cope with the sense of moral injury we will feel when we start telling old and weak people that we can no longer care for them and they’re on their own to die or not.
Isolation, fear, and stress send the autonomic nervous system into overdrive, and weaken the immune system. The social-distancing measures we are taking to avoid the coronavirus make us more susceptible to it when it comes.
And in some ways, COVID-19 presents an even more dire challenge to us than the bombing did to Great Britain in 1940. A study by the Russell Sage Foundation found that what makes societies resilient during a crisis are high levels of faith in institutions, high social trust, high levels of patriotism and optimism, and high levels of social and racial integration. The United States that confronts the coronavirus pandemic has catastrophically low levels of all these things.
Worse, unlike the Blitz, this pandemic deprives us of the thing social resilience needs most—close physical and social connection with one another. In America, the pandemic finds a country that has already seen a recent tripling of the number of people suffering from depression, a sharp increase in mental-health issues of all varieties; a sharp rise in suicides, and record levels of tribal hostility and polarization. The dread and isolation that COVID-19 causes threaten to exacerbate all this, to drive people even farther apart.
And then, most challenging of all, there is the question of national morale. In 1940, Britain faced a uniquely evil foe.Building a sense of moral purpose was relatively easy. Today, the world is threatened by a virus. The moral story we tell has to be less about the evil we face and more about the solidarity we are building with one another. The story we tell has to be about how we took this disease and turned it into an occasion to become a better society.
The people of America are less psychologically and socially healthy than the British under the Blitz. This means that we have a lot of work to do—to create a sense of agency, compose a redemptive national narrative, cultivate a moral purpose.
In the months ahead, our already fragile American psyches are going to be challenged when they get hit with a double whammy of pervasive fear and extended isolation; when cooped-up families begin to squabble; when, as a people who generally don’t like to think about death, we find it staring us in the face. We’re about to learn how well we stack up against Londoners of the 1940s. The Brits, of course, had Winston Churchill and the RAF during their crisis. We’re going to need Oprah, Brené Brown, and flying squadrons of online psychologists to cope with ours.