Revisiting the Blitz Spirit
Myths about the Second World War won't help us understand what is happening today.
According to right-wing journalists and historians, the Blitz Spirit is something to be emulated after the London bombings. ICA chief Ekow Eshun, on the other hand, warns us off it. But everybody takes it at face value that Brits united in the Blitz of the Second World War. Did they?
‘The Londoner, proud Cockney, became a warrior’ during the Blitz. ‘“London can take it” became the common man’s cry.’ At least that is what popular historian Arthur Mee wrote about the Blitz.
But ‘We can take it’ was not an innocent remark; it was a line from a Ministry of Information film, London Can Take It. An American reporter, Quentin Reynolds, wrote the script: ‘I can assure you, there is no panic, no fear, no despair in London Town…. London can take it.’
Curiously, Reynolds tried out this line first in Germany, not London, when he was a reporter there for Colliers Weekly magazine between 1933 and 1940. ‘Trained to take it’ was first an article about German preparedness for a British bombing campaign.
The director of London Can Take It, Humphrey Jennings, was a left-wing contemporary of WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood at Cambridge and the GPO film unit, whose condescension to ordinary people was often commented on. In the Blitz, though, Jennings thought that the divisions between the intellectuals and the masses were breaking down. ‘Some of the damage in London has been pretty heartbreaking’, Jennings wrote to his wife in October 1940, ‘but what an effect it has had on the people!’:
‘What warmth – what courage! What determination…a curious kind of unselfishness is developing…. We have found ourselves on the right side and the right track at last!’
Jennings’ revelation was shared by much of the British elite. In the Ministry of Information, public attitudes were polled in expectation of a collapse in morale. When the expected collapse did not happen, the government and the Ministry of Information reacted the other way, reading great fortitude into the doughty Cockneys. ‘We can take it’ was the formulation of that response, an act of ventriloquism, where the establishment assumed the right to speak for the people.
As a slogan, ‘We can take it’ evoked pride. But it also heaped shame on anyone who raised doubts. ‘The trouble with you people is – you can’t take it’, Ernest Bevin told Communist shop stewards in Coventry on 14 November 1940, scornfully. Coventry was the most intensively bombed of all British cities.
Put in the mouths of Londoners, ‘We can take it’ rang hollow – they did not have any choice in the matter. And though the Ministry of Information was impressed by the lack of panic, tens of thousands of people tramped off into the Kent countryside during the first raids, without any real direction. On 3 March 1943, 173 people were killed in a panic crush on the steps of Bethnal Green Underground station, though no bombs fell on east London that night. Nina Masel, reporting for the Mass Observation project, described the bombings of 7 September 1940 as ‘unplanned hysteria’:
‘The press versions of life going on normally in the East End are grotesque. There was no bread, no milk, no electricity, no gas, no telephones…. The press version of people’s smiling jollity and fun are a gross exaggeration.’
Pointedly, 29,890 Londoners could not ‘take it’, but were killed outright, with a further 50,000 seriously injured; 116,000 houses were destroyed outright, and 288,000 badly damaged. A third of the Port of London Authority’s warehouses were destroyed. The considerable industrial workforce in Finsbury never recovered from the bombing of its factories and workshops, and the City of London lost 40 per cent of its industrial workers – part of the reason that today both are non-industrial districts.
Between 1938 and 1947 London’s population fell by 20 per cent to 3,245,000. The London boroughs most hit by the Blitz suffered the greatest population loss: Bermondsey, Finsbury and Southwark each lost 38 per cent of their populations, Poplar, Shoreditch and the City lost about 45 per cent, and Stepney lost over half. London did not ‘take it’ but was substantially depopulated and destroyed by the Blitz, to be re-invented as the Greater London conurbation after the war.
Comparisons between the wartime Blitz and the recent London bombings are thankfully not very accurate. Today’s deaths are too many – one would be too many – but they are not on the scale of the thousands killed in the Blitz. Then the enemy was an entire country, and one of the most powerful in the world. Today it is just a handful of dangerous cranks. Appeals to the Blitz Spirit might make Londoners feel good, but they are largely based on a myth.
James Heartfield’s Creativity Gap was published recently by Blueprint magazine. His own revisionist essay ‘What really happened in the Second World War’ is published here.
spiked-issue: London bombs
Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, Jonathan Cape, 1991
Ian Maclaine, Ministry of Morale, George Allen and Unwin, 1979
Inwood, Stephen, A History of London,Macmillan, 1998
Arthur Mee, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1948