Call for Contributions: Covid-19, the Second World War and the Idea of Britishness.

23 June 2020

The Second World War forms an essential part of British national identity. The notion that Britain stood alone against the Nazi tide, defending its borders while championing moral integrity and freedom for all, has fed into conceptions of Britishness since 1945. Underneath it all, there is a general sense that, in times of extreme hardship, Brits will, against all the odds, pull together and find a way through. This brand of patriotic pride has become particularly pronounced in the face of the current Coronavirus pandemic. Now passed its peak, the Covid-19 emergency has resulted in a global lockdown, the kind of which would have been unimaginable only months ago. In the face of this new hardship – one that, interestingly, appears to have (at least temporarily)plastered over the social divisions brought about by the Brexit referendum vote – there has been a surge in comparisons between the myriad challenges brought about by the virus and the hardships encountered during the Second World War.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this reached its peak on VE Day. In their VE day speeches, for example, both Boris Johnson and the Queen took the opportunity to draw comparisons between war and lockdown; Johnson said:‘we are now engaged in a new struggle against the Coronavirus which demands the same spirit of national endeavour [as the war]’ (May 8th, 2020: 00:02:10). In a previous address to the nation, the Queen drew parallels between the separation of families and the children evacuated to the country during the war: ‘today,once again, many will feel a painful separation from their loved ones, but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do’ (April 5th, 2020: 00:03:30).

Similar comparisons have been made across the spectrum of the British press, including headlines that compare the Coronavirus death toll to that of the Second World War (e.g., The Daily Mail, May 10th, 2020),comic strips that challenge the hypocrisy associated with the veneration of veterans in the context of the current crisis in care homes (The Guardian, May 8th, 2020), and a range of reader comments and opinion pieces. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of the latter was published by The Daily Express on the 24th of May. The piece is entitled ‘Dunkirk spirit is with us… and will see us through coronavirus’; in it, the author argues that

“the Dunkirk spirit encapsulates a collective effort which shows that however small your contributionis, it is magnified when put together with the efforts of others. We have seen this in recent weeks with the more than three million volunteers, the countless acts of kindness, the respect for social distancing and much more that have brought the infection rate under control. […] So the Dunkirk spirit is in many ways about Churchill’s inspirational leadership and bloody mindedness to do the right thing. It was about courage of conviction and not doing what was easy or convenient, even when Britain stood alone devoid of friends and allies. We see some of that spirit in Churchill’s biographer, Boris Johnson,as he wrestles with being a disease-time leader”

However, as David Edgerton recently argued in a piece for the Newstatesman (April 3rd, 2020), such comparisons are not necessarily helpful or, indeed, appropriate. The ‘rosy view’ (Edgerton) that the British often conjure when thinking of the war – that it was a time of national unity and endeavour – is part of a myth of British history that fails to account for much of what took place, the role of empire, and Britain’s own actions in relation to the protection (or not) of the Jews and other victim groups.

This collection aims to explore and interrogate the use of the war in the context of the current pandemic.Submissions are invited from scholars and practitioners working in any relevant discipline. Topics may include(but are not limited to) the following:

  • The use of war imagery and/or language in political speeches
  • References to the war in literary and artistic responses to the pandemic
  • References to the war in documentary films about the Coronavirus
  • Comparisons between the war and the pandemic in journalistic reports
  • The juxtaposition of the war and virus in newspaper comic strips
  • Comparisons between the war and virus online
  • The cultural resonance of “Captain Tom”
  • Historical readings or interpretations
  • Responses from the field of memory studies

Abstracts of 200 words should be sent to j.l.pettitt@kent.ac.uk by 5th July 2020 and should include a brief biography of the speaker. Full articles will be due no later than 6th October 2020. Given the topical nature of the subject, it is important that all submissions are completed in a timely manner. It is anticipated that final submissions will be 6,000-8,000 words, though this is subject to change in line with publisher requirements.