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19 March 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:39pm

Surviving a “War of Nerves”: Lessons for the age of coronavirus from 1930s Britain

The Munich Crisis meant mass gasmask fittings, trench-digging in parks and the turmoil of uncertainty – what can such a social history teach us about living through coronavirus?

By Julie V Gottlieb

Our new normal is actually pretty old. We are reminded of that when we look back at crisis events of the past: all-consuming ruptures with striking comparisons to the nervous state we find ourselves in today.

While the 1918 influenza pandemic is the most obvious parallel, the 1938 Munich Crisis, and its fallout, resonates too. As Britain waited in fear for the outcome of a conference that saw war looming yet again, what was known as a “War of Nerves” broke out. The period of fear ahead of war – marked by gas mask fittings, people facing mobilisation, evacuation and political turmoil – affected the population’s psyche.

For those living in Britain in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit at a moment in history when so many are still reeling and barely recovered from the uncertainty of Brexit. Emotionally compromised by crisis fatigue, we are now confronted with the very real risks to both our physical health and our mental health, individual and collective.

We have seen such crisis fatigue before, also in response to the chronic political crises of the late Thirties. The scenes are familiar, even iconic. The whole world was gripped by suspense in September 1938 over the Sudeten Crisis. It was temporarily resolved ­­– although alas, not for the Czechs – with the signing of the Four Power Agreement at Munich on 30 September 1938, and by UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain securing Adolf Hitler’s signature to the Anglo-German Declaration, declaring that he had achieved “peace for our time” to the British public.

For a stretch of hours, days, and even weeks in the autumn of 1938, these dramatic scenes – with vivid and meticulous blanket coverage by the world’s media – convinced large swathes of the population, erroneously, that war had been averted.

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While the sense of relief was palpable, it was also fleeting. In all kinds of confessional sources, from Mass Observation social research into everyday life in the UK to private diaries, journals and newspaper editorials, the dominant feelings were of bewilderment, gratitude intertwined with guilt, enduring uncertainty, and the internalisation of an international crisis.

That confusion of emotion was described by crisis diarist FL Lucas this way (from Diary Under the Terror, 1939):

“In the morning, when physically fresh, I feel a robust fatalism. In the afternoon, reading my regular six newspapers, growing rage and gloom. In the small hours, I wake as oppressed as if I had a sack of concrete on my chest. Bed, indeed, is always bad for my morale; lying on one’s back one feels, mentally also, as helpless as an overturned tortoise.”

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From the vantage point of high politics, this story has been told and retold as the history of appeasement. However, from the perspective of the personal and the subjective – from the social and the everyday – the story that needs to be recalled is of the “War of Nerves”.

Crisis-triggered health complaints were widespread, linked to commonly diagnosed conditions like neurasthenia (stressed nerves). That’s why the popular nerve tonic at the time, Sanatogen, developed a campaign slogan in 1939 that advertised: “How to win your ‘war of nerves’.”

If its curative promises were true, then who couldn’t use a big slug of Sanatogen right now? The current coronavirus crisis echoes that original “War of Nerves”.

Unlike the narrative arc of the Munich Crisis, the current pandemic has no climax, no obvious heroes (even failed ones) nor villains – at least not yet. Yet there is much that is familiar to a historian of the late Thirties as we face the unprecedented situation caused by the coronavirus.

That word “unprecedented” comes up again and again in conversations, in attempts to rationalise and come to terms with our present reality, and in the media and on social media. But there are psychological precedents, and clear similarities in emotional reactions and responses. It is not my intention to add fuel to the bonfire of anxieties by pointing out these parallels – but perhaps they could be instructive.

Then as now, we find ourselves in suspended animation, immobilised by the fear of the unknown. There is some symmetry with the Thirties too, in that this crisis is playing itself out when there are high levels of mistrust in leadership, against the backdrop of resurgent populism, and when intellectuals and experts have been under assault.

Common to both then and now is that the crisis has very local ramifications, but its dimensions are supranational. By definition, the pandemic is a global event. Despite the major shift in communication technologies, then as now the media tries to make sense of the situation and quell panic – only for this to backfire, as public trust in notionally authoritative sources are at an all-time low.

Then as now, there is no aspect of existence that is not fundamentally disrupted and threatened: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; travel and freedom of movement; education and communication; family life and social interaction; culture and freedom of expression; economic and food security; and, in all cases, little sense of how and when life will return to the old normal.

In 1938, the political crisis was medicalised and psychologised. The language was saturated with tropes like the “contagion” of fear and anxiety, the deep “scars” left on urban spaces from the digging of trenches in parks, or the transformation of the human into the monstrous as the whole population was fitted with gas masks.

With vivid and horrific real-life examples in Manchuria, Abyssinia and Spain, accompanied and exacerbated by dystopia and science fiction, people feared a modern war from the air. As former prime minister and Chamberlain’s predecessor Stanley Baldwin said: “The bomber will always get through.”

This type of warfare, including the invisible gas attack, would not discriminate between soldier and civilian, further inflaming the war of nerves.

Today, the medical is being politicised and historicised. French President Emmanuel Macron says that “we are at war” with coronavirus as he orders a national lockdown in France. US President Donald Trump tweets about the “Chinese virus” as another way to level blows in an ongoing trade and ideological war.

In Britain, there have already been frequent invocations of the “Blitz spirit” – Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called the virus a “deadly enemy” that is “beatable”, and said, “we must act like any wartime government”.

Much of this recycled rhetoric is used in earnest, and can feel queasily sanctimonious. Thankfully, it is also being deployed as much-needed gallows humour. One of the best memes doing the rounds reads: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being asking to sit on the couch. You can do this.”

The big question is: What, if anything, this kind of diachronic historical comparison can tell us or teach us. As so many face the present reality or imminence of home schooling offspring, we might well ask if this is a “teachable moment”. It could well be.

By shifting the focus from the high politics and diplomatic aspects of appeasement and the coming of war in 1938-39, we are now in the process of writing the people back into history. This includes those who were among the casualties of the war of nerves, those who suffered from a range of debilitating nervous conditions that had indubitable social triggers, like war anxiety and the so-called “jitters”.

Just now there is a focus on the vulnerable and those in high risk groups for Covid-19, namely the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women. Let us not lose sight of those whose particular vulnerabilities may be unseen. It is now, and not in retrospect, that we need to recognise and respect the impact of this global crisis on individual mental health.

While I fear we will look back on 2020 and twist Charles Dickens by recalling: “They were the worst of times; they were the even worse of times”, there may yet be a silver lining. I have been noticing that many people, unsurprisingly many fellow historians, starting to keep a pandemic diary. Keeping a record of the present war of nerves could well be the new normal, and set a precedent for ensuring society’s everyday mental state becomes a normal part of studying history.

Julie V Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield, and specialises in historic examples of society in crisis.