Tag Archives: Blitz Spirit

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Blitz Spirit edited by Becky Brown

Was there such a thing as the Blitz or the Dunkirk spirit? How were people feeling during the war? Did people pull together, willingly make sacrifices and submit to detailed rules and regulations? During Lockdown we were invited to believe they did as we ate our scones, drank our tea, and waved our union flags to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, all while socially distanced. And in some ways the Lockdowns felt like war, against an unknown, new, and powerful enemy. 

This collection from the wartime diaries, collected at the time by Mass Observation, reveal a variety of views and beliefs. The diarists wrote about every topic: rumours, Churchill, invasion, uncivilised world, funny stories, outrage, fatigue, food and rationing, rules and regulations, V1s and V2s, class divisions and ‘after the war’.

Born in the aftermath of that war, I am fascinated by how people responded to the conditions of the time. What was changed, what was preserved, how were the post-war years and children shaped by those long six years? Many of us have experienced the silence of our parents on the topic, and most of that generation have since died. But the war seems to me to have had a profound influence on my childhood, so I seek to understand it, in literature, in films, in photographs and in diaries and to see some parallels with our responses to Covid-19.

Blitz Spirit

Many people will be familiar with Nella Last’s War, and the film Housewife 49 which Victoria Wood made memorable. There were many such personal records in the form of diaries sent regularly to Mass Observation. From these archives Blitz Spirit has been made.

In 1940 the phoney war came to an end, during which extensive arrangements had been made, including for refugees and evacuees. Some responded to the plight of others with generosity, others did not.

Diarist 5378. F. Writer and Artist. Tadworth, Surrey. 17/05/40
V. has been going around billeting refugees. I asked her if she had had much luck. ‘Oh rather,’ she replied enthusiastically. ‘I think people have been marvellous. One man said they had no spare room but they would put up a bed in their lounge. I only came across one woman who was difficult. She was very sniffy and said she thought we had enough troubles of our own without worrying about other people’s – silly creature couldn’t see that other people’s troubles in this case are our own.’ (50)

The Blitz itself began in the Autumn and tested the population to the limit. Enduring the Blitz on London and other areas was a most difficult experience. One diarist resented the official upbeat response.

Diarist 5205. M. Shop Assistant. Great Baddow, Essex. 10/09/40
The ‘Daily Sketch’ today: ‘Six hundred enemy aircraft came and made heroes of our Londoners … on Saturday. How the fact of being bombed makers anyone a hero I fail to understand. The nonsensical emotionalism which some papers are now printing is annoying and disturbing. (75)

Rationing of food was a frequent topic in the entries.

Diarist 5364. F. Secretary. Kingussie, Inverness. 28/07/41
Oh for pounds & pounds of fresh, cream butter again. (I’ve no direct war comment today. All I can think of is delicious or varies meals!) (115)

Bombing raids and fire watching were also frequent topics although as the war progressed the dangers receded until the final year.

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home. September 1940. New Times Paris Bureau Collection. (USIA) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 306-NT-3163V WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1009

The war dragged on for six years, with little to celebrate for the first three. One response was to use humour.

Diarist 5412. F. Teacher. Beckenham, Kent. 06/02/43
Placard reported from Manchester Fish Shop

WE HAVE PLENTY
OF PAPER
PLEASE BRING
YOUR 
OWN
FISH (195)

And some diarist reported some very frightening events:

Diarist 5004. M. ARP Worker and Food Packing Manager. Belmont, Surrey. 02/11/44
With my wife we were exercising the dog on the Downs in the late afternoon, and whilst I was telling her of my impressions about an ‘unknown missile’ which fell near me in London today, there was suddenly a terrific flash and an explosion which is indescribable. […] Rather shaken we got up, and the sky overhead was covered in black smoke reaching up to about 2,000 feet. Yes, of course, it was a V2. The bomb had fallen about 200/300 yards away. (274)

And eventually people began to dream about not just ‘the end of the war’ but even ‘after the war’. The Beveridge Report had led to some policy proposals, which eventually led to the setting up of the NHS, and the Welfare State. Not everyone was happy about peacetime prospects.

Diarist 5358. F. ATS Clerk. Grays, Essex. 06/02/45
The gratuities to be awarded to the forces on demobilisation have been announced. […] Once again however, the old distinction creeps in – A.T.S are to receive two-thirds as much as the men. I am not a feminist, but I do like to see equal pay for equal work. At the Headquarters where I work in London, A.T.S work side by side with soldiers unfit for overseas service, doing exactly the same work and duties. Why should these men receive half as much again as the girls? (287)

(ATS stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the Army.)

I have quoted some examples from this very dense book. After I had got over the awkwardness of checking the diarist’s number, gender, occupation, location and date I found much to absorb me here. The entries range from very short (two or three lines) to a page. They come from all over the country, from all walks of life, and as far as can be ascertained all ages. Some of this felt familiar, from Nella Last and Jean Lacey Pratt (see below). Some challenged the notion of Blitz Spirit as we have been encouraged to think of it: grumpy, mean, outraged at neighbours or those who deliberately flouted the spirit and even the letter of regulations. 

When the experiences of Covid-19 pandemic become more distant and have been subjected to more reflection, and when the varieties of opinions and experiences have been gathered, perhaps we will see ourselves much as the people are revealed in this book.

Related Posts

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (Bookword Blog January 2017)

Mass Observation and the writer (Bookword Blog August 2017)

Blitz Spirit: voices of Britain living through crisis 1939-1945 edited by Becky Brown, with the Mass Observation Archive. Published by Hodder in 2020. 312pp

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