A number of years before the onset of World War II, Winston Churchill warned the House of Commons about the dangers of a potential German invasion, describing London as, “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous, fat, valuable cow, tied up to attract the beast of prey.”
A few months later he said, “We cannot move London.”
World War II was the first war where airplanes would play a major role and Churchill was worried the Germans would bomb London. The population of the city at that time was something in the range of 8-9 million people.
Churchill was convinced as many as 3-4 million people would take shelter in the countryside, thus more or less completely shutting down the city. Others predicted mass panic in the streets, refusal by many to continue working and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Churchills warnings proved prescient but not necessarily the outcome of the bombings.
Germany did bomb London mercilessly in 1940 and 1941. The blitz included targeted airstrikes on supply chains, industrial targets, and the city at large. The plan of attack for the Germans was to demoralize the British population, bombing them day and night for 8 months, including 57 days in a row at the outset.
Tens of thousands of bombs were dropped. Forty thousand people were killed and another forty-six thousand injured. Buildings all across the region were damaged or destroyed. Entire neighborhoods were decimated. More than a million people lost their homes.
The British government had set up psychiatric hospitals outside of the city in preparation for the toll these bombings would take on their citizens.
They sat empty.
In the face of a war that was literally brought to their doorsteps, the majority of the people in London never panicked.
Malcolm Gladwell explained why in his book David and Goliath:
So why were Londoners so unfazed by the Blitz? Because forty thousand deaths and forty-six thousand injuries—spread across a metropolitan area of more than eight million people—means that there were many more remote misses who were emboldened by the experience of being bombed than there were near misses who were traumatized by it.
Citing the work of psychologist J.T. MacCurdy, Gladwell explains there are typically three responses to a situation like this:
(1) The people who are killed. This group obviously receives the worst outcome but the morale of the community at large depends on those who survive.
(2) The near misses. This group saw the bombings firsthand, were impacted by the destruction and likely injured in the process but lived to talk about it. Many of these people were in a state of shock and rightfully traumatized by their experiences.
(3) The remote misses. This group got lucky. They heard the bombings and sirens and may have been close to the destruction but they came away from the experience feeling emboldened.
Gladwell explains, “A near miss leaves you traumatized. A remote miss makes you think you are invincible.”
The reaction of a London worker at the time paints the picture for you:
In the midst of the Blitz, a middle-aged laborer in a button-factory was asked if he wanted to be evacuated to the countryside. He had been bombed out of his house twice. But each time he and his wife had been fine. He refused. “What, and miss all this?” he exclaimed. “Not for all the gold in China! There’s never been nothing like it! Never! And never will be again.”
Gladwell remarked that citizens in other countries had similar reactions.
It’s estimated most cities recovered in just 10-15 days while some took more like 3 months.
I can’t even begin to imagine what this must have been like to live through but it gives me hope in the triumph of the human spirit.
A global pandemic is not a war in the traditional sense but it does feel like we are at war with the virus.
The sacrifices people are being asked to make today are nothing like the sacrifices people were forced to make during WWII. But people around the globe are seeing their lives disrupted in a major way in numerous ways.
The entire world has come to a screeching halt in many ways over the past few weeks and the psychological toll this will take is impossible to predict.
People will likely lose their businesses. Finances for many people will be put to the test. Difficult decisions will need to be made. And that’s after accounting for the human toll this will take in terms of those who become sick or die from the coronavirus.
This is scary and many people wonder if the psychological impact will be felt for years to come.
Some are wondering whether this will send us spiraling into another depression-like scenario that will fester for years.
It’s certainly possible.
Many people will be directly impacted by the virus and it will lead to tragedy for potentially millions of families. We have hard times ahead.
I have faith that the human spirit will get us through this. We have survived worse than this.
It’s perfectly rational to be scared and anxious about this situation but conquering these fears will provide the boost we will desperately need when life returns to normal. MacCurdy notes:
We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration.…When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.
I have confidence in the power of the human spirit to help us get through this and come out stronger on the other side of this.
David and Goliath