close

COVID-19

Coronavirus and the ‘Killing Fields’ of India

Picture1

The pandemic has led to people digging up old, and somewhat forgotten, historical works that could shed some light on our current situation. To cite one example, a recent edition of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine carries essays that engage with Charles Rosenberg’s article on the AIDS epidemic (originally published in 1989) – examining it to see if it has any useful insights for us today.[1] A number of historians from across the world, writing for this special issue, have used it as springboard to explore the pandemic in their own regions. 

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of this article, which presents a simplified three-stage ‘dramaturgical model’ that could, potentially, be applied universally. Boiled down to its basics, the model sees ‘progressive revelation’ as the first act when, following an initial period of denial, states and citizens begin to accept the threat posed by an epidemic. The second act is that of ‘managing randomness,’ when an attempt is made to comprehend – in religious, secular, affective, or other ways – the disorder that pervades all aspects of life. And the third and final act is that of ‘negotiating public response,’ when public health measures begin to be implemented. 

Some aspects of this model do seem to have universal applicability. For instance, the first phase has been witnessed in several parts of the world, including the UK, and has a particularly long life in those countries where the pandemic has become entangled with ongoing political debates. It also appears to last longer in developing countries, where the threat posed by the pandemic is only one amongst a series of threats posed by recurring epidemics.  In the issue of the Bulletin cited above, Kavita Sivaramakrishnan notes that it is not very useful to see the pandemic in India (and other developing countries) as a finite event that has a clear beginning, middle, and end; we must, instead, see it in continuum with other disease-outbreaks and health-risks.[2] This is valid criticism indeed, and, besides explaining the slower process of recognition in developing countries, also highlights the fact that a complete denial is an easy escape route for countries facing a lack of resources. In India, which spends less than one percent of its GDP on health, and therefore lacks a ‘horizontal’ health infrastructure even in normal times, the task of dealing with a pandemic of this scale seems like an impossible one.[3]

Apart from Sivaramakrishnan’s critique of Rosenberg’s idea of a ‘finite epidemic,’ his model is unsuitable for India due to political reasons as well. Since he bases his conclusions on the US and democratic countries in western Europe, Rosenberg fails to pay sufficient attention to countries experiencing authoritarian rule of one kind or another. In India, which is currently going through a phase of majoritarian democracy, the ruling political party – secure in the belief that its politics of Hindutva will carry it through electoral challenges [4] – continues to deny the fact that the health infrastructure has collapsed like a house of cards during the current pandemic. In mid-May, for example, the Health Minister categorically denied that there was a scarcity of basic amenities such as oxygen supply in Delhi’s hospitals. In another example, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – a self-styled Yogi of the rather violent kind – has been pushing the police force to come down heavily on anyone who makes news of such scarcities public.[5] Even as scores of dead bodies are dumped into the Ganges, and crematoriums across the country struggle to keep up with the ‘demand,’ it seems that the government is only interested in denying threats or deflecting blame.

As all this unfolds in India, it feels that Rosenberg’s final stage of ‘negotiating public response’ has been left to the twin remedies of vaccination and herd immunity. However, vaccination has been very slow as India has been exporting vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech to richer countries – partly to fulfil Mr Modi’s desire to build his image as a ‘global leader’. As hundreds of millions in India struggle to survive in excruciating circumstances, it seems that, once again, the world’s poorest are subsidising (or facilitating) health care for the world’s richest.

Finally, though COVID-19 does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, its social and economic impacts have been felt differentially. Just a few months ago, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed in India without much planning, we saw terrible images of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres to get back to their homes. Similar images can be seen during the present crisis as well. The middle-class, and the state, choose to see this as another sign of the irrationality of the poorest sections. ‘Why can’t they simply stay where they are?’ ask incredulous members of the affluent middle class, inadvertently echoing colonial officers’ view of the ‘irrational poor’. What such stereotypes fail to take into account is that, abandoned by the state and their employers, the only place where migrants feel a sense of security is back ‘home’. The long walk back to their homes is, therefore, a resounding statement of their lack of trust in the government. One needs to wait and see how this lack of trust might alter the political landscape in the years to come. 

Dr Saurabh Mishra is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, Sheffield. He is the author of the monograph Beastly Encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, Livestock and Veterinary Health in Colonial India, 1790-1920 (Manchester University Press, 2015).

Cover image: Vasai, Maharashtra, India – May 04, 2021: “Municipal workers wearing Personal Protective Equipment kits (PPE) cremate a Covid-19 victim at a crematorium.” Source: DepositFiles


[1] Charles E. Rosengerg, ‘What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective,’ Daedalus, vol. 118, no. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 1-17. The volume of the Bulletin that I am referring to is volume 94, Number 4 (Winter 2020),

Special Issue: Reimagining Epidemics.

[2] Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, ‘Looking Sideways: Locating Epidemics and Erasures in South Asia,’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine; vol. 94, no. 4 (Winter 2020), pp. 637-657.

[3] Sunil Amrith makes the point that post-colonial health infrastructure, just like its colonial predecessor, emphasises ‘vertical’ or episodic engagement during periods of crisis, while ignoring (to some extent) the task of creating a horizontal health infrastructure: ‘Health in India Since Independence,’ BWPI Working Paper 79 (February 2009). Available at: Microsoft Word – Amrith-templated-final version-author corrections.doc (manchester.ac.uk) [accessed 15 May 2021].

[4] Hindutva ideologues define it as the ‘the Hindu way of life’.

[5] Omar Rashid, ‘Oxygen shortage | Seize property of those spreading rumours: Yogi Adityanath,’ The Hindu, 25 April 2021.

read more

‘Violent affections of the mind’: The Emotional Contours of Rabies

Rabies pic small

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has more than drummed home the emotional dimensions of diseases. Grief, anger, sorrow, fear, and – sometimes – hope have been felt and expressed repeatedly over the last year, with discussions emerging on Covid-19’s impact on emotions and the affect of lockdown on mental health.

But emotions have long since stuck to diseases. Rabies – sometimes called hydrophobia – is a prime example.[i] In nineteenth-century Britain, France, and the United States, rabies stoked anxieties. Before the gradual and contested acceptance of germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century, some doctors believed that rabies had emotional causes.

For much of the nineteenth century, the theory that rabies generated spontaneously jostled with the one that held that it was spread through a poison or virus. The spontaneous generation theory stressed the communality of human and canine emotions. Rather than contagion through biting, emotional sensitivity made both species susceptible to the disease.

A sensitive person prone to emotional disturbances was considered particularly at risk from external influences that might cause rabies to appear. “Violent affections of the mind, operating suddenly and powerfully on the nervous system” could in rare cases lead to rabies or, at the very least, exacerbate the symptoms in nervous patients, according to Manchester physician Samuel Argent Bardsley (who was more commonly known for promoting quarantine as a way of containing the disease).

For one Lancashire man, John Lindsay, the difficulty of feeding his family drove him to anxiety and despair, exacerbated by a bout of overwork and a lack of food. Fatigued, suffering from headaches, and fearing liquids, Lindsay remembered being bitten by a supposed mad dog some twelve years previously. Amidst violent spasms, visions of the black dog “haunted his imagination with perpetual terrors” and made recovery seem “hopeless.” With reluctance, Bardsley concluded that this was a case of spontaneous rabies. Emotional distress and an overactive imagination had caused and aggravated the disease.

During the mid-nineteenth century prominent London doctors argued that rabies was closely linked to hysteria and had emotional and imaginative origins, much to the chagrin of veterinarian William Youatt, the leading opponent of theories of spontaneous generation.[ii] In the 1870s alienists (otherwise known as psychiatrists) then lent greater intellectual credibility to theories of rabies’ emotional aetiology. They stressed the powerful sway that emotions and the mind held over individuals, especially in the enervating conditions of modern life.

Physician and prominent British authority on mental disorders Daniel Hack Tuke argued that disturbing emotions and images could create hydrophobic symptoms in susceptible individuals. Referencing Bardsley, and drawing on French examples, he argued that “such cases illustrate the remarkable influence exerted upon the body by what is popularly understood as the Imagination.” The very act of being bitten by a dog and the “fearful anticipation of the disease” was enough to spark rabies , even if the dog was not rabid. Even rational and emotionally-hardy doctors had reported suffering from hydrophobic symptoms when recalling the appalling scenes of distress during the examination and treatment of hydrophobic patients.[iii] 

Tuke suggested that in some cases excitement or other forms of mental, emotional, and sensory overstimulation could activate the virus years after a bite from a rabid dog. He drew on a striking case from the United States, as reported by the Daily Telegraph in 1872. A farmer’s daughter had been bitten by a farm dog when choosing chickens for slaughter. The wound healed and no signs of rabies appeared until her wedding day two months later. The “mental excitement” of this life-changing event brought on a dread of water. After the ceremony she experienced spasms and “died in her husband’s arms.”

Tuke reproduced the newspaper’s view, and more generalized gendered assumptions about female emotional delicacy, that such “nervous excitement” had a profound influence on the “gentler” sex. In this case, her nerves were considered to have been exacerbated by the anticipation of the impending wedding night, which was often framed as an emotionally fraught sexual encounter.[iv]

Dr William Lauder Lindsay of the Murray Royal Asylum in Perth, Scotland, was another prominent proponent of the view that rabies was a predominately emotional disease. The disease, he argued, “is frequently, if not generally, the result of terror, ignorance, prejudice, or superstition, acting on a morbid imagination and a susceptible nervous temperament.” Under the sway of their overactive imagination, an individual could take on “canine proclivities,” such as barking and biting. In classist language, Lindsay argued that rabies showed the influence of mind over the body, especially in the “lower orders of the community.”[v]

The British alienists’ depiction of rabies as a predominately emotional disorder made its way across the Atlantic. In the mid-1870s Dr William A. Hammond, President of the New York Neurological Society and leading American authority on mental disorders, stated that the evidence from Europe suggested that heightened emotions might cause rabies in humans. More generally, New York physicians and neurologists debated whether or not individuals had died from actual rabies or fears of the disease, and discussed how fear might turn a bite from a healthy animal into death.[vi]

The alienists lent greater credibility to earlier theories that rabies anxieties could lead to imaginary or spurious rabies. Tuke asserted that fears of rabies could create an imaginary manifestation of the disease. “Hydrophobia-phobia” demonstrated clearly the “action of mind upon mind,” and was distinct from the “action of the mind upon the body” in those cases when emotional distress led to actual rabies.

Echoing Tuke, Lindsay identified women as a particular vector in triggering spurious rabies. He asserted that they spread rabies fears, as supposedly shown by an Irishwomen in Perth who had frightened her husband into believing he had rabies. For Lindsay, this was a classic case of spurious (or false) rabies, which required the rational and firm intervention of medical men, such as himself, to stamp out. But he felt himself fighting an unstoppable tide. For in America, as well as Britain, the press ignited fears and created spurious rabies in susceptible individuals.[vii]

Lindsay and Tuke believed that rabies could, in some cases, be transmitted by dogs to humans through biting and “morbid saliva.” But some doctors controversially argued that it was a purely emotional disease. Eminent Parisian doctor Édouard-François-Marie Bosquillon set the tone in 1802 when he confidently declared that rabies in humans was caused solely by terror. His observation that individuals were struck with hydrophobic symptoms, including “loss of reason” and convulsive movements,” at the sight of a mad dog provided sufficient proof.

Horror-inducing tales of rabies, fed to children from a young age, created fertile conditions for the development of the disease, particularly in “credulous, timid and melancholic” people. Gaspard Girard, Robert White, William Dick, and J.-G.-A. Faugére-Dubourg developed this line of argument as the century progressed. And the theory had traction. In the 1890s, Philadelphian neurologist Charles K. Mills insisted that rabies was purely a disease of the nerves. Such theories were, however, contentious, and Tuke cautioned against those who asserted that rabies was solely an imaginary disease.[viii]

Nonetheless, these theories cemented rabies as an emotionally-fraught disease and reinforced the dangers of dogs bites: even a bite from a healthy dog could trigger a lethal neurological reaction in the swelling ranks of anxious individuals. 

Dr Chris Pearson is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History at the University of Liverpool. His next book Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans made Modern London, New York, and Paris is forthcoming (2021) with University of Chicago Press. He runs the Sniffing the Past blog and you can download a free Android and Apple smart phone app on the history of dogs in London, New York, and Paris. You can find Chris on Twitter @SniffThePastDog.


Cover image: ‘Twenty four maladies and their remedies’. Coloured line block by F. Laguillermie and Rainaud, ca. 1880. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/pysjar4f/images?id=mpqquvrh [accessed 25 March 2021].

[i] Contemporaries sometimes used “rabies” and “hydrophobia” interchangeably to refer to the disease in animals and dogs, but sometimes used “rabies” to refer to the disease in dogs and “hydrophobia” for humans. With the rise of germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century, “rabies” gradually replaced “hydrophobia.” For simplicity’s sake, I will use “rabies” to refer to the disease in humans and animals unless I quote directly from a historical source.

[ii] Samuel Argent Bardsley, Medical Reports of Cases and Experiments with Observations Chiefly Derived from Hospital Practice: To which are Added an Enquiry into the Origin of Canine Madness and Thoughts on a Plan for its Extirpation from the British Isles (London: R Bickerstaff, 1807), 238-50, 284, 290; “Hydrophobia”, The Sixpenny Magazine, February 1866; Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, Rabies in Britain: Dogs, Disease and Culture, 1830-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 [2007]), 61-3.

[iii] Daniel Hack Tuke, Illustrations of the Influence of the Mind Upon the Body in Health and Disease Designed to Elucidate the Action of the Imagination (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1873), 198-99, 207.

[iv] Tuke, Illustrations,200-1; Daily Telegraph, 11 April 1872; Peter Cryle, “‘A Terrible Ordeal from Every Point of View’: (Not) Managing Female Sexuality on the Wedding Night,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18, no. 1 (2009): 44-64.

[v] William Lauder Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, 1879), 17; William Lauder Lindsay, “Madness in Animals,” Journal of Mental Science 17:78 (1871), 185; William Lauder Lindsay, “Spurious Hydrophobia in Man,” Journal of Mental Science 23: 104 (January 1878), 551-3; Pemberton and Worboys, Rabies, 96-7; Liz Gray, “Body, Mind and Madness: Pain in Animals in the Nineteenth-Century Comparative Psychology,” in Pain and Emotion in Modern History, ed. Rob Boddice (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), 148-63.

[vi] “Hydrophobia: The Subject Discussed by Medical Men,” New York Times, 7 July 1874; Jessica Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840-1920. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 150-1.

[vii] Tuke, Illustrations, 198-99; Lindsay, “Spurious Hydrophobia in Man,” 555-6, 558.

[viii] Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals, 176; Édouard-François-Marie Bosquillon, Mémoire sur les causes de l’hydrophobie, vulgairement connue sous le nom de rage, et sur les moyens d’anéantir cette maladie (Paris: Gabon, 1802), 2, 22, 26; Vincent di Marco, The Bearer of Crazed and Venomous Fangs: Popular Myths and Delusions Regarding the Bite of the Mad Dog (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2014), 141-47; Pemberton and Worboys, Rabies, 64; Tuke, Illustrations, 198-99; Wang, Mad Dogs, 151-2.

read more

Should Germany Ban a Neo-Nazi Flag?

Picture1

In recent months, the German media and top-level politicians have been up in arms about public outings of a flag that has been traditionally used by Neo-Nazis. During demonstrations of Covid-19 deniers, and most famously during an attempted storming of the Reichstag in Berlin, the German parliament building, on 29 August 2020, the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag) was displayed by members of the crowd. What is this flag, why do Covid-19 deniers use it, and are there good reasons to ban its public display?

When the North German Federation was established in 1867 as a first step towards German unification, the new political entity needed a flag for the use of the merchant navy and its (very few) warships, which were mostly run by Prussia. The colour scheme for both was black-white-red, which combined the Prussian black and white with the red of the Hanse cities Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck. The war flag (Kriegsflagge) of the military navy added an Iron Cross, since 1813 a Prussian military decoration, and the Prussian eagle in the centre, with black-white-red confined to the top inner corner, the canton.

Upon the founding of Imperial Germany in 1871, the colour scheme and flag design were kept, with only minor tweaks implemented in 1903. In 1892, however, the flag for the military navy was renamed: henceforth, it was called the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag). At this point, the flag was still only relevant for its original purpose: to make German warships identifiable on international waters, in accordance with international law.

This only changed when the Imperial Navy was massively expanded in the wake of the 1898 Navy Laws, and became henceforth a cornerstone of the collective imagination, most prominently among radical nationalist pressure groups. 

During the First World War, the use of the Imperial War Flag expanded even further. It was not only used in propaganda and on picture postcards, but also in advertisements for chocolate and sparkling wine. A painting by Hans Bohrdt encapsulated the deep sense of belligerence and nationalist defiance that was now associated with the flag. Imagining a scene from the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, it shows a sailor of the light cruiser SMS Leipzig. In the moment of his imminent death, he waves the Imperial War Flag at battleships of the Royal Navy. 

The Weimar Republic continued to use the established Imperial design of the flag until 1921, because the command officers of the much-diminished military navy stalled. But from 1922, a new design with the republican colours black-red-gold was in place. 

Already since the moment of defeat in November 1918, however, the Imperial War Flag had become a symbol of radical rejection of the new republican order, regularly used by right-wing Freikorps and other military desperados. When the Navy Brigade Ehrhardt entered Berlin during the Kapp putsch in March 1920, they displayed the flag as a matter of course. In Bavaria, a proto-fascist league was renamed as Reichskriegsflagge in 1923. During the Hitler putsch in Munich on 9 November 1923, none other than Heinrich Himmler – not yet a member of the NSDAP, but a member of the league Reichskriegsflagge – held a flagstaff with the eponymous flag.

Members of the Navy Brigade Ehrhardt, an anti-republican Freikorps, display the Reichskriegsflagge on 13 March 1920 in Berlin during the Kapp putsch.
Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Bundesarchiv_Bild_119-1983-0007,_Kapp-Putsch,_Marinebrigade_Erhardt_in_Berlin.jpg

After the Second World War, the Federal Republic, established in 1949, found legal means to ban the use of Nazi flags and insignia, most prominently the Swastika, first by declaring it a public order offence, and since 1960 via a designated clause in the penal code. Yet this did not affect the Imperial War Flag in its 1867 to 1918 version, as this was legally a marker of the sovereignty of Imperial Germany, not a Nazi symbol. Ever since the 1950s, this distinction has given ‘old’ Nazis – for instance former members of the Waffen-SS – and neo-Nazis licence to display the Imperial War Flag in public.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the neo-Nazi usage of the flag was limited. The floodgates were only opened when Germany won the football World Cup in 1990, and with the German reunification that took place a few months later. Ever since, members and sympathisers of the neo-Fascist party NPD, but also skinheads and other unorganised Neo-Nazi groups have used the Imperial War Flag in their marches and other public outings. When the movement of Covid-19 deniers – much stronger in Germany than in most other European countries – emerged in 2020, the use of the flag became even more prominent, and a regular feature among those who are unified in their radical rejection of the parliamentary democracy of the Federal Republic.

German football fan displays the Reichskriegsflagge in Dresden, ca. 1990. Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1990-1105-008,_Dresden,_Fußballfan_mit_Reichskriegsflagge.jpg

Could the public display of the Reichskriegsflagge be banned? Pending a detailed legal discussion, it probably could, either by labelling it a public order offence or by adapting paragraph 86a of the penal code, thus taking into account that also flags without a Swastika can be used to express Neo-Nazi sympathies. 

Should the Reichskriegsflagge be banned? There are good reasons to do so, as it is essentially used as a proxy for the banned Nazi flags that include Swastika symbols, but with the same rationale: to express a fundamentalist rejection of parliamentary democracy. Historically speaking, the Imperial War Flag has been used for that purpose ever since 1919. Ultimately, such a ban would also close a loophole and remove a legal anomaly, because the Imperial War Flag design that was in place from 1933 to 1935 can still be shown, even though it was a national emblem of the Nazi State.

Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Weimar Republic (Oxford: OUP, 2021). An extended German text on the topic of this blog post has appeared in the Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 69 (2021), issue 3: https://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/zeitschrift-fuer-geschichtswissenschaft-69-jg-heft-3-2021/

Cover Image: The painting ‘The last man standing’ by Hans Bohrdt (reproduction on picture postcard, ca. 1916). Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Hans_Bohrdt_-_Der_letzte_Mann_(Ansichtskarte).jpg

read more

Mining the Munich Crisis for Meaning: Crises Past and Present

1. MunichAgreement

We are the editors of a new book, The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021). The contributors came together for a conference in 2018, the 80th anniversary of the signing of the highly controversial but pivotal Munich Agreement, a diplomatic event that was all-absorbing for people throughout Europe and beyond. The days, weeks, and months when the world was on the brink of another global conflict war was a time of acute crisis, uncertainty, anxiety, and private and public suspense and nervousness. In this blog post we reflect on the Munich Crisis in light of the current global crisis, hearing unmistakable resonances, drawing some parallels, as well as thinking about how the ‘People’s Crisis’ of 1938 differed in important ways from the all-consuming global pandemic today. 

Julie V. Gottlieb: The Munich Crisis and the repercussions of the international affairs on the home front and on private lives has been the focus of my research and my attention for many years now. It is therefore difficult not to hear (loud) resonances with crises in international affairs in the last few years and with heated debates about international intervention—Iraq, Syria, China etc… Other resonances can be heard with the current global people’s crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. With regards to the latter, we need to be cautious about the parallels we see and the lessons we think we can draw from crisis events of the past. There is no easy symmetry here. 

Richard Toye: I agree, but there is one significant thing the crises have in common. Both involve(d) the fear of mass death. It is a commonplace in the literature that people during the interwar years tended to exaggerate the likely impact of bombing, thinking it would literally bring about the end of civilisation, but the actual results during World War II turned out to be somewhat less dramatic. However, one can hardly blame people for being fearful – of gas, as well as of bombs. On the other hand, as far as I know, there were no ‘Munich deniers’ in 1938. Nobody suggested that war was a non-existent threat that had been worked up by the authorities for their own political purposes.

Daniel Hucker: A small minority of pacifists did argue that air raid precaution measures served only to normalise militarism whilst hoodwinking the people into believing that they could be protected against bombs and gas (are there echoes here in the anti-vaxxer’s arguments, who almost fear the solution more than the problem?), but nobody genuinely argued that the threat of war was imagined. I am struck, however, by the parallels between how far people are/were willing to go to mitigate the threat. In 1938, for the French and British at least, it was a question of sacrificing honour and prestige, with the ultimate price being paid by the Czechoslovakians. Today, we are all making sacrifices but, just as in 1938, some are making more substantial sacrifices than others.

Neville Chamberlain on his way home after the signing of the Munich Agreement. To his left the Reich’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and to his right the head of the Munich Police Karl von Eberstein, 30 September 1938. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

JG: As this pandemic wears on, it is less and less reminiscent of the Munich Crisis. Rather it evokes if anything from that heavily-mined period and the rose-tinted nostalgia for the People’s War, the ‘Phoney’ or more aptly the ‘Bore’ war. This was the long months of anticipation from September 1939 to May 1940 when Britain was at war but there was little action. 

RT: Yes, but looking at it another way, thousands of people have been dying every day–just as thousands died or were oppressed by the Nazis in Poland. This happens out of sight of most of us, which may be why it seems as though nothing is happening. A reasonably strong pro-peace movement emerged in the autumn of 1939, which is perhaps not unlike the calls today for Lockdown to be lifted.

JG: One of the main lessons I have drawn from the Munich Crisis, and from the way we have studied it in this book, is that to understand the national stories of the global pandemic these crises have to be understood as ‘people’s crises’. It seems all the more striking how little the earlier scholarship on appeasement has taken public opinion into account. So far the scholarship has not had much if any concern with the subjective experience of diplomatic events. Holed up in our home offices—alone or with people who in normal times we only see a couple of hours a day—there is ample opportunity to think and feel our way through how the global pandemic affects us individually. Certainly one unmistakable parallel is the ‘crisis fatigue’ that Mass-Observation diagnosed in 1938, and the widespread feeling that we are at a saturation point with news of the pandemic, fed up, desperate for news of something else. 

DH: Throughout the current pandemic the people have been at the forefront of politicians’ responses—we hear repeatedly of the need for clear and unambiguous messaging, for the public to do ‘their bit’ by following official guidelines, and how policy must be attentive to the public’s willingness to listen and adhere. In an era of rolling news, social media, and unprecedented global interconnectivity, this is unsurprising. But as our book shows, the Munich ‘moment’ was also framed as a global crisis, with ramifications that would be felt far and wide. Not only was the crisis experienced subjectively by individuals, but it was experienced collectively, as an event. This clearly had a profound impact, and several of the contributions in this book demonstrate only too clearly the importance of public opinion.

JG: We seem to be congratulating ourselves quite a bit here in Britain—and I expect elsewhere as well—on our appreciation and willingness to deal with the mental health consequences of the current global crisis. It is a helpful reminder that there was genuine concern and many schemes to deal with just the same mental health fallout of the crisis itself and of the impending war from the air. Our mission with this collaborative work was to think about the Munich Crisis as ripe for the study of emotions—private, collective, imagined, prescribed and proscribed. 

RT: Indeed, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in respect to Munich than with regards to the pandemic, as the 1938 crisis was relatively short-lived, people took particular note to record it, and everything was felt very intensely. How will historians reconstruct people’s feelings during Covid, when a lot of people are progressively, but imperceptibly, worn down a bit further every day, and perhaps feel less and less incentive to write down their emotions? True, the sociological research organisation Mass Observation sprang into action and recruited a lot of new observers in March/April 2020 to capture the experience of the pandemic. In the fullness of time we will learn how many of them stayed the course.

The Munich Conference on 29 September 1938 in the so-called Führerbau (Führer’s Building) on the Königsplatz. From left to right: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the interpreter Paul Otto Schmidt, and Neville Chamberlain. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

DH: The early stages of the Covid crisis were perhaps the most analogous to Munich—just as news of a new virus in China had played out in the background before March 2020, so the Sudeten crisis unfolded over the summer of 1938 in a way that didn’t affect people in a meaningful way until September. Then the reality dawned and a tangible ‘crisis’ set in—in 1938 air raid shelters were constructed and gas masks distributed; in 2020 we locked down, queued outside supermarkets, and fashioned face masks out of old clothes. We might acclimatise to a crisis, adapt to a ‘new’ normal, but new crises (today’s ‘variants’) are never far from the surface. 

JG: Another issue is the use of the word ‘crisis’. Can a crisis drag on and on, for months and even years, or does longevity make the word unhelpful, misleading, or even useless? Certainly in September 1938 everyone immediately referred to the moment as ‘The Crisis’, specifically the four days at the end of September at the climax of the drama when Chamberlain was summoned to a third meeting with Hitler, and the meeting of the Four Powers at Munich when they came to the agreement for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In the first lockdown, thinking about Covid-19 as a crisis event was plausible. As we in Britain find ourselves in the third lockdown, and a year and counting into the global pandemic, we may very well require a different word, a different paradigm, to make sense of our historical moment, and how it will be bookended by historians of the future. The study of comparative crisis therefore prompts a fruitful discussion about periodization.

Tickets are available via Eventbrite for the book’s launch event on 11 March 2021:

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her related publications include ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), “The Munich Crisis: Waiting for the End of the World” https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/munich-crisis-waiting-end-world, and “Surviving a “War of Nerves”: Lessons for the age of coronavirus from 1930s Britain” https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/surviving-war-nerves-lessons-age-coronavirus-1930s-britain

Prof. Daniel Hucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. His related publications include Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France (Ashgate, 2011) and Public Opinion and Twentieth-Century Diplomacy: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Prof. Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. His related publications include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020) and ‘“This famous island is the home of freedom”: Winston Churchill and the battle for “European civilization”’, History of European Ideas, 46 (2020).

Cover Image: Neville Chamberlain holding the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich, 30 September 1938. Source: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

read more