If we are at war with Corona, can historians of war teach us anything? Part 1: Comparisons and the Mystery of Toilet Paper
Last week, French president Macron declared we were “at war” with a virus. The rhetoric had been martial before – „fighting“ the virus, doctors „at the front“ against an invisible “enemy“ – but now, other politicians and heads of state picked up the pace quickly. Even Angela Merkel, though overall characteristically calm, related the upheaval caused by the virus to the challenges of the Second World War. Second World War references were quick at hand from different sides, and, certainly, the „keep calm and carry on“ pictures have been spread in different Corona-variations.
So, if we are at war with a virus, can historians of war (as ourselves) teach us anything and what would it be? Before we start this rather eclectic collection of thoughts and reading recommendations, let me begin by referring to those historians actually engaging with diseases, pandemics and the flu: amongst many books out there on the Spanish flu you could read Ida Milne’s account of how the Spanish flu affected Ireland in 1918, have a look at other historical studies on AIDS, malaria, surviews over epidemics in Eastern Europe, or on the history of medicine in a broader sense.
Does it make sense to compare a pandemic to warfare?
At first, these comparisons struck me as strange and far-fetched. A virus is a difficult opponent, not visible, not even human. Furthermore, I see considerable risks in comparing the current Covid pandemic to a war: Firstly, wars are conflicts between at least two parties, and include an „enemy“. The lack thereof bears the danger of assigning the „enemy“ function to a broader, innocent community. This has already happened in the very beginning of the Covid spreading, when minorities have been accused to import the virus. Others have pointed out that the language of warfare ignites racialised conflict. Others have pointed out that the language of warfare ignites racialised conflict. The „war against drugs“ in the US has led to the incarceration of significantly more non-white than white Americans, while the „war on terror“ has increased anti-Muslim sentiments and violence.
Secondly, most war references have drawn parallels or at least trajectories back to the Second World War. This is highly problematic, as the Second World War was not an externally caused event which afflicted the population, but a German war of aggression, which led to total warfare, massive aggressive violence against civilians, and genocide. We have to be very careful not to diminish guilt while comparing challenges to a society.
Thirdly, to talk about current events as a historian means walking a fine line. History is an analytical, not a teleological science. We don’t want to tell people what to do, we don’t believe that history can predict the future. However, looking at historic events and research can help us to clarify essential facts, to provide necessary background for discussions, and to shape our view on things. Historians’ input on Brexit, the Hohenzollern debate and other topics have been an important contribution. We clearly don’t have the answers, but maybe we can help ask the right questions? So, if we chose to speak of the virus in terms of warfare, can history teach us anything? The more I thought about it, the more themes and topics currently present in the debate I found that had also been touched upon in publications on the history of war.
History of War and the Mystery of Toilet Paper Rolls
Let me start with the mystery of toilet paper. Germany and other countries have seen people stockpiling up on loo rolls as if their life depended on it. People have fought over it and committed felonies in order to obtain more. At the same time, producers have guaranteed supply chains are doing fine, personal hygiene might not change this much – so why the panic?
It reminded me of something from my own research: Working on a project on paramilitary violence after the First World War, I spent some time at the Imperial War Museum archives in London, reading diaries of British officers during the War of Independence in Ireland. To my surprise, a lot of them gave the events taking place around them rather passing mentions. At the same time, they were dedicated to make daily notes of food, their own digestive system and possible bowel movements. When I discussed this with colleagues, it was pointed out to me that this was a common topic not only in diaries but also in war letters, to the extent that it had attracted research by sociologist Michael Roper. In his book The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival, he argues that soldiers writing to their mothers could not discuss the fear of death they experienced – to evade censorship, to protect their mothers’s feelings and to uphold soldierly pride of masculinity. They could, however, write about digestion as part of a daily routine or as an accepted family topic, and thus used this topic to transmit (knowingly or subconsciously) about their broader well-being. Additionally, historians working on morale and endurance, have pointed out that digestive nervous disorders were frequently noted as a psychiatric diseases amongst soldiers, like Alexander Watson in his book Enduring the Great War (p. 238)
Maybe we can transfer this to stock-piling toilet paper? First I heard of shortages at the end of February, three weeks before patient numbers and mortality rates in Germany went up and before political measures were taken. If we take stock-piling loo roll as a symbolic message for fear, then people have already been very scared for quite a while. Scared people might be more willing to compromise, to accept and follow drastic political restrictions, but they might also be more aggressive and competetive in their behaviour towards their peers (solidarity also being a topic we might pick up on along the way).
Where does this leave us? If we follow suggestions from First World War research on war letters, just as speaking about digestion might actually mean speaking about fear, stock-piling toilet paper might actually be a substitution for saying you are scared. While during the First World War, these feelings were communicated in letters and diary entries, in our current consumer society, fears transmit to consumer behaviour. For the next crisis, should we start paying attention when loo roll is first sold out?
Some other topics linking research topics of a history of war to current debates spring to mind. We will try to continue this series over the next weeks.