If we are at war with Corona, can history of war teach us anything? Part III: War Culture
There are various problems of comparing a health crisis to any war, and in particular to the Second World War. However, the comparisons are all around us: While German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeyer pointed to the differences between corona and the world war (still using it as point of reference), Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, even demanded a “Blitzkrieg” to save the economy.
So, if we do speak of the virus in terms of warfare, what can the history of war teach us?
Let me repeat that I am neither a historian of medicine nor of pandemics, but others are, whose work has to be highly recommended in this context (see Part I and II of this series). Let me add to this inconclusive list the reading recommendations of the British Society for the History of Medicine of articles that “relate aspects of the history of medicine to the covid-19 pandemic”.
Part III: War Culture: Of Rainbows and Corona Cocktails
“Tonight’s drink special: the Quarantini. It is just like a regular martini, but you drink it all alone in your house.”
You might have already read this joke, and another one, and another one. Corona is everywhere. Not only in the news, but everywhere. There seems to be an endless stream of corona memes, videos, jokes and cultural references, recommendations on how to entertain your kids and have them draw rainbows as symbols of hope, blueprints for hand-made face masks and, last but not least, recipes for what to cook and what to drink in lockdown.
It is easy to assume that this is how we deal with crises in the age of a fast-living online culture with viral pictures/videos/links, and surely, the internet may fuel the speed of this phenomenon. However, the intertwined relation between crisis and daily culture is one very familiar to historians of war. While (failed) diplomacy, tactics, front lines and weapons remain a strong part of the history of war and warfare, the last decades have seen a steady rise of the cultural history of war: Studying expressions of war, death and mourning in art as well as in daily artefacts, reconstructing and deconstructing depictions of war experience in war letters, diary entries and literature, discussing the impact of propaganda and war culture, analysing music, rumours, symbolic communications and their impact on the soldiers’ or civilians’ morale and their ability and willingness to resist. Amongst others, Pierre Purseigle’s article provide an overview over central debates regarding the cultural history of war.
Accordingly, cultural history of war can offer insight into phenomena we currently see emerging today with corona: Firstly, how a crisis permeates into all kinds of aspect of daily cultural life and becomes a ubiquitous reference. Secondly, how this shapes the experience of the crisis. Thirdly, how this experience afflicts the morale and power of endurance. This aiming to be a light-hearted blog entry, I will focus on the first aspect, but later offer some reading suggestions on the latter.
Let’s start with jokes: The current corona jokes predominantly pick up on the lack of toilet paper, bulk-buyers, video calls, home office life and the stress of being home alone or else being at home with your whole family. Other times of crises have developed jokes of their own. World War jokes tended to be more fatalistic, in particular trench humour which played with the prevasive presence of mortal danger. Alexander Watson, already recommended in the first post, and Amaury Gerard display in their research how humour was an essential tool to keep up morale, i.e. the will to carry on. During the Second World War, jokes have been analysed as a tool to maintain national self-esteem and hope against Nazi occupation and oppression as in the case of the Norwegian resistance movement. In Germany itself, jokes about Hitler circulated among the civilian population, breaking taboos and distracting from the dire realities of war . In Great Britain, the B.B.C. used satirical radio broadcasting programmes to ridicule the German Reich. Clare George from University of London provides the original material and further analysis.
Thus, jokes can transmit certain political messages (criticism, resistance), but beyond this they also serve to just make people laugh. We can translate the findings of research on war humour to our current situation: Jokes are the attempts to deal with a situation over which we don’t have any control. Laughing eases the tension and keeps up morale. They make us endure challenges and times of hardship (whatever the respective challenge or hardship might be, real or perceived). Additionally, sharing and circulating jokes maintains a sense of community in times of isolation and lessens the feeling of solitude. There has also been criticism of corona jokes, in particular by heavily afflicted regions. However, the human need for social interaction and laughing seems to prevail.
Children are currently being asked to paint rainbows or put teddy bears into their windows for others to see, to provide symbols of hope to passers-by. In particular rainbows-ornated windows, first reported from Italian cities and villages in lockdown, have quickly become a familiar sight, aiming to spread both hope and joy and encourage people to stay home.
On the other hand, many have picked up on the iconographic design of the coronavirus and integrated it into their own messages: some might have bought support-T-Shirts for your local communities, various artists have toyed with the corona image (e.g. #coronart on twitter, @coronart on instagram).
The First World War saw the iconographic rise of the poppy, still dominating commemoration worldwide. Canadian physician John McCrae had written a war poem in 1915 starting with the verse “In Flanders fields the poppies grow”, an image linking the peaceful calm of poppies growing amidst war graves to an image of red fields (blood-soaked battlefields) in Belgium. After the war, the poppy was quickly picked up as a symbol to commemorate the fallen, introducing commemoration poppy pins to be worn on your clothing. Until today, they are omnipresent around the 11th November to commemorate the world wars. Many historians of war have engaged with the poppy, but Niall Barr’s book, tellingly entitled “The Lion and the Poppy. British Veterans, Politics, and Society, 1921-1939” deals with its meaning in regard to the British veterans movement.
During the Second World War, resisting Nazi oppression has also originated iconic symbols: In Poland, the kotwica (Polish for anchor) became the symbol of the resistance movement: Linking a P for Polska (Poland) with a W for walcząca (fighting), the kotwica symbol was a symbol of the Home Army and of hope in occupied Poland, in particular in Warsaw.
In the UK, Winston Churchill made the „V-Sign“ iconic as his symbol for the envisaged victory. The use of the V-sign was also spread by the B.B.C. European service, which encouraged their audience to pass it on as a sign for European victory and supported by the use of the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which resemble the Morse code for „V“ (three short, one long).
Food and Drinks
With regard to food, we are luckily in a far better position than during wartimes (in Europe, and yet). While the Second World War saw rationing, food scarcity and hunger, this year, Germans got itchy when flour and yeast was unavailable before Easter. Of course, the story is a completely different one for less-well-off families currently deprived of school canteens and will certainly become worse as soon as the virus hits poorer countries. However, for now, let us stick to the Western European/American circulation of corona cooking and drinking instructions. Recipes range from official recommendations on how to feed your family at home, over tips how to cook with all the pasta, beans and grains that you bought to store, to joke recipes for a diet based on pasta and toiled paper which you bulkshopped.
During the wars, rationing led both to exorbitant prices and black markets, but also encouraged a flood of wartime cookbooks on how to make the best of what you got.
They are still widely available and usually of constant demand, in particular in the Anglophone world. The bookshop of the London Imperial War Museum is well stocked with war recipe books. They might return. However, so far, the focus of corona cooking seems to be on how to cook at home (i.e. keep you busy and eat healthy), while the war cookbooks had to deal with actual food shortages. Nonetheless, the UK considered food in times of corona essential enough to introduce a cookery show to care for your family in times of corona. It’s title seems familiar: “Keep cooking and carry on” – once again picking up the Second World War morale campaign.
Drinks were never a basic food group and were always linked to socialising as well as to a certain way to react to challenges. Being such an important part of (Western European) daily and social life, cultural research (not only) of the wars has engaged with alcohol, too.
There are and were also First World War and Second World War drinks: While the all-dominating Western Front meant that soldiers during the First World War recall drinking a lot of “pinard” (low quality red wine), British soldiers were also served rum, Germans Schnaps and beer. Allegedly, cocktails like the sidecar and the French 75 were created in Paris during the war.
While alcohol was certainly used to bond within communities, to keep up morale and to encourage endurance, there was also hesitance about the negative side effects.
Similarly, alcohol has quickly been discovered both as a distraction and a potential problem during the Corona crisis, too. Lockdown leaves restricted opportunities for entertainment. Accordingly, Corona cocktail recipes are widely circulated. Many are variations based on the beer unfortunately sharing the virus’s name. Some consist of ingredients the internet’s barkeepers assume everyone has at home. Online drunken nights out via video-tools have become popular, and suggestions for drinking games circulated – like the lockdown pub crawl, where you have a different drink in every room (or corner) of your house/flat. At the same time, the attraction to kill boredom and solitude with alcohol and the potential problems arising from it have also been thematised, with regard to addictions as well as to inhibiting violence. (link guardian: alcohol corona temporary solution / Problem). All this while rumours circulate alcohol consumption might help fight the virus – leading the WHO to publish a statement that alcohol does not protect from Covid-19 and that consumption should be restricted.
Maybe we should follow the new year’s resolutions of Duff Cooper, during the Second World War Minister of Information and British representative to the Free French:
„With regard to drink I have decided to adopt a system based on the division of days with five categories – as follows:
A= No drink until dinner, then only one sort
B= Either only one sort at luncheon or dinner or nothing until dinner then more sorts than one
C= More sorts both at luncheon and dinner but nothing between
D= No restrictions but no excess
Needless to say, all letters were used.
Some have made the point that the war rhetoric is wrong as people do not need to be mobilized, they need to stay at home. While I still agree with the first part of the danger of comparing war and a virus, I disagree with the second: as cultural history has shown us, mobilization is not just military, but social and cultural. To encourage support for sacrifices, for unpopular political decisions, some of which infringe basic rights, the social process behind is cultural mobilization, as has been pointed out by John Horne and fellow contributors in the edited volume “State, society, and mobilization in Europe during the First World War”. In current times, we have seen comparable processes on a state-led level in campaigns to wash our hands, cover our mouths, wear masks etc. but also in civilian calls for solidarity. Painting rainbows, sharing jokes and lockdown recipes have their – intended or unintended – purpose: to lighten the load, to boost morale, to encourage endurance. We might not be at war, but all signs say though we are not at war, we are in a mobilized society. The question will be: how do you make peace with a virus, how do you demobilize from a lockdown? (To be continued)
And, to end on a lighter (sillier, but hopeful) mood:
I know a great joke about coronavirus, you probably won’t get it, though.
 The Duff Cooper Diaries, 1915-1951. Edited and Introduced by John Julius Norwich. Phoenix: London 2006, 8.1.1938, p. 239.