The coronavirus, new nationalisms and the limits of Second World War fantasies
by Christy Kulz
In the face of the corona virus, numerous references to war and battle frame what is foremost positioned as a national challenge despite transnational cooperation. The Second World War as touchstone carries a particular relevance for Britain where heroic images of victory form a focal point of the current national discourse and conscience. Through reflecting on the current crisis, this post explores how clinging to war images connects to how the UK regards itself and, subsequently, how it perceives both Germany and the European Union. I explore these themes by reflecting on discourses of WW2 nostalgia in the UK alongside recent interviews conducted with British migrants living in Berlin. How long can mythologies of war and empire endure and how much further can the notion of the EU as oppressor stretch before it loses it dynamism through the harsh realities of daily practice?
The coronavirus, new nationalisms and the limits of Second World War fantasies
In the face of the corona virus, the nation state has been presented as taking centre stage as the primary unit of measurement and analysis. Paradoxically, a global crisis perpetuated by an indiscriminately border-crossing virus has been largely responded to by reinstating strict borders and fencing off the nation state into a pre-globalised reality; the EU’s reaction was no exception to this tendency. Numerous references to war and battle frame what is foremost positioned as a national challenge, although transnational cooperation and collaboration are also continuously occurring. Boris Johnson described how the UK must act like a ‘wartime government’ against a ‘deadly enemy;’ Merkel defines this period as the most serious challenge to Germany since the Second World War; Macron has announced that France is ‘at war’. However, these references to WW2 are mobilized within a very different set of circumstances. Despite the radically different conditions of networked and globalised life compared to 75 years ago, these images are recalled and grafted on to the present. The Second World War as touchstone carries a particular relevance for Britain where heroic images of victory form a focal point of the current national discourse and conscience. It also, I would argue, shapes the ‘structures of feeling’ or affective atmosphere that permeates lived social relations in the UK.
The corona crisis is positioned as a test of the nation state’s capacity and resilience. This test has become pivotal for Britain at a time where it seeks to reassert its dreams of sovereignty through leaving the European Union. At this point, the UK death toll has been steadily rising and the lack of medical protective equipment has incited a political scandal. While Brexit reasserts the nation state’s primacy, when the UK state is actually required to mobilise, its incapacity to effectively act shows the sheer fantasy of self-sufficient island life. Data comparing national resources and outcomes are ubiquitous on news outlets, making differences in resources starkly obvious. Through reflecting on the current crisis, this post explores how clinging to war images connects to how the UK regards itself and, subsequently, how it perceives both Germany and the European Union. I will explore these themes by reflecting on discourses of WW2 nostalgia in the UK alongside recent interviews conducted with British migrants living in Berlin. How long can mythologies of war and empire endure and how much further can the notion of the EU as oppressor stretch before it loses it dynamism through the harsh realities of daily practice?
British exceptionalism and WW2 confections
Second world war imagery continues to play a central role in UK public discourse. The ‘blitz spirit’ has been invoked by politicians to incite Britons to pull together not only in the face of the corona virus, but Brexit. Historian Richard Overy describes how the ‘blitz spirit’ is a cruel myth estranged from historical reality, whereby the horrors of war are remembered in the way authorities of yesteryear wished. The staged propaganda picture of the intrepid milkman strolling through the burning embers of London on his delivery round is frequently referenced to highlight the deceptive nostalgia at work here. Johnson’s admiration of Churchill is well known, and Overy suggests that perhaps he wants to cast himself in this guise, whereby this time he is ‘fighting germs instead of Germans’.
These rose-tinted visions of WW2 Britain portray a more secure time when Britain wielded not only more power, but could more easily claim the moral high ground in relation to the Nazis. Cultural theorist Paul Gilroy urges us to understand how the ‘wholesome militarism’ of the Second World War comfortingly blends with the ‘unchallenging moral architecture of a Manichean world’ to produce a ‘warm glow’ relied upon to do cultural work in the present. Gilroy argues that the continuing power of these images signals a neurotic search for the juncture when Britain’s national culture felt more intelligible and livable. It glosses over growing inequalities at home, while recalling a time when Britain faced enemies positioned as indisputably diabolical.
This melancholic search feeds into the dreams of Brexiteer hardliners. Sociologists Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever have described how the Vote Leave campaign narrative carried all the symptoms of postcolonial melancholia, as it was designed to comfort those who have not accepted Britain’s loss of Empire and global prestige. Separating from the continent and the EU becomes necessary to re-establish ‘Empire 2.0. This disconnect between the UK and Continent is also tied to the idea of Britain’s position as an unoccupied power in WW2, with its mythical stature as bravely standing alone against Nazi Germany until the Americans arrived. Many Britons imagine they would not have tolerated Nazi occupation or would have immediately joined the resistance; an idea of moral exceptionalism endures. Mary Dejevsky says there is little effort by Britain to understand the situation and choices faced by ordinary continental Europeans or Germans during the war. While Dejevsky urges Brits to abandon their 75-year superiority complex, it is important to recognize that this complex is fraught with the melancholic insecurity Gilroy theorizes.
‘Them Germans’: new nationalisms and lingering nostalgia
This lack of understanding and engagement historically and in the present day with the Continent, most particularly Germany in this piece, features in several of my research participants’ accounts regarding how their family or friends view their migration to Berlin and Germany more widely. Many British migrants describe how Germany is not a popular holiday destination for Britons like Spain or France; it has limited familiarity and misconceptions were numerous. Recourse to the war and German jokes persisted, and a persistent undercurrent of wariness or feelings of dismay pervaded many of my research participants’ accounts of their family and friends’ reactions. Through these narratives we can see how UK war fantasies relate to Germany and Germans in the present day and how this connects to EU membership, with Germany as key member state. It also highlights how personal memories and accounts are not just individual creations, but a collective phenomenon connected to social structures.
Understandably, traumatic war time memories were still present with some older participants’ relatives with direct experience of the conflict. These endured so much so that Sarah’s father could not bear to get on the plane and visit her in Berlin even after booking his ticket; for him this act ultimately represented collusion with the Germans. Fred’s mother was also evacuated from the city as a child and he wryly added that she did not share his ‘fondness for Germans’. His mother expressed misgivings about his application for German citizenship and Fred jokingly referred to his German husband as the ‘last nail in the coffin’ for his mother. Not only had Fred married a man, but to make matters worse, he married a German man. Susan also describes how her mom and dad in Scotland still regarded Germans suspiciously as ‘them Germans’ and thought she was ‘off the planet’ for marrying one. For several participants, their move to Germany or relationship with a person of German nationality puzzled and unsettled their family; it was something to be tolerated, but not celebrated.
Meanwhile, Victoria recounted her family’s more positive outlook towards German culture, albeit this had its limits. Victoria’s father was in the British army and decided she should study German in school rather than Spanish, feeling that German was more complex. While Victoria’s father could not speak German himself, he had been posted in the west of Germany and as a teenager Victoria travelled to visit her German pen friend every summer. Her father had already died when Victoria married her German partner, and her mother commented that she was not sure how her father would have felt about this development. Engaging with German language and culture were acceptable practices that generated cultural capital, but marriage was a step too far. Despite this intercultural exchange, intimate boundaries should be preserved. While Victoria feels that older generations of English people can find marriage to a German strange, this problematic viewpoint was not reciprocated by Germans. Even Victoria qualifies her husband as not a ‘typical German,’ but an ‘international German’ due to his experiences abroad. Conversely, sometimes first-hand experience of the war prompted the promotion of cooperation and conciliation. Kate’s father had travelled across the northern German plain as a soldier at the end of the war and seen the devastation. This led to him encourage her to be friends with other Europeans to prevent future conflict. He supported Kate as she learned German and arranged for Kate to visit her pen friend in Hamburg after years of correspondence.
Younger relatives’ misgivings or tacit disapproval of Germany were not tied directly to war time experiences, but embedded within the afterlife of war imagery and the position of Germans as continuing villains. While most of my participants felt that Germans are appreciative or interested in British culture, they did not feel that this sentiment was replicated by most British people. Steven relates how he actively tries to promote Germany as an open, modern state to his British compatriots, but adds ‘They don’t always understand it. They still think of “Achtung Fritz” and that sort of stuff, yes.’ Ralph feels that the UK is not only separated from mainland Europe by the channel, but by a different mentality. Ralph feels the black sarcastic humour can very easily be perceived as insulting by Germans, citing jokes and cartoons about Europe and Germans sent to him over WhatsApp by his brother who voted for Brexit. Ralph furrows his brow in consternation, describing how he would look at these with his wife and sometimes wonder, ‘Hmm, is this actually funny?’ Susan describes how she is often the butt of many jokes, and quips that ‘everything just seems to go back to Germany when I am in the equation, blame the Germans. Blame the Germans!’ Due to her life in Germany, Susan becomes actively implicated in these jokes and asides. While these comments are purported to be made in jest, they provoked a subtle disquiet amongst my participants.
Sarah discusses how humour is used to maintain the idea of a rigid nation state and connects barbs about the ‘frigging war’ as a barrier to future collaboration. She describes how every week there is something reminding readers about the war in the Spiegel, yet ‘the British can still make Nazi jokes and the casual humour leads to deep attitudes about how Germans are’. Her sister recently sent her a joke that she might have previously found amusing, but Sarah takes these jokes less light-heartedly in the wake of Brexit: ‘It’s like yes, let’s knock the Germans. Come on, that is the root of all the problems! I know she does not mean it like that, but if we don’t stop with these bloody anti-German jokes – it is part of the propaganda. I find it pretty distasteful.’ Sarah more stridently articulates something that Ralph’s uncertainty suggested: these jokes betray a structure of feeling that continues to underline perceptions of Germany and nurtures British nationalism. Instead of the spirit of collaboration promoted by Kate’s father, we can see fears over German competition and dominance. Sarah describes her sadness regarding Brexit, describing how ‘The Germans want to hold out a hand of partnership, but UK says they want to dominate us by stealth and take us over.’ She felt there was an enduring suspicion regarding Europe and this could turn into an anti-German feeling. Sarah connects this attitude of disdain for Germany to Brexit and the feeling of Britain being threatened by a power like Germany.
British post-war anxiety over German power is nothing new. In the face of German reunification, Thatcher was conspicuously absent from any commemorations at the Brandenburger Tor. Elements of British public discourse presented the European Union as a German colonial project of domination, and perhaps this is a view that cannot be wholly discounted after the handling of poor EU nations in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole argues that both a sense of grievance and superiority are fueling the new English nationalism; fantasies of a new empire sit beside a revolt against the oppression of the EU and are united through feelings of self-pity. Britain entered the common market in 1973 not with the enthusiasm of joining a European project, but mostly to stymy further economic decline. O’Toole also ties enduring conquest fears and fantasies of domination to books and their subsequent films like SS-GB and The Fatherland. In both of these popular tales, the Nazis have triumphed and Britain functions as either as a colony or minor satellite territory of a German-ruled Europe. O’Toole suggests that these ideas and themes emerge from deeper ‘a deeper structure of feeling in England’, as neither author had an anti-EU agenda.
Yet structures of feeling are always fluid and changing; they do not exist in a stable and ossified form.Migrants’ pathways evidence this, as their feelings of belonging continued to shift and change throughout their lives; they maintained multiple strands that ran across and through borders. For several British migrants, their move to Germany was embraced as a positive development. One British friend I met at a wedding reception last year felt I was ‘living the dream’ after I moved to Berlin from the UK with my family. Nicole comments that she frequently has visitors from the UK and other countries, adding ‘I don’t know anyone that actually came to Berlin and did not like it. My family and Caspar’s (her husband) family are constantly here, one after the other.’ Berlin features as a popular destination and exceptional space for some Britons, with strong associations to art, culture, clubs, and an alternative lifestyle that differentiates it in many ways from the rest of Germany. Still, who can and does regard Berlin in this vein is shaped by the class, age, and profession.
Boris may now be fighting germs instead of Germans, but in the background of the Brexit drama Germany often still plays the mostly unreferenced role of antagonist in the shadows. While overt attacks on Germany in the mainstream press are rare, a Leave campaign poster appeared in October 2019 depicting Merkel with her arm extended and the caption ‘We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut’. The poster was promptly deleted from social media sites and apologies made, but feelings of ambivalence and wariness against the EU via Germany and WW2 momentarily bubbled to the surface. The UK’s persistent reference to WW2 as the peak of its prime ties to the ambivalent discourses around EU membership; Germany’s position as bad guy cannot be shifted as long as WW2 remains a key reference point for the UK.
From Germans to germs? The beleaguered island struggles
Post-war hang ups are also damaging Britain’s capacity to function as a state. These persistent references to empire and war show that it is having trouble charting a new future. After the disappointing failure of Blair’s ‘cool Britannia’ which turned out to be neoliberal Britannia with a side order of welfare state, it has reverted back to empire mode. While the EU has invited the UK to participate in bulk procurement of ventilators, medical equipment and future corona virus therapies, thus far they have not joined. This is despite the scandalous ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment whereby medical staff have been instructed to reuse disposable protective clothing and unions have permitted medical staff to refuse to work due to the lack of gear. An admission that Britain might benefit from an EU scheme to procure life-saving equipment could be too politically damaging to Johnson’s government; it is worth the lives of over 119 NHS staff and the safety of countless others. So perhaps Britain is not finished metaphorically fighting against Germans and the EU, evidenced by what appears to be their belligerent and counterproductive refusal to source desperately needed equipment.
Many Britons living in the UK that I have spoken to have been made very aware of Germany’s handling of the crisis in comparison to the UK. Germany has frequently been held up as ahead of the UK in its performance, of having a plan and managing purposefully; Germany’s higher numbers of intensive care beds, more comprehensive testing and contact tracing regime and significantly lower the death toll thus far have been well advertised in the UK press. Merkel’s leadership has been widely praised, while Johnson’s management of the crisis has been found wanting. The current chaotic situation in the UK points to the fallacy of reawakened nationalisms that have powered Brexit, underpinned by the notion that the UK has the capacity to function as an island. Austerity and years of underfunding has depleted the NHS coffers and state safety nets more generally. Ironically the NHS is now being hailed as a national treasure and cause to rally around by the very party that has starved it of funding. Neither I, nor my friends and relatives in the UK realised how many more intensive care beds other European nations have per thousand residents compared to the UK. Friends and family in Britain have commented on how lucky we are to be in Germany during this episode, rather than where we used to live in southeast London. After waiting for weeks to get an appointment at our old doctor’s surgery during non-corona times, we have also felt it was probably better to be in Berlin.
Many of my participants remarked on the higher quality of life they enjoyed in Germany compared to the UK; this was a key factor for remaining in Germany. They did not value a strong state in the sense of a closed, empire power promised by Brexit, but they favoured a more open and collaborative state that could protect its citizens from collective challenges and provide infrastructure that benefits wider society. Healthcare, working conditions, and transport infrastructure were all deemed to be superior to what was available in the UK. Victoria says that while there is an ‘emotional pull’ to the UK, this is ‘not logical’ as moving back with to London with a family of five would be ‘financially stupid’. She feels life in London would be more complicated and expensive; they could enjoy a family meal at a restaurant in Berlin without financial stress. Steven also describes how when he came to Berlin as a postdoctoral student in the 1970s it took him a long time to get used to being able to afford a meal out; in Britain he had so little income as a doctoral student that he walked everywhere as he could not afford public transport. While others like Susan or Nicole described missing elements of UK life, they have no plans to return. Susan felt Berlin offered good public spaces, access to nature and cycling infrastructure, as well as a medical system that was ‘1,000 times better’ than the Scottish system. Nicole also describes hearing stories about the NHS from her elderly father who waited nine months to see a specialist, whereas in Berlin her son saw a specialist within days. Nicole appreciates having a nice house, adding that they would need four or five times their current income for a similar existence in London. Sarah appreciates the different approach to life she enjoys in Germany, describing how ‘Germans do have a very healthy attitude to Feierabend where work is work and leisure is important. In London you just work until you, well, it is just horrible.’ While there was no shortage of critique regarding rising housing prices in Berlin and local government mismanagement, their responses show that good infrastructure played a large role in remaining in Berlin. It is important to note that the vast majority of my participants are middle-class professionals; despite this, many of them described life in the UK as financial struggle.
Citizens are suddenly made aware of their nation state’s position in the corona virus league table through the continual presentation of data. Recourse to the state’s obligation to protect its citizens was discussed in a Guardian editorial describing how corona virus shows that a well-run, properly funded state can be the difference between life and death at this point; adding that one would be safer in Seoul than in London.The prospect of the UK lagging behind South Korea shatters triumphant images of Brexit Britain. The UK state shows that it cannot adequately protect its citizens; there have been some suggestions that readying itself for Brexit distracted the government from adequately planning for the corona virus, as Johnson missed five consecutive emergency planning meetings. If the state has not been working towards the protection and development of its citizens, to what ends has it been working; whose interests has it been protecting? Johnson’s initial reluctance to officially close shops, pubs and restaurants in service to the insurance industry can give a pretty good signal of where the government’s interests lie. The fundamental question of what and who the state exists for are once again pushed to the foreground.
Yet this moment does not constitute a sudden break in the UK’s situation, but the deepening and opening out of an already present infrastructure crisis. The UK’s inattention and neglect of its citizens has not just started with this crisis, but they were easier for the well-heeled British to ignore. For migrants with a comparative lens, these disparities have been easier to gauge, however this critical juncture brings ongoing failures of care into sharper relief. Like the sudden visibility of previously undervalued shop assistants, delivery drivers and care home staff who keep daily life running, the incapacities of state infrastructure are suddenly also more visible when put under extreme strain. While German cultural theorist Andreas Reckwitz cites that Germany realised certain governmental tasks like providing health, transport and other infrastructure were necessary in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, this realisation did not similarly occur in the UK. Still, there are certainly problems within the German health care system and how it was recently reorganised that should not be romantically overlooked. Reckwitz advocates for sober reflection in this moment, as it is difficult to know if fundamental change will result from our present juncture or if the potential or lasting change is overly optimistic.
Conclusion: The impossibility of return
This post has focussed on the recourse to WW2 imagery and how this connects to the current corona virus crisis, Brexit and continuing misgivings about the EU and Germany in UK discourse. This residual wariness emerges in structures of feeling that are circulating through societal discourse and personal narratives of British migrants. Despite the suggestion of a return, the corona virus crisis does not take us back to the same challenges presented by the Second World War. Nor does Britain return to a golden age of empire after shedding its membership in the European Union. A common structure of feeling underpins both of these rallying cries and the elisions they make. As Foucault reminds us, we should be very suspicious of anything claiming to be a return. He adds that ‘…there is, in fact, no such thing as a return. History, and the meticulous interest applied to history, is certainly one of the best defenses against this theme of the return’. This search for a familiar connecting metaphor attempts to provide a comforting sense of ontological security in the face of an unknown present and uncertain future. No matter how treacherous the conditions of war and resulting human carnage, there is the feeling that at least we already know how this story unfolds; the outcomes seem clearer. How the ‘blitz spirit’ is remembered and reconstructed to fit the present makes the possibility of an easy return to the past seem not only viable, but preferable. This is particularly the case with the return to empire, as, unlike WW2, the bloodshed and oppression underpinning this story has been largely ignored by modern Britain. As Radstone and Schwarz assert, memory actively forges the past in order to serve present day interests. Visions of an isolationist, nationalist state is fostered and rallied around through these nostalgic and partial forgings of the past.
Yet the current crisis might be capable of provoking a realisation that Brexit island fantasies are unworkable and destructive. The capacity to cling onto to images of World War II and empire might become too flimsy in the face of economic decline; perhaps the structures of feeling around the EU, Germany and the UK’s future trajectory will slowly shift. Death rates in the UK are forecast to be the highest in Europe, and vital medical equipment remains in short supply. While Romanians are flown in on chartered flights to pick British crops in a labour shortage, it seems farcical that Brexit and its migration restrictions can proceed as planned. The nurses who sat beside Johnson through his darkest times of corona virus are migrants, yet their ‘unskilled’ labour is about to be further limited by new UK Home Office policies in the face of a huge nursing shortage. Downing Street says that leaving the EU is going to help the UK deal with the corona virus, but there is only evidence to contradict this claim. It could become politically difficult to sustain these contradictions as the gaps between practices in space and rhetoric about an imagined place becomes too large. Yet so far, the populist right has successfully rhetorically deflected present day happenings back into the world of nostalgia and emulsified them in the fantasies of yesteryear. The loss of human life might brutally cut across these fictions.
Finally, despite the invocation of the nation state as paramount, as social scientists we must be careful not to slip back into a methodologically nationalistic lens. Migration scholars like Çağlar have sought to reject the use of nation state as measure by instead tracing the connections between ways that all residents of a situated locality interpret and react to the recalibrations of their lives and urban space through neoliberal globalization. Similarly, my research participants actively critique stable notions of ‘Britishness’, with several rejecting this label and calling themselves Welsh, Scottish, Jamaican, European or a homemade amalgamation of monikers. They draw on multiple and complex sources of belonging to make sense of the present. A bounded nation state approach will not successfully stymy a world pandemic; similarly, recourse to the nation state as a box where social and cultural changes play out will also prove inadequate to the social sciences. Retreat back into the nation state is not a feasible solution given the challenges that lie ahead which can only be approached through deepening multiscalar collaboration and cooperation.
About the Author
Christy Kulz is a sociologist based at the TU Berlin where she is working on a project entitled ‘New borders and the making of cosmopolitan spaces and selves: British migrants, history and memory in post-Brexit Berlin’. After completing her PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London, she was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cambridge University before moving to Berlin.
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 While not explored in this blog, it is important to note that none of the families of people of colour who participated in my research have harboured melancholic fantasies, something which is directly connected to the privileges of whiteness inaccessible to them and a very different orientation to Empire and British nationalism than the average Brexit voter. See Benson, M. and Michaela Benson & Chantelle Lewis (2019) Brexit, British People of Colour in the EU-27 and everyday racism in Britain and Europe, “Ethnic and Racial Studies”, 42:13, 2211-2228, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2019.1599134
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 The Guardian view on a Covid-19 government: failing to do the job, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/13/the-guardian-view-on-a-covid-19-government-failing-to-do-the-job
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 Similarly, Eastern European seasonal workers are also being flown into Germany for the “Spargelzeit” or asparagus season. See https://www.mdr.de/thueringen/rumaenische-erntehelfer-kommen-nach-thueringen-100.html
 Çağlar, A. (2016) ‘Still “migrants” after all those years: foundational mobilities, temporal frames and emplacement of migrants’. “Journal of Ethic and Migration Studies”, vol 42, pp. 952-959.