Covid-19, the Second World War, and the Idea of Britishness

by Joanne Pettitt (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection VIII, 346 Pages
Series: British Identities since 1707, Volume 9


In Great Britain, discussions of the Coronavirus pandemic have frequently been intertwined with references to the Second World War. Such allusions are to be found in political speeches, journalistic accounts and opinion pieces; they are also replete in the cultural sphere. Bringing together scholars from a range of disciplines, this comprehensive volume seeks to evaluate the uses (and abuses) of this rhetoric. The result is a multifaceted meditation on Britain’s response to the pandemic.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Covid-19, the Second World War, and the Idea of Britishness (Joanne Pettitt)
  • Global Threats to an Island Story: Covid-19 and the British ‘Foundation Myth’ of 1940 (Charlie Hall)
  • ‘A Nation at War’: Battle of Britain Narratives Revived and Repurposed by Covid-19 (Sophy Antrobus)
  • Don’t Mention the War (Julian Petley)
  • ‘Like Any Wartime Government’: Covid-19, Churchillian Imaginaries and the Limits of English Exceptionalism (Leighton Andrews)
  • Taking It on the Chin: Sport, War and Covid-19 (Peter Donaldson)
  • England Is Not a Template: Wales, Britishness and Covid-19 (Eluned Gramich)
  • Wrong War Mate (Reprise): Britain, the Holocaust and Covid-19. A Polemic (Tony Kushner)
  • ‘A Beacon of Light’: Representations of Captain Tom Moore and the ‘Silent Generation’ of Covid-19 Victims (Linda Maynard)
  • Disrupting the Rituals of Grief: Conflict, Covid-19 and the Fracturing of Funerary Tradition (Kara Critchell)
  • ‘We Will Meet Again’: Mobilising Prosthetic Memories of the Second World War during the UK Covid-19 Lockdown (Cat Mahoney)
  • ‘Keep Calm and Bake Bananas’: Reimagining Wartime Posters for Covid-19 (Lauren Cantillon)
  • Cruel Nostalgia and Covid-19 (Robert Eaglestone)
  • Finest Hour 2.0: Digital Nostalgic Popular Culture and Covid-19 (Michael Samuel)
  • Postscript
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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This volume has, by necessity, come together at breakneck speed. The call for papers was written and circulated in June 2020. By Christmas, the completed volume had been submitted to Peter Lang. My thanks are thus due to all of the contributors, whose hard work, cooperation and punctuality have been essential to the timely completion of the book. The spirited (and often outright controversial) contributions that make up this volume have provided much food for thought – across the collection, there is some (unexpected) humour, and plenty of (expected) frustration, but I think there are also the seeds of some important conversations that need to be had. I am grateful to all of the authors for bringing these to the fore.

I am also indebted to series editor Paul Ward, who not only encouraged and commissioned the project, but who has also provided constant support throughout the process. His comments and feedback have certainly made this a better book.

Lucy Melville at Peter Lang has also been a source of constant support, and her advice at various stages has been much appreciated.

Finally, this project would never have come to fruition if it was not for the support of my family. Their unwavering support has been vital.

2020 has, for most, been a terrible year. I hope that this project marks the beginning of the long process of thinking through this epoch. As Christmas beckons and the New Year approaches, I raise a glass and hope for better times ahead.

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Joanne Pettitt

Covid-19, the Second World War, and the Idea of Britishness

The Second World War forms an essential part of British national identity. The notion that Britain stood alone against the Nazi tide, defending its borders while championing moral integrity and freedom for all, has fed into conceptions of Britishness since 1945. Underpinning this idea is a general sense that, in times of extreme hardship, Brits will, against all the odds, pull together and find a way through. This brand of patriotic pride has become particularly pronounced in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic. Now passed its first peak and entering its second, the Covid-19 emergency resulted in a global lockdown, the kind of which would have been unimaginable only months ago. In the face of this new adversity there has been a surge in comparisons between the myriad challenges brought about by the virus and the hardships encountered during the Second World War.

Politicians have led the way in propagating this rhetoric of conflict. Boris Johnson has, for example, declared himself the leader of a wartime government, insisting that the country will ‘win the fight’ and ‘beat the enemy’ (2020a). Donald Trump quickly followed suit, calling the virus a ‘horrible, invisible enemy’ and affirming: ‘We are at war. In a true sense, we are at war, and we’re fighting an invisible enemy’ (2020). German chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have also drawn on references to war in public addresses (see: Bentham [2020] and Horowitz et al. [2020], respectively). In Britain, perhaps unsurprisingly, this rhetorical flourish reached its peak on VE Day. In their VE day speeches, for example, both Boris Johnson and the Queen took the opportunity to draw comparisons between war and lockdown; Johnson said: ‘we are now engaged in a new struggle against the coronavirus which demands the same ←1 | 2→spirit of national endeavour [as the war]’ (2020b: 00:02:10). In similar fashion, the Queen proudly reported: ‘And when I look at our country today, and see what we are willing to do to protect and support one another, I say with pride that we are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen would recognise and admire’ (2020a). In an earlier address to the nation, she also took the opportunity to draw parallels between the separation of families and the children evacuated to the country during the war: ‘today, once again, many will feel a painful separation from their loved ones, but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do’ (2020b).

Similar analogies have been made across the spectrum of the British press. For example, in an interesting case of journalistic appropriation, Dame Julie Andrews (perhaps unwittingly) became the voice of the generation that experienced both periods of crisis. On May 7th, she gave an interview to The Guardian in which she promoted a podcast project; the headline was a quotation taken from the interview about sexual harassment in Hollywood: ‘I was certainly aware of tales about the casting couch’ (Freeman 2020). On the same day, the Independent reported on the interview. Moving away from the main content of The Guardian piece, the Independent’s headline shifted focus away from both the podcast and the question of sexual abuse, instead drawing equivalences between the virus and the war and, implicitly, foregrounding Andrews as a mouthpiece for the ever-decreasing generation that has experienced both catastrophes: ‘Julie Andrews admitted that the coronavirus pandemic has brought up the same emotions she felt as a child during the Second World War’ (Lewis 2020).

Perhaps the most salient example was written by Ben Macintyre for The Times using a headline employing the same rhetoric of conflict previously used by politicians: ‘Coronavirus: We’re facing an invisible enemy in this war on the home front’ (2020). In the article, the author acknowledges that ‘there are ways in which this situation is similar to war, there are others in which it is not’; but he nevertheless speaks of a ‘bacterial war’, noting that ‘this time the home front is the front line’. He concludes, ‘Yet as it approaches this new war Britain can take some solace from the last one and look back, not with self-indulgent nostalgia, but with a cautious pride’ (ibid.).

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A range of reader comments and opinion pieces also invoke the comparison. For example, on VE Day, The Times ran an article with the headline ‘Uncertain Future; Like the Second World War, the coronavirus marks a significant moment in history and shines a spotlight on shifting geopolitical currents’; while the article acknowledges that ‘The Second World War, which ended in Europe 75 years ago today, was a much darker, more dangerous event than the one we are now living through’, it also grants that ‘there are parallels’ and that ‘the comparison is legitimate’ (The Times 2020). Another poignant example was published by the Daily Express on the 24th of May. The piece is entitled ‘Dunkirk spirit is with us … and will see us through Coronavirus’; in it, the author argues that

the Dunkirk spirit encapsulates a collective effort which shows that however small your contribution is, it is magnified when put together with the efforts of others. We have seen this in recent weeks with the more than three million volunteers, the countless acts of kindness, the respect for social distancing and much more that have brought the infection rate under control. […] So the Dunkirk spirit is in many ways about Churchill's inspirational leadership and bloodymindedness to do the right thing. It was about courage of conviction and not doing what was easy or convenient, even when Britain stood alone devoid of friends and allies. We see some of that spirit in Churchill's biographer, Boris Johnson, as he wrestles with being a disease-time leader. (Express 2020)

Accepting seemingly without critique Johnson’s claim of being the leader of a wartime government, the contributor invokes the Churchillian rhetoric that the current prime minister finds so evocative. Such discourses aim at inspiring the nation, proving that adversity can be overcome and that better times lie ahead.

Martin Rowson’s VE day cartoon for The Guardian adopts a different view, pointing to the problems associated with such facile comparisons (2020). The cartoon depicts a scene from ‘Churchill Veteran’s Care Home’. In the picture, an elderly gentleman bedecked with war medals sits in the corner of a room; on the TV, a perspiring Matt Hancock is sitting between two Union Jack flags, the (partially obscured) ribbon at the bottom of the screen reads ‘Covid deaths 2 X Blitz’. Outside the window, two ambulances are visible; paramedics in full PPE are in the process of removing someone on a stretcher; Union Jack bunting is stretched across the floor, creating ←3 | 4→a tripping hazard for the exiting paramedic. In an obvious reference to Hannah Arendt’s famous coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial (1963), the image is titled ‘The Banality of Evil’.

The cartoon draws attention to the juxtaposition of Covid-19 and the Second World War through references to both Churchill and the Blitz, as well as through the medals that hint at the elderly gentleman’s contribution to the war effort. Now alone and seemingly forgotten about by the blundering politicians on the screen, the cartoon points to the hypocrisy of the comparison in the context of the disproportionately high death rate in care homes (what has been labelled the ‘care home crisis’).1 In other words, the cartoon critiques the hypocrisy of politicians who, on the one hand, venerate those that served in the war as a means of galvanising the nation in a time of crisis while, on the other hand, they are failing in their basic duty of care to those they are supposedly championing. The image of the paramedic about to trip over Union Jack bunting suggests that the narratives of Britishness that are being invoked are in fact hampering the relief effort and masking the true nature of the emergency.

This generational approach to the crisis is, in many ways, personified by Captain Tom Moore and Dame Vera Lynn. Captain Tom – as he has affectionately become known – is a former British Army Officer who served in India and Burma during the Second World War. He rose to prominence in the UK following his successful attempt to walk one hundred laps around his garden before his hundredth birthday; his attempt raised over £30,000,000 for the NHS. His final lap was afforded a Guard of Honour by the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment; Major Ian Atkins – officer commanding the troops – said at the time: ‘The soldiers, standing apart and yet together in support of Captain Tom, couldn’t be prouder to count him as one of their own, and we thank him from the bottom of our hearts for his service to the country, and now his achievements in the name of the NHS’ (quoted in Forces.net 2020).

As a Briton who contributed to the national efforts both during the war and the pandemic, Captain Tom has certainly been taken into the hearts of the British public. This is so much the case that he has even inspired a musical score entitled ‘Resilience,’ composed by Joanne Dodds:←4 | 5→

Resilience is a short uplifting work for violin and piano and is inspired by the nation’s resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as during WWII, with VE Day being next week. I am therefore dedicating the work to Captain Tom Moore, who has captured the nations hearts with his own resilience during both testing moments in our history. (Dodds 2020)

As Dodds here indicates, Captain Tom has come to personify characteristics so often associated with the British character: perseverance, resilience and enduring optimism. That he has played an active role in serving his country in two defining periods of British history only increases the potency of his cultural importance and, if we are to be cynical, his inherent ‘sellability’.

Similarly, ‘forces sweetheart’ Dame Vera Lynn has recently been brought back to the attention of the British public. In May 2020, at the age of 103, she became the oldest singer to score a top 40 album, after her compilation 100 saw an upsurge in sales to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The singer died just one month later; her funeral cortège was marked with crowds lining the streets and a Spitfire flyover, attesting both to her place in the national imagination and to her association with the iconography of the Second World War.

Lynn’s famous wartime hit We’ll Meet Again has been used as a link between the two periods of crisis. As well as being referenced by Queen Elizabeth in her address to the nation (2020b), the connection has also been made in the cultural sphere. In honour of VE Day, popular Mezzo Soprano Katherine Jenkins recorded a behind-closed-doors performance at the Royal Albert Hall. As part of the show, Jenkins digitally collaborated with Lynn on a duet, which was released as a charity single raising money for the NHS. Dame Vera Lynn said:

I'll never forget how ‘We’ll Meet Again’ meant so much to all those soldiers going off to war as well as with their families and sweethearts. Seventy-five years since the end of the war in Europe, the virus has given those lyrics a whole new meaning. I have found the nation’s renewed love for the song very moving. I hope this special duet lifts the spirits of our VE Day Veterans and all those separated from loved ones at this time. (O’Connor 2020)

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Likewise, The Royal Albert Hall introduces the performance as follows:

On 8 May 2020 people all over the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe.

The United Kingdom, whilst under nationwide lockdown measures being taken to combat COVID-19, still took the opportunity to mark the anniversary with socially-distanced tea parties, and an address from Her Majesty the Queen.

At the Royal Albert Hall, now in its third month of closure due to the pandemic, Katherine Jenkins led tributes to those who lost their lives in the conflict with a special behind-closed-doors performance, joined by some very special guests including saxophonist Jess Gillam.

The concert also brought a message of hope and togetherness, with a virtual duet of We’ll Meet Again with Dame Vera Lynn – a message that has resonated around the nation as people are again separated from their loved ones at a time of crisis. (Griffin 2020)


VIII, 346
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (August)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VIII, 346 pp., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Joanne Pettitt (Volume editor)

Joanne Pettitt is a Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. She is the secretary of the British Association of Holocaust Studies and a member of the executive board of the European Association of Holocaust Studies. She is also co-editor-in-chief of Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History. Joanne’s work focuses on representations of Holocaust perpetrators in literature and her first monograph – Perpetrators in Narratives of the Holocaust: Encountering the Nazi Beast – was published in June 2017. She is currently working on a comparative study on the uses of Nazism in representations of the British far right.


Title: Covid-19, the Second World War, and the Idea of Britishness
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356 pages