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Response to Review no. 332

John Baxendale’s expertise in this field eminently qualifies him for the task of reviewing my book and I am very grateful to him for the thoroughness of his scrutiny and for the thoughtful and valuable suggestions he makes. He calls for a fresh perspective on the question of civilian morale, to be created by placing the war ‘within a much broader chronological framework of British cultural history’ and by comparing how and why British civilians behaved as they did with their counterparts in Germany. I am entirely with him in believing that explanatory insight is to be found in the mentalit├ęs of ordinary people – hence the chapter called ‘The Invisible Chain’. But I would hesitate to say that this is ‘surely what it [civilian morale] is all about’. It rather seems to me the fullest explanation requires that all the structural levels of society must be considered – economic, social, administrative and cultural. None is fully comprehensible in isolation from the others; their significance for collective behaviour lies in their inter-relationship.

That said, I readily acknowledge that the ‘mentalities’ chapter is no more than a tentative probe into the cultural constituents of wartime attitudes and behaviour. What I can say is nothing I discovered in my sources shifted me from prioritising the almost anthropological conclusion that morale derived from a very powerful feeling – visceral would best describe it – that united elites and masses, haves and have-nots: that for all its faults, Britain was worth fighting for. Being British and living in Britain apparently provided sufficient common ground for the great majority in a class-ridden and in many ways socially unjust society, to cooperate in the project of defeating the forces threatening its independent existence. The perception of the optimists among the ruling elite was that the mass of the people shared with them a sense of common identity simply from being British. This was the premise of the propaganda campaign ‘Your Britain – Fight For it Now!’ (the promoters of the current anti-Brussels campaign clearly believe the message has a continuing allure). And the evidence is strong enough that relatively humble citizens (like Nella Last and Richard Brown, whose wartime diaries have survived) did identify with the posture struck by Churchill in 1940, and that this sentiment remained strong enough to keep the tiresome project in business until it achieved its objective.

I am sure that unpacking the elements of this mentality would be a worthwhile endeavour, even were the realities of current book production readily to permit it; but my present feeling is that we would still be left with the simplistic-sounding conclusion: that at root what we are seeing here is little more than the primitive instinct to defend one’s own territory against the outsider. It was the instinct that brought Bevin and Churchill into productive cooperation – a phenomenon symbolic of what was taking place in the nation more generally. Interestingly, something similar occurred in Germany – suggesting, perhaps, that a comparative approach might produce an explanation owing more to reflections on the nature of homo sapiens than on homo Britannicus or homo Germanicus. It also suggests that since the phenomenon of a closing of ranks is so clearly a product of the perception of mortal threat, a longer time-frame than the six years of the war itself might not be as productive as one might imagine. While, therefore, I am tempted into taking up John Baxendale’s suggestions (I am especially interested, for example, in the notion that the resilience of civilians in both Britain and Germany owed something to the elevation of the Stoic virtues in educational practice in both countries from the nineteenth century onwards), but fear it is too late for me to become both a cultural historian and a Germanist. But I am sure that some one will grasp this nettle – if indeed they are not already doing so?