So much has changed since 1938, but not the very British way of coping with crisis

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<span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

People knew the news was grave before the second world war. They feel that now. In both eras, we have developed strategies to get by


Armed conflict, especially when fought against a more powerful enemy, produces the loftiest national rhetoric. It keeps our spirits up, and we tend to remember the best bits. In his speech to the Westminster parliament last week, Volodymyr Zelenskiy echoed Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” passage from his post-Dunkirk oration, but the Ukrainian president might just as appositely have referenced one of Britain’s most hostile critics.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” the English radical and American patriot Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, when the American revolutionary war was only a year old and its outcome far from certain. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country,” Paine continued, “but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered: yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

The words began Paine’s essay in a pamphlet – the first of 16 – that he hoped would inspire and sustain the colonists’ opposition to London rule. Like a lot of rhetoric, it includes nonsense more apparent today than when it was first heard or read. King George III is now nobody’s idea of a tyrant, and when Paine compares London’s oppressive regulation to slavery – if it isn’t slavery, he says, then “there is not such a thing as slavery upon Earth” – he reveals a remarkable blindness to the real, non-metaphorical chattel slaves who underpinned so much of the American economy. Still, “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” is a memorable phrase, the prose has an appealing rhythm, and, not the least of their attractions, the titles of the pamphlets place them firmly in the modern age. Some were called The American Crisis and others simply The Crisis. A more urgent era had begun.

The word itself is ancient – from the Greek krisis meaning decision, used by Hippocrates to describe the turning point in the progress of a disease that leads either to recovery or death. By the 17th century its usage had begun to spread beyond medicine. In 1627, Sir Benjamin Rudyerd MP, trying to mediate between Charles I and parliament, spoke of the “crisis of parliaments; by this we shall know whether parliaments will live or die”. Astrologers were soon using the word to describe a conjunction of the planets that was critical to human affairs. Gradually, it came to mean something more prolonged than a life-or-death moment. The factory owner and social reformer Robert Owen edited a short-lived newspaper, The Crisis, that promoted “the change from error and misery to truth and happiness”, while Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto describe “crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly”.

In the 20th century, anxiety and feelings of powerlessness became central to the experience. Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, founders of the Mass Observation movement in the crisis-afflicted 1930s, decided that the word had no very exact meaning, but had come to be one of those things, like epidemics and earthquakes, “which suddenly arrive to threaten the security of our ordinary lives”. National or international, a crisis was “a kind of melting pot for boundaries, institutions, opinions”.

It was the last that most intrigued Madge and Harrisson: how opinions were formed, how they changed, what they were alleged to be, and what they actually were. The Munich crisis of September 1938 and the events leading up to it gave Mass Observation a marvellous chance to find out, and its 1,500 voluntary observers – interviewers and eavesdroppers in the cause of a primitive anthropology – were deployed to record both public and private moods.

The results appeared in a Penguin Special published the next year, price sixpence. I bought a secondhand copy 50 years ago, and it remains a favourite book. There’s so much life, variety and wit in it. (Observer to barmaid in Bolton: “What do you think of the Austrian crisis?” Barmaid: “Oh, I’m not fussy.”) Britain was a different country then – patriarchal, monocultural, with newspapers, BBC radio and rumour the only sources of information outside the personal experience of family and friends. Nonetheless, attitudes that were common then still persist. The bad news of 1938 produced reactions that have become familiar again in the past few years. One is that there is simply too much of it – too much news, too much of it bad. Mass Observation found the public’s interest in crises was decreasing. After all, what could people do to change things?

A clerk in 1938: “I am getting tired of people talking about wars in Spain and China … if people start talking about another war I feel like saying, ‘For goodness sake shut up.’”

My neighbour in 2022: “I buy the Week and read it once a week. That’s it. I never read, watch or listen to any other news for the sake of my psychic health.”

Wife (to me) in 2022: “Should we switch from the Today programme to Radio 3 in the morning like we did during Covid?”

Newspapers were by far the biggest opinion formers in 1938, though the people whose opinions they formed often didn’t trust them. Madge and Harrisson pointed out the irony: “It is like being led through [a] strange country by a guide who may turn out to be a gangster. Hence most opinion, except the most fanatical, is tinged with uncertainty … ”

Today, mainstream sources of news are flatly contested as well as distrusted. Walking to the tube to get to the Russian embassy the other day, and carrying a placard (STOP PUTIN, STOP WAR), my wife had two encounters. A man by an ice-cream van shouted to her: “You’ve got to be careful about your sources of information … CNN is putting out poison … You’ve got to keep your radar spinning.” Then, at the station, a woman who turned out to be Russian approached, trembling and hyperventilating. “No, no, it’s lies, it’s American lies,” she said. “The Ukrainians have been killing people for years … in the war they would shoot children.”

My wife said that in Russia they couldn’t be having this conversation, and the woman said frankly that was true. “But the Americans will soon make it like that here, too.”

Russia had better things to do than invade Ukraine, morally and practically. The permafrost is melting all the way across Siberia, swelling the land as if it had boils and releasing huge quantities of methane. A force of nature, it may well be unstoppable – impossible, unlike the burning of fossil fuels and chopping down of rainforests, to moderate by changing human behaviour. This is a crisis to end crises, and a rhetoric has still to be found to match it.

  • Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist


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