An Unexplored History: Civilians and a Latent Enthusiasm for Warfare

By Michele Haapamaki

…the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets… The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spell-bound – almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity.

— Diarist Michael MacDonagh, commenting on the Zeppelin ship “Heinrich Mathy,” brought down north of London in a spectacular conflagration on the night of 1-2 October 1916.[1]

This individual diarist was an ordinary Londoner, enraptured by novelty and fright during the first “Total War.” His first-person account gives us retrospective insight into the complexity of civilian emotion in response to war and destruction. Civilians have been integral to warfare for at least the last one hundred years. For the most part they are usually depicted or imagined as victims – which they often are. On other occasions they are conceived of as essential and enthusiastic participants, such as occurred during the Blitz in Great Britain.

Michele picture 2 The_End_of_the_'Baby-Killer'

British propaganda postcard, entitled “The End of the ‘Baby-Killer.” WWI Zeppelin raids over London and other British cities both terrified and fascinated civilians.

Largely because it is disquieting to our collective sense as humane, civil, and empathetic people, there are aspects of the “gleeful” response to war exhibited by MacDonagh and his fellow Londoners which we may willfully wish to ignore. We don’t like to envisage ourselves as excited and thrilled by the spectacle of destruction or the death of enemy combatants or civilians, but very often this is exactly the emotional response which rises to the surface. As historians, this perspective has been only scantly addressed, partly because truly accessing such historical data is a fraught prospect. It is a perspective commonly glossed over by journalistic accounts, with their neat categorizations of conflict – just or unjust, assigning blame, and delineating the elements of humanitarian crisis. Certainly “official” accounts, from which we derive many narratives of past conflicts, have obvious or obscured agendas. Governments seek to bolster morale, endorse patriotism, and manage information for the benefit of both enemies and allies. There is certainly also ample time to interview remaining survivors of twentieth-century conflicts about this very emotion by way of conducting oral histories.

Historians are, it seems, increasingly comfortable with borrowing from a variety of sources to form a whole picture of “normal” reactions to war. Though not of immediate historical relevance, I find that many non-academic accounts provide insights into war and emotion that are of at least contemplative use, even within more formal histories. Sebastian Junger, in his fascinating book War (via his experiences with an American army outpost in Afghanistan), presents the notion that “the defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea.”[2] Civilians, particularly civilian men, can suffer a loss of status by virtue of being a noncombatant. As Junger puts it, “self-sacrifice in defense of one’s community is virtually universal among humans, extolled in myths and legends all over the world.”[3] It is an idea that individuals are inevitably drawn to. The prestige of the warrior extends so deeply into our collective identity, and it would be unfathomable that the thrill of so closely witnessing warfare does not profoundly affect civilians as well. We do know, for example, about the demands for “revenge attacks” in 1917 following aerial attacks and how civilians appropriated the idea of themselves being warriors-by-proxy. Historians can and should probe more instances of war fervor and its expression in individual accounts. Joanna Bourke has written about how the “fearful” civilians of the First World War were rhetorically transformed into the indomitable citizens of the Second.[4] Her studies and others looking into the mindset of people under the constant threat of war can further illuminate the actions of wartime workers, fire watchers, ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Wardens, and other groups that have been frequent subjects of historical inquiry. In my own studies, comprising the lead-up to war in 1939, we can see how concern over individuals’ emotional reactions to war tended only to focus on fear or neurotic breakdown and how to avoid their mass manifestation. It is clear, however, that actual reactions were far more complex and, to many observers, even surprising.

[This is a follow-up piece to the author’s previous post about the reactions of civilians to air raids and the durability of morale.]

[1] Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014), p. 172

[2] Sebastian Junger, War (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010), 214.

[3] Junger, p. 242.

[4] Joanna Bourke, Fear: A Cultural History (London: Virago, 2005), pp. 222-254


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