The title relates to both the content of a paper I gave yesterday at the School's Work In Progress Day, and to my own state of mind beforehand! I think it went well, though -- at least there was no rotten fruit thrown at the end! -- which is good because it was the first real outing for my current chapter on defence panics. The deadly-dull paper title was "Moral panics, defence panics and the British air panic of 1934-5", and here's the abstract:

The sociological concept of moral panic was developed to describe and explain how societies react to internal threats to their values and interests, such as crime or deviant behaviour, with particular emphasis on the roles played by the media and expert opinion. In this paper I will argue that the reactions of a society to external, military threats -- "defence panics" -- can develop in essentially the same way as moral panics, and can be analysed using a similar framework. My main example will be drawn from the British air panic of 1934-5 over the threat of illegal German aerial rearmament.

For the record, these are the main defence panic candidates I'm interested in, some of which I've discussed here before:

  • phantom airship scare, 1913
  • Gotha raids on London, 1917
  • "French" air menace, 1922
  • Hamburg gas disaster, 1928
  • German germ warfare experiments, 1934
  • German air menace, 1934-5
  • Guernica, 1937; Barcelona, 1938; Canton, 1938; Munich crisis, 1938
  • the Blitz, 1940

I had a slide up with Airminded's URL but stupidly forgot to actually mention it. So if anyone who heard my talk has managed to find their way here despite this, hello and well done! Amazingly, there was actually one student there who already reads Airminded -- I was very chuffed to learn that reading it is less boring than working :) -- but I quite rudely forgot to ask their name. If they or anyone else from the session would like to drop me a line, they can drop me a line here in the comments, or via the contact form. I'd like to hear from you!

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18 thoughts on “Panic!

  1. Jess Nevins

    Hmm. Do you feel that the reaction to George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871) doesn't qualify as a defense panic?

  2. Post author

    Oh yes, it probably does -- I haven't looked at it in detail beyond what I've read in I. F. Clarke and suchlike, but in the paper I did list 1871 as one of a list of 10 or so probable defence panics that I rattled off, from between 1848 and 1900. Since it wasn't an air panic (ie, aviation-related defence panic), it's not something that I'll be researching myself. But you've reminded me that I will have to write in my thesis about the Dorking episode, as part of the background, certainly more than I've done so far ...

    Just by the bye, the first true air panic was in 1909, the first phantom airship scare; but there was a failed one in 1908 over Rudolf Martin's claims that Germany could use a massive fleet of Zeppelins to actually invade Britain. I don't know of anything in Britain before then that looks like an aviation-related defence panic (unless perhaps it's the idea that Napoleon's army was going to use balloons to cross the Channel, but that's way too early for me to get into).

  3. Jess Nevins

    Hey, thank you for posting about it, and for the blog! I'm enjoying it.

    There weren't any real defense panics in Britain before 1909, but through the 1890s and 1900s British popular fiction magazines printed a number of stories--many openly science fictional, others using realistic/contemporary technology--about Britain's vulnerability to air attacks. During the 1890s the common theme was "anarchists use high-tech zeppelins to attack England/overthrow the European order," while by 1905 it was something like "Continental thieves plunder English banks, and only Sexton Blake, in his advanced Moth monoplane, can stop them." But unlike Chesney/"Dorking" these stories didn't have a real-life effect.

  4. Chris Williams

    What about the mid-century Napoleon III panic? I always thought that this had a number of visible effects, some of them still visible from orbit, in fact.

  5. And if you want to go back even further, you could include anti-catholic hysteria in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially the Irish rebellion in 1641: that resulted in widespread beliefs that the Irish were going to invade England, or even that they already had!

  6. Post author


    Sexton Blake, LOL. I do look at some of the anarchist-type stuff like Hartmann the Anarchist and Outlaws of the Air but don't have the space to get into them very deeply. Good clean fun, though.


    Yes, of course. As I said, there were plenty of panics to go around: 1848, 1852, 1852-3, 1854, 1859, 1871, 1881-2, 1884, 1888, 1900. Napoleon III was just one of many!


    Thanks, definitely out of my area! Would be interesting to know how the scare developed. The press is crucial in my period for that process; I suppose newspapers were just starting to flourish around the 17th century.

  7. I just noticed that someone googled for "air pirates of the Congo" and hit my blog.

    Curiously, though, far from the sort of stuff that would fit that description on my blog, the closest match seems to be a 1935 childrens' book of the same title by one "G. Gibbard Jackson".

  8. The press did have a lot to do with it. There was a big explosion of newspapers in the early 1640s because censorship broke down. They tended to print wildly exaggerated or made-up stories of all the terrible things the Irish rebels were doing. Oral rumours also played a role: refugees were mistaken for bloodthirsty invaders (some things never change!) and people ran off in terror spreading the word that "the Irish are coming".

    I suppose there's nothing new about panics in general, but air panics seem to be different because fear of new technology plays a big part.

  9. Post author

    Very interesting! I'm always looking for precursors and analogues, so I may have to look into that at some stage. Sounds a lot like the "Great Fear" during the French Revolution, when townsfolk feared a completely imaginary alliance between foreign invaders, brigands and the nobility. The dust raised from herds of sheep being driven to market would be interpreted as armies on the march, and so on.

    I suppose there’s nothing new about panics in general, but air panics seem to be different because fear of new technology plays a big part.

    Actually that part's not new, since the 1840s (at least) technology was a major driver of defence panics (see these quotes, for example). Not too surprising, I guess, it's an industrial revolution thing. So I'd argue in part that the coming of flight just changed the form which the panics took. But only in part :)

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  11. Alex Long

    I also suffer from panic attacks and i can manage it by deep and slow breathing. i also practice meditation.. *

  12. "Worried about the knock-out blow, Mr. Jones? Take two Snibbo™ brand natural vitamins, try some deep meditation, and come and see me in the morning..."

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