The end of the world as we know it

I'm currently looking at the air menace as portrayed in the press during the Sudeten crisis in late September-early October 1938. The interesting thing is that there isn't much, at least not directly. There was very little scaremongering material of the type so prevalent in 1934-5, or even earlier in 1938, for example, even in the Daily Mail. Rarely does anyone actually come out and say something along the lines of 'The danger is that Germany will attempt an aerial knock-out blow against London'. I'd guess is this is at least partly due to self-restraint on the part of editors: it would be grossly irresponsible to run headlines playing up the possibility that bombs were about to start falling on British cities, particularly given that panic was itself one of the major concerns.

But, indirectly, the shadow of the bomber was definitely there. The most obvious indication is in the amount of space devoted to discussions of air raid precautions -- distribution of gas masks, digging of trenches in parks, ads for gas-proofing material, plans for the evacuation of children, emergency council meetings to discuss what to do about the fact they'd done nothing in the way of ARP for the last two years ... It would have been pretty clear to most readers what all this meant, especially after the horrors of bombing in Spain and China earlier in the year were recalled.

The other signifier is the end of the world. Or, rather, talk about the end of European civilisation, the abyss towards which we are all sliding, the imminence of a second dark ages. Just taking the New Statesman: on 10 September 1938, a leader states that a war would stop Germany but 'would probably also end European civilisation'; a letter by Paul Goulding similarly refers to the 'breakdown of what remains of European civilisation' if war comes; another from V. Gordon Childe (the famous archaeologist) thought that war 'must, in fact, destroy all that in Britain still deserves the name civilisation', though he was more concerned that Britain was going to reject Soviet aid in order to help the Fascists dismember Czechoslovakia; and L. C. Knights urged that international and social reconstruction be undertaken on the basis of humane (and socialist) values, otherwise 'the alternative is to wait in despairing fatalism for the end of our civilisation'.1 These sorts of sentiments are more common from the left than the right, but not exclusively so.

The problem is, though, that these statements are usually ambiguous. Obviously, my first impulse is to interpret these as references to the devastation caused by massive aerial bombardments. But they could also refer to the effects of a major land war too, and all its consequences -- think of a greater Great War, plus fascism and bolshevism, and with all of the advances in military technology since 1918 thrown in. Come to think of it, that's just the Second World War, really, which did in fact cause far more devastation than did the first (more than three times the total deaths worldwide, for example). Such a war could conceivably stretch the fabric of European society to the breaking point. And so it could be that this is what was meant by the end of civilisation.2 Or, that the mobilisation of society for total war, and the loss of freedoms that went with that, would destroy it from within.

I tend to doubt this is so in most cases, because when such comments are occasionally elaborated upon, they tend to reveal air-mindedness. For example, Gordon Childe went on to speculate whether pro-appeasement intellectuals might come to wonder if 'the bombed ruins of London and Berlin would not have been better than the skeleton of a civilisation condemned to stagnation condemned to stagnation by the denial of free enquiry'.3 And after the crisis had passed, it seems that people felt a little freer to say exactly what it was that they feared. Speaking in the House of Commons after the Munich Agreement, Chamberlain said that the government had 'saved Czecho-Slovakia from destruction and Europe from Armageddon'. Earlier, he had explained what modern war meant:

When war starts to-day, from the very first hour, before any professional soldier, sailor, or airman had been touched, it would strike the workman, the clerk, the man in the street or in the bus, and their wives and children in their homes -- people burrowing underground to escape from poison gas, filled with dread of what might happen to them or those dear to them, or leaving them with maimed fathers and mothers.4

So, I suppose what I'm arguing is that, during the Sudeten crisis, there was a reluctance to talk about that which was most feared, at least in print, just when it seemed imminent. Which is probably very human.

  1. New Statesman, 10 September 1938, 366; 17 September 1938, 412; 24 September 1938, 451; 8 October 1938, 525. 

  2. After all, Salisbury made similar forecasts four decades earlier, without even mentioning aircraft. 

  3. New Statesman, 24 September 1938, 452. 

  4. Manchester Guardian, 7 October 1938, p. 4. 

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