WWII historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and the reading options are seemingly endless. I received The Girl in the Blue Coat from a Secret Santa exchange and was very excited to read something from the Netherlands, which I don’t know much about. We’ve talked about this before, and I’m always astounded by the wide reach of WWII, especially considering how much of our school education focused solely on Germany, Japan and the US.
Something that has always eluded me when reading WWII novels is how and why the people reacted the way they did. Neighbors living in fear of one another and turning each other in for the slightest suspicion. Lives ruined over a misunderstanding or a bored busy-body.
With the world currently locked down by pandemic, sadly, I’ve begun to understand how it all unfolded. With every government notice, every media post, every friend’s Facebook post, we are being bombarded with messages that the world is not a safe place.
We are receiving endless messages that every single person you encounter is a threat to your health. That sweet little boy rummaging through the candy aisle? Not safe. That little old lady inching closer to hear a conversation, not safe. The guy stocking groceries. Not safe. Your kid’s classmates? Not safe. Coworkers? Not safe. Random stranger jogging down the street? Not safe.
Not only are we being told that other people are a threat to our health, we are being told that normal innocuous daily activities are also hazardous to our health. Touching a door knob or a grocery cart. Wearing your outside shoes inside. Using the same towel daily. Petting a stranger’s dog. Driving with your car window down. Breathing the same air as someone who ran by three hours ago.
Mail and packages should be left on the porch for 24 hours, contents should by Lysoled. Groceries should be removed from their packaging and repacked in “safe” containers. Shopping, dining in a restaurant, exercising in public, riding a bus, taking an Uber, going to work, visiting a library…all unsafe.
The only “safe” activities are Netflix, Disney Plus and as much media content as you can stomach.
Did reading the last three paragraphs make you anxious, panicked and stressed out? Yeah, me too. And in that panic and anxiety, I have begun to understand more and more why people behaved the way they did during WWII.
First, humans are pretty much incapable of making good decisions when panicked. And like the entire world during WWII, we’re all pretty panicked as record numbers of folks are unemployed, the economy has come to a standstill and life as we know has completely stopped.
Second, when everyone around you has been classified as an enemy and all of your normal daily activities are classified as unsafe, we feel, well…unsafe. In WWII Europe, the “enemy” was the Jewish people, the homosexuals, the Roma. In 2020, the “enemy” is anyone standing closer than 6′.
Third, when what we see doesn’t jive with what we are being told, we start to feel confused, frustrated, angry. Heavy propaganda helped propel the Nazi machine through Europe. Our current media has lost all credibility and can’t keep a story straight for more than 2 hours.
Those feelings of panic, danger, confusion, frustration and anger boil down to us feeling helpless, out of control, and alone. That feeling of “alone” is amplified by the fact that we are physically cut off from almost all of our support systems and safe places.
As humans, when we feel helpless, out of control or alone, we do things to counteract and combat those feelings, whether or not they are logical, appropriate or helpful to our situation.
We hoard toilet paper. We close down parks and trails, despite the fact that sunshine, exercise and fresh air are universally renowned for their health benefits. We wear gloves to touch shopping carts. We use rubbing alcohol to disinfect our mail. We stand in our yards, wearing pj’s and howling every night at 8 pm with our neighbors. We use social media to post endless articles, opinions and thoughts on the situation, whether or not those posts and articles are fact checked, true, or relevant.
It bears saying again. When faced with uncertainty, danger, loss of control and alone, humans will always reach for the things that help us feel safe, in charge, under control and not alone, whether or not they are logical, appropriate or helpful to our situation.
Just like the citizens who couldn’t control who was taken and who wasn’t, or whether or not their rations included sugar or flour, we can’t control whether or not the virus clings to metal or dies on cardboard. We can’t control whether or not the stores have toilet paper. And to feel safe, humans need something to control.
As California and New York’s political figure heads have started encouraging folks to turn each other in for social gatherings, it’s becoming a lot easier to understand just how those folks in WWII were able to turn in their neighbors, their friends, their customers.
While we see the consequences of those actions now, and judge them as morally reprehensible from the safety of our own lives decades later, there’s a good chance that they too, were people living in constant panic and fear, operating in panic and fear, decision making in panic and fear.
There’s a good chance that they too were people searching desperately for a way to gain back their own control, power, and safety.
Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.
Until next time, I hope you enjoy a good book and some sunshine.