Home / Robert Farley / Politics as Hobby

Politics as Hobby


I found this passage from Richard Overy’s The Bombing War fascinating:

It is evident that many other issues on the home front and the fighting front preoccupied the wider public as well. A Mass Observation survey in August 1940 found that three-quarters of respondents could not name a British air marshal; included on the list of responses was Hermann Göring. A second MO report on the attitude of demolition labourers showed that they discussed the bombing hardly at all, but spent most of the time bantering about sex, race and loot, with an occasional comment on the war overseas.

“Included on the list” isn’t very specific, but it surely does bring to mind similar howlers from U.S. polling data. The lesson I take (which, of course, backs up my previous view), is that politics, war, and international relations remain essentially a hobby, a niche interest, even under the most dire possible conditions. To frame differently, I suspect that if Hugh Dowding and Laurence Olivier had both used twitter in 1940, Olivier’s follower count would have dwarfed Dowding’s by 2-3 orders of magnitude.

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  • Sly

    But old people and Aaron Sorkin always tell me that they were way smarter and so much more in tune with “what was going on” in those days than my overprivileged generation, and certainly way more than these feckless millennials that need to get off everyone’s lawn with their phones and their crazy dances and their music by Snoopy Dog Dog.

    • Todd

      Yes, Victor David Hansen assures us that everyone used to be a trained classicist upon graduation from high school, with every man and woman a devoted and engaged citizen in a democratic-Spartan war-state-topia.

      • Shit, where do I sign up for that? I went through undergrad, two years of teaching, and am doing a master’s and I’m still not a trained classicist!

        (In all seriousness, here’s an antihistamine for those of you who are allergic to shitty history.)

        • Richard Hershberger

          I often point out just what a sad case Hanson is. I know it is hard to believe, but his early purely academic work on hoplite warfare was terrific. It is well worth reading (and very readable) for anyone at all interested in the subject. He was being touted by reasonable people as the successor to John Keegan. Then he went nuts. I have not looked into it, but I would guess that like so many others, he looked at the fact that a few dozen suicidal guys with box cutters could for a brief time exploit a gap in Western flight security procedures, and concluded from this that Western Civilization (an expression that I suspect he considers redundant) was under existential threat from the Evil Caliphate. He was hardly the only, or the smartest, person to following this startling logical path. So I see him as a tragic figure (much like Colin Powell) who after doing interesting and useful things with his life ended up being a clown in a Shakespearean comedy.

      • VDH is an ass, but some things _are_ different.

        When and where I was a sprout, almost every elementary school teacher could play the piano {some of them very well indeed) and there was a piano in the front corner of many elementary classrooms.

        • LeeEsq

          I somehow doubt that almost every elementary school teacher good play the piano when the baby boomers were in elementary school. it seems somewhat improbable considering the size of the country.

        • It is true that the teaching profession, being the only profession open to upper class women, attracted a highly educated and talented pool. But if you remember your Laura Ingalls Wilder she taught school on the prarie at age 15 because there were so few available teachers that she was able to get a job teaching not just straight out of highschool but before she had finished. Neither pianos nor teachers who could play the piano.

        • Richard Hershberger

          Which is to say, stipulating the factual assertion as true, that you come from a time and place where middle class culture placed great emphasis on the piano, and this is no longer true. I bet your elementary school teachers were crap at personal computer skills. No, I am not granting as relevant the detail that the personal computer had not yet been invented.

  • Ronan

    I guess the contemporary comparison would be Andrew Exum and Jack Black, so it’s more an order of magnitude of X 80

    • Ronan

      typo, X 8

    • Ronan

      More seriously though, doesnt this kind of put a lie to the idea of ‘a shared experience of war’ ‘national solidarity encouraged through suffering’ etc? There were always problems with that narrative I guess, but it still has wide currency with certain experts, afaics

      • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

        There have always been quibbles with that narrative. Harrison suggested that those that were not bombed and lived in safe areas were more likely to demand reprisal raids than those who lived in danger zones or who had been bombed (who to be fair were far more likely getting on with the business of survival). There have been challenges to his data in recent years suggesting the correlation was not as strong as he suggested, but there was far from a public consensus on reprisals.

        Similarly, public morale seemed to have been the product of other factors. According to Jones et al. local preparations for bombing (particularly the availability of shelters) could cause morale to fluctuate from city to city. And there was an economic dimension. The city of Birmingham seems to have had less problem with staff turnover because the war industries had made it an economically prosperous metropolis with stable employment and high wages. In contrast Hull, which had lost its trade with Scandinavia and the Low Countries, was a depressed zone that saw a lot of people trekking into the countryside in the evenings.

        • Ronan

          Thats interesting.
          Why do you think they would hae been talking about ‘race’ in Britain during WW2? Wasnt this before the major post war migrations when britain was still ery monoracial?

          • Ronan

            I remember seeing something recently about the odds that if ‘we’ (random people form nowadays) had lived through the 60s in the US, the chances of anyone commenting here supporting (let alone being involved with) the civil rights movement in the US was statistically very very unlikely
            Same goes with being directly affected by/involved in any of the wars in irish history (which were very geogrpahicly (and person) specific)
            Also, any time I asked my grandmother about it her memory of world war 2 (in Ireland, so although neutral close to Europe with some threat of invasion) was always the rations and the everyday affect the war had on life. The bigger picture didnt seem to intrude
            Im just spitballing here, not really trying to say anything coherent

          • A) anti Irishism is racism.
            B) the colonies were also involved in the war and though the soldiers from the colonies weren’t necessarily evident surely any discussion of what was happening in India, Burma, or Africa would bring up the question of race?

            • Ronan

              On (b) wouldnt that go against the claim put forward in the OP though? (That the labourers had a low interest in foreign affairs, and even the second world war.)
              Would they have been aware enough of soldiers from the colonies (or even what was going on in the colonies at any given moment) to be discussing it in general conversation?
              It seems odd that race (leaving aside the Irish aspect for a moment)would be up there with sex and loot (which I assume means ‘personal finances’) as a topic of conversation in britain at the time, which wasnt (afaik) a particularly racialised country

              • You can’t assume that because “race” is one of the categories that came up that it came up in the way you imagine race has to come up. Could have been mentioned in passing. Could have been the result of the fact that port cities have always had non whites passing through. Could have included musings about the French “race” and the German “race” which were quite common since “whiteness” only emerges in contradistinction to other notions of race in certain circumstances. You just can’t know on the basis of the quote.

                • Ronan

                  Yeah true enough, and that seems a good reading of it
                  That was more my query, what does the bit quoted above mean by race in this context

                • It could also have been jokes, which were heavily infused with race until recently here, only dying off as something average people told without embarrassment in, what, the 1990s? Think how common Polish jokes, or Italian jokes, or humor based on stereotypes of Irish were in this country 30 years ago, even leaving aside racial humor along a black-white axis. Many of those jokes were hundreds of years old at their root form, with the races involved being changed along the way depending on current location and social conditions.

                • Ahuitzotl

                  huh, when I read that, I assumed race = different sections of england/scotland/wales, e.g. the northerners, the bristolern, ppl of the west country, etc

            • Foregone Conclusion

              Don’t forget about anti-Semitism. Jews were the most prominent ‘racial’ minority in Britain at that time, I should think.

              • Ronan

                Yeah, absolutely.
                One of the most interesting things I found when living in London was learning how the old East End evolved and was shaped by various waves of immigration/regeneration etc
                Old ‘white’ working class neighbours, the Jewish and Irish areas becoming replaced by Bangladeshi neighbourhoods, regenrated middle class areas and so on
                I remember talking to some old fella (who traced his family back to Irish gypsies)telling me about when Brick Lane used to be predominatly Jewish and then slowly as families started earning money and moving to the suburbs they began to rent out their shop buildings to first/second generation South Asian ‘immigrants'(I dont know how the demographics break down on ethnicity) I find all of that sort of stuff is pretty interesting I must say
                Im going to have to read Jane Jacobs book on the evolution of the US city (or something along those lines) as it looks pretty facinating

                • kim

                  Jane Jacobs work is really fascinating.

            • Tristan

              On top of the more specific things people have mentioned, the first half of the 20th century was rife with racial lunacy throughout the ‘western’ world. Britain may not have had much in the way of immigration/racial diversity, but this was still the days of the empire, so it tended to think of race and ‘britishness’ globally. There was something of a panic in the white anglosphere about white birth rates (globally) falling behind those of the various sinister Others. A lot of the anti-gay sentiment/policy of the 30s-50s was pretty heavily influenced by this anxiety.

              I don’t have the history chops to make the argument too strongly should someone want to argue, but I tend to think the fact Germany, as opposed to another industrialized white nation, got a regime that took this racial panic to its logically murderous conclusion was in large part down to chance.

              • Ronan

                Im not sure on that last point.
                The only thing Ive read on the topic recently is Adam Toozes wages of destruction, (and its been a while), but if iirc his argument was that the way the war was racialised was specific not only to Germany, but the Nazi party

                • Ronan

                  Having said that, having listend to and read (not in great detail, but just in passing) people explaining,over the last few years , how central slavery and white supremacy were to the confederate cause and the US civil war, there does seem to be some comparisons (ideologically and materialistically) to Nazi Germany..
                  If any one can elaborate..

                • Ronan

                  For example (once again IIRC) Tooze’s argument was that anti semitism drove the Nazi’s ideologically and the need to conquer Eastern Europe drove them economically..

                • Tristan

                  Well, yeah, Nazism’s racism and its expansionism were pretty closely tied. I wasn’t saying anyone else was as bad as the Nazis, or that something identical to Nazism could have happened elsewhere, just that much of the 19th/20th century thinking (scientific racism, the society-as-organism idea that I can’t remember the name of) that Nazism developed and/or borrowed from was more-or-less equally popular outside Germany in the preceding decades.

                  I don’t generally like engaging in ‘what if’ history, and I’ve dragged this miles from the original topic, so I really only have myself to blame if I came off as a making a more specific argument than I intended to. My real point, that I sort of derailed with a tangential afterthought, was just that the twentieth century took its time getting over the colonialist racist thinking of the 19th*, so its not too surprising that it would be a common conversation topic even among (white) people who had never actually met someone of a different race.

                  *Hell, a thing that’s been in the news here recently (sorry to keep doing the YA KNOW IN GHANA CANADA thing so much lately) is that we did medical experiments on aboriginals that pretty much beg to be compared to Nazi programs, and which kept running even after we all supposedly learned the horrors of state racism from fighting the Nazis.

        • There have been challenges to his data in recent years suggesting the correlation was not as strong as he suggested, but there was far from a public consensus on reprisals.

          I’m one of those who challenge Harrisson on this point — see here for the free version or here for the non-free but improved version. While I do think that Harrisson underplays the support for reprisals, I’d certainly agree that there was no public consensus for them.

  • mike shupp

    I dunno that August 1940 is all that good a sample. In one of Orwell’s essays, In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse, he argues that English attitudes on the home front towards the war changed from viewing it lackadaisically, rather like a slow sporting event, to something sharper, angrier, and more focused after the fall of France and as the Battle of Britain went on.

    • MikeJ

      to something sharper, angrier, and more focused after the fall of France and as the Battle of Britain went on.

      Certainly focuses the mind.

    • Hogan

      August 1940 was three months after the fall of France, but it was before the Luftwaffe started hitting population centers.

  • War is only a hobby in cases when its full effects can be avoided. The UK was an island and hence never invaded, only bombed. This is very different from the USSR where war was a major and immediate concern of much of the population from 22 June 1941 – 9 May 1945. It is hard to imagine the war not being a primary concern for people living in what Timothy Snyder has called the Bloodlands.

    • Norman

      I guess they don’t remember me in Ghana.

      • The Dark God of Time, AKA DA

        The immediate question was fighting back, and Stalin was persuasive in his commands to his underlings:

        You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have the nerve not to manufacture IL-2s until now. Our Red Army now needs IL-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. Shenkman produces one IL-2 a day and Tretyakov builds one or two MiG-3s daily. It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army. I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more ILs. This is my final warning.

        Telegram to government aviation production plant superintendents by Stalin in the autumn of 1941, warning them to produce more Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft for national defense

      • Gregor Sansa

        You swallow “was an island” and quibble with that? Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!

    • JosephW

      With all due respect, I think the War became less of an “immediate” concern for most Russian civilians after August of 1944. The majority of “Russian” territory that was still under Nazi control was actually territory that had been independent before Sept 1939 (the Baltic States and Poland). By the end of the year, all the territory the Soviets had occupied after the Soviet-German agreement had been recaptured by the Soviets, except for what now constitutes the western third of Latvia.

      While the Russian people were rightly concerned about their sons, brothers and fathers who were fighting the war, most people were trying to rebuild their lives and homes and had less time to really worry about the War as a whole.

      • The effects of the war in terms of shortages continued until well after the defeat of the Nazis, however. There was a famine as a result of the war in 1946-1947. It hit not only Ukraine and Moldavia, but Siberia as well quite hard.

  • Vance Maverick

    I thought the title was a contrast to Politik als Beruf — but no, you’re talking about political participation. Is hobby the right word, though, for the sort of thing which, whether or not you’re interested in it, is interested in you?

    • War as consumer-goods-company marketing department? Very nice late capitalist reading.

  • pillsy

    I just overheard a group of people at a bar arguing loudly over whether it’s the Democrats or Republicans who control the House. So… yeah.

    • James E. Powell

      Most people who engage in loud arguments in a bar agree that dangerous liberals control all five branches of the government.

      • Hogan

        Legislative, executive, judiciary, universities and Hollywood.

        • Plus MSM and the Trilateral Commission.

          • Ronan

            You’re mistaking democrats for, eh, ohh, mmmm..ah forget it

  • partisan

    I’m interested in the book, but it looks like we won’t be able to see the hard copy on this continent until the new year. One thing I’m curious about is the Soviet air force. A couple of scholars, in response to the question why didn’t the Allies bomb Auschwitz, have complained that the Soviet Union should have done it. This strikes me as curious because in many histories of the war, including Overy’s book on the Russian front, one gets the impression that there wasn’t much of a Soviet air force after most of it was destroyed in the early days of the war.

    • InnerPartisan

      one gets the impression that there wasn’t much of a Soviet air force after most of it was destroyed in the early days of the war.

      That is a load of poppycock.
      It’s true that, like all other branches of the Soviet armed forces, the VVS suffered heavily from Stalin’s purges, and that a great many of their airplanes were destroyed (most of them on the ground) during the early stages of Operation Barbarossa. That proved to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise, however – by the end of ’41 soviet production ramped up massively, and the airplanes produced were modern and versatile. By 1944, the Yak-3 was vastly superior to any fighter the Germans could muster (except the Me-262, of course), and the abovementioned IL-2 Shturmovik was the most produced military aircraft in history.
      Of course, Lend-Lease helped, too – the Russians were practically the only ones who could make the P-39 work.

      • ajay

        But did they have much of a heavy bomber force? My impression is that they focussed on ground-attack and fighters to support the army rather than the kind of long-range aircraft they would have needed to hit industrial targets hundreds of miles away like Auschwitz.

        Also, of course, the Soviet leadership probably didn’t really care about what was happening. Why would they?

  • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

    This fits with Calder’s writing on the bombing Blitz. Of course, a lot of academics have suggested he exaggerated the degree of defeatism that existed in the Blitz, but he did have a lot of good material on the increase in looting, black marketeering, strikes, juvenile delinquency and high rates of infant mortality during the Blitz.

    • Dave

      Most scholars who actually work on British culture and society in WW2 have accepted for decades that it is a complex picture. We all know, for example, about the criminal culture that shortly afterwards produced the Kray Twins: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Fraser

      That MO survey sounds like the work of the kind of middle-class nitwits who would think you could ‘observe’ the ‘masses’….

      • Why the hate for MO? I love it. I love the idea of it and the execution of it was as good as it was going to get, surely? And it doesn’t strike me as any more idiotic than the Domesday book itself. The idea of trying to get a daily diary of regular people’s real life strikes me as very much of its time and very timely, at the same moment. I haven’t been able to get to your link but I might change my mind once I do. Still, I love MO and have a book of excerpts from it on my shelf.

        • Lee Rudolph

          The poet Cecil Day Lewis (father of Daniel and Tamasin; he eschewed the hyphen they both use) wrote mystery novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. One of them (British title, Malice in Wonderland; American title, The Summer Camp Mystery) gives quite a nice picture of Mass Observation (he worked in the Ministry of Information during the war, and his Minute for Murder takes place there; also quite a nice picture, though in both books the plot ends rather ridiculously).

      • OK, so what has mad Frankie and the Kray twins got to do with anything? There have always been sociopaths and violent criminals. What does this have to do with MO or middle class twits or even the blitz?

        • Dave

          Because the Biitz was a playground for shameless criminality – and specifically that of the early career of Mr Frazer – an aspect relentlessly played down in the ‘heroic’ narrative, but which is, as I said, historical common knowledge now. You have to be the sort of person who doesn’t know anything about the period not to know that, so the idea that somehow this is a revelation is jejune.

          Meanwhile, there is a lot of fascinating material in MO, but the structure of the organisation, the summary reports, and hence overall a lot of the methods and assumptions behind it all reeks of the kind of early-twentieth-century middle-class paternalistic socialism about which Orwell wrote so scathingly and so well.

          So, that, really.

          • Sure, but what is the alternative to MO?

            As for “some people thought people were heroic during the blitz and others didn’t” so what? I mean is this really some kind of major dividing line worthy of contumely? People always think the past is nicer/nobler than the present until they get down to reading the actual contemporaneous accounts, of which MO was one. I don’t get what you are critiquing here or why you think your critique isn’t, itself, kind of jejune.

  • LeeEsq

    Jonathan Bernstein constantly reminds his readers that if you read his blog, your not normal. Remember, the Tea Party technically count as high-information voters because of how closely they follow politics even if we really disagree with the outcome of their thought process.

    • Jordan

      Tea Partiers certainly care about politics. Unsure whether they are really “high-information”.

      • LeeEsq

        I think high-information means something like knows what the issues are and who the politicians are even if the decision is kind of out there.

  • Matt McKeon

    Lawrence Olivier played Hugh Dowdling in the movie. Possible effect on hypothetical duelling twitter feeds….discuss!

  • rea

    To frame differently, I suspect that if Hugh Dowding and Laurence Olivier had both used twitter in 1940, Olivier’s follower count would have dwarfed Dowding’s by 2-3 orders of magnitude.

    Which is how you would want it. Olivier was a professional, committed to doing pro-war propaganda–being popular on twitter represents Olivier doing his bit for the war effort. Dowding was a military commander engaged in active operations–the last thing you want is for him to be saying interesting things in public.

    • Dave

      Yes, the notion that there would be anything surprising about the difference in public profile comes close to a pure absence of reflection.

    • ajay

      Dowding was a military commander engaged in active operations–the last thing you want is for him to be saying interesting things in public.

      Also, the point that the quoted sentence seems to miss is that a Briton in 1940 not being able to name a single air marshal is in the same position as a Briton today not being able to name a single record producer, and you shouldn’t conclude from that that British people aren’t very interested in pop music. The air marshals weren’t the stars; the pilots were, and the RAF’s publicity machine made them so. It’s a little later than August 1940, but by spring 1941 nightfighter pilots were celebrities. Look up “John Cunningham”.

  • Anderson

    Looking forward to Farley’s take on the book … and whether the author does more than repeat his prior books.

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