International Labor and Working-Class History

Class and Catastrophe: September 11 and other working-class disasters

Nights Underground in Darkest London: The Blitz, 1940–1941

Geoffrey Field a1
a1 Purchase College, SUNY

After the tragic events of September 11, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at once saw parallels in the London Blitz, the German air campaign launched against the British capital between September 1940 and May 1941. In the early press conferences at Ground Zero he repeatedly compared the bravery and resourcefulness of New Yorkers and Londoners, their heightened sense of community forged by danger, and the surge of patriotism as a town and its population came to symbolize a nation embattled. His words had immediate resonance, despite vast differences between the two situations. One reason for the Mayor's turn of mind was explicit: he happened at that moment to be reading John Lukacs' Five Days in London, although the book examines the British Cabinet's response to the German invasion of France some months before bombing of the city got underway. Without doubt Tony Blair's outspoken support for the United States and his swift (and solitary) endorsement of joint military action also reinforced this mental coupling of London and New York. But the historical parallel, however imperfect, seemed to have deeper appeal. Soon after George W. Bush was telling visitors of his admiration for Winston Churchill, his speeches began to emulate Churchillian cadences, Karl Rove hung a poster of Churchill in the Old Executive Office Building, and the Oval Office sported a bronze bust of the Prime Minister, loaned by British government. 1


1 Mayor Giuliani's televised press conferences immediately after the September 11 attack. “Churchill Mania,” The Economist Nov. 10, 2001. See also, N. Ferguson, “The War on Terror is Not New,” New York Times, Sept. 20, 2001. “Bush Tours the New York Battlefield,” The Times (London), Sept. 15, 2001, 1. William Farish, the American Ambassador in London, thanked the British people for their “magnificent” response to the terrorist attacks and said that Americans now looked to the bravery of the British during the 1940 Blitz bomb attacks as an example of how to “prevail over an implacable foe.” The Times (London), Sept. 21, 2001, 2. An additional curious development was press reports that W. H. Auden's poem “September 1, 1939” (which begins in “I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street/Uncertain and afraid”) was enjoying popularity on National Public Radio, in internet chat rooms, and even high school discussion groups. This quickly prompted a heated exchange of letters in the Times Literary Supplement about the merits or lack thereof of Auden himself and his poem. J. Lukacs, Five Days in London: May 1940 (New Haven, 2001).