In response to the worldwide epidemic of COVID-19 there is an inevitability to the words …And Wash Your Hands, replacing …And Carry On, as the coda to Keep Calm and Carry On posters. Given that news of the spread of the virus has the ability to produce widespread panic, any populist measures to get health messages across to stem a pandemic should be welcomed. However, on any mention of that original poster, I can not help but be reminded of its insidious nature.
For those unfamiliar with the origin of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, it was meant to be kept in storage and only rolled out across Britain in the event of a Nazi occupation. The premise being that we should all accept our new rulers and maintain the British notion of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’, and simply get on with our daily lives. As an avowed anti-fascist, such a sentiment is an anathema to me.
Just how insidious the original Keep Calm poster is, was bought home to me last week when listening to Cerys Matthews interview the children’s book author Michael Rosen on her Sunday morning BBC 6music show. He was discussing his book The Missing, in which he investigates his family history and those members of it who went missing during the Second World War from occupied countries, and specifically France. He recounted the tale of coming across police reports that detailed how officers of the French Gendarmerie went to his father’s uncle’s house in 1944, at 2:30 in the morning, and removed his great uncle in order to hand him over to the Nazis. He had committed no crime—he was arrested simply for the sole reason that he was Jewish.
Rosen spoke about what troubled him the most was the legality of the situation, and how these officers where just following orders. While the holocaust was an illegal act, like many other Nazi atrocities, what happened in the early hours of that morning in 1944 was legal. Given that Rosen’s relation was deported and never seen again, he goes on to say that even though the police were carrying out their duty, they were in fact conspirators to murder. This, in effect, was the French police keeping calm and carrying on. (You can listen to Michael Rosen talk about The Missing on 6music via this link—starts at around the 01:10:40 mark.)
It made me ask myself, as I listened to Rosen’s words, how the same story would have played out in Britain had we become occupied by Nazis in the 1940s. With people following the advice of keeping calm and carrying on, I suspect exactly the same would have happened. Such a depressing thought made me wonder if the poster really needs an additional line of bracketed text to make it more accurate and alert people to its insidious nature: Keep Calm and Carry On, (unless you happen to be Jewish, a gypsy, homosexual, a communist, or any other ‘undesirable’ deemed in need of eradication from society under fascist ideology, in which case you need to be very wary of a knock on the door in the middle of the night and of those who you might think are there to protect you).
Not so catchy though, is it!