FROM had indeed taken place during the

FROM the very earliest stages of the Second World War observers
were sure that British class distinctions were being broken down.
Vivienne Hall was a middle-class spinster in her early thirties, who
lived at home with her mother in Putney in South West London,
and worked as a shorthand-typist for the Northern Assurance
Company in the City. When war broke out she volunteered to work
in her local A.R.P. Report Centre. She kept a diary of her war
experiences, most of which her mother discovered and destroyed –
historians of seventeenth-century Holland are not the only ones to
have difficulties with their sources. The record remains, however, of
Miss Hall’s thoughts on the second day of war, 4 September 1939:
‘There is one thing, and one only, about this war – it is an instant
and complete leveller of “classes”.’1 About a year later, at the beginning
of the Blitz, an American journalist reported home that
‘Hitler is doing what centuries of English history have not accomplished
– he is breaking down the class structure of England’.2
Many of the propaganda films of the war period often put forward
this notion (though, of course, some of the best wartime feature
films, such as Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, present the enduring
subtleties of the British class system). For some years after
the war, historians were inclined to argue that some sort of social
revolution had indeed taken place during the war.3 More recently,
such writers as Anthony Howard, Angus Calder, and Henry Pelling
have argued that very little real social change took place during the
• The author wishes to place on record his thanks for assistance of the Keeper
of the Public Records and the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum.
1 Vivienne Hall’s Diary, Imperial War Museum.
2 New York Herald Tribune, 21 September 1940, quoted (approvingly!) in
The Observer, 22 September 1940.
3 E.g. E. Watkins, The Cautious Revolution (London, 1951); R. Brady, Crisis
in Britain. Plans and Achievements of the Labour Government (London, 1950);
C.F. Brand, The British Labour Party: a Short History (Stanford, 1964).
A. C. Duke et al. (eds.), Britain and the Netherlands
© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1977
war and this on the whole is also the view of the late Tom Harrisson,4
co-founder of the pioneer social research organization, Mass
Observation. Paul Addison has stressed the significance of the war
in the realm of political change but by implication seems to suggest
that the class structure remained almost totally unaltered.5 In
general, I have myself been associated with the view that both of the
great total wars of the twentieth century have occasioned considerable
transformations in most aspects of social life. In endeavouring
to analyse the relationship between war and social change I have
broken war down into four dimensions: destruction – disruption,
involving upheaval and direct damage, but also, as some of the
‘disaster’ studies underta,ken by sociologists have suggested, involving
a ‘reconstructive’ effect, a desire to rebuild better than
before;6 the test dimension, implying that war is a challenge to
society, imposes new stresses upon it, and induces the collapse of
some institutions and the transformation of others; participation of
hitherto underprivileged groups who tend, through their contribution
to the national cause, to make social gains; and the psychological
dimension – total war is a great emotional experience comparable
to the great revolutions in history.’
However, this somewhat blunt analysis is far from satisfactory
when it comes to a study of such a subtle and complex subject as
social class. In fact, it is because of the generally unsatisfactory way
in which historians of the modem period have tended to handle
class categories, that I am now orientating my researches towards
this major topic. Such distinguished British students of war and
society as Professor Michael Howard and Dr. Paul Addison both
imply that the rigidity of the British class structure was not always
necessarily a disadvantage to Great Britain, but they nowhere make
4 A. Howard, ‘We are the Masters Now’, The Age of Austerity 1939-1945 (ed.
T.M.B. Sissons and P. French, London, 1963), pp. 15-32; A. Calder, The
People’s War (London, 1969); H.M. Pelling, Britain and the Second World War
(London, 1970), ch. xii; T. Harrisson, Living through the Blitz (London, 1976),
5 P. Addison, The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War
(London, 1976).
6 See e.g. M. Wolfenstein, Disaster. A Psychological Essay (London, 1957);
W.H. Form, S. Nosow, G.P. Stone and C.M. Westie, Community in Disaster
(New York, 1958); Man and Society in Disaster (ed. G.W. Baker and D.W.
Chapman, New York, 1963); A.H. Barton, Social Organization under Stress: a SOciological Review of Disaster Studies (Washington, 1963).
7 A. Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War . .• War, Peace and Social
Change, 1900-1967 (London, 1968); idem, War and Social Change in the
Twentieth Century: a Comparative Study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and
the United States (London, 1974).