Churchillian war-spirit vs. bazooka-deployment: British and German metaphors for the COVID-19 pandemic as a war

by Prof. Dr. Andreas Musolff (University of East Anglia)

When the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic became publicly visible in March 2020, a number of political leaders rushed to declare a “war” on it, not dissimilar to earlier politicians’ pronouncements about “wars” against illnesses, addictions and pandemics (e.g. against cancer, AIDS, drugs, SARS). Now, threatened by an unknown virus, a new war effort was demanded by heads of state and government, such as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as the French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Donald Trump, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, and many others.The German Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was, however, conspicuous in avoiding such a war declaration against the pandemic. In her public addresses about it, she only called it a “crisis” (Ger.: Krise) and a “serious, open-ended situation” (Ger.: ernste, offene SituationDer Tagesspiegel). Given Merkel’s avoidance of war-metaphors, one may wonder if Germany took a different discursive approach to COVID-19 to other countries, specifically Britain, and if so, did this contrast perhaps have an impact on its pandemic policy? 

As part of a larger project on ways of “Communicating COVID-19” at the University of East Anglia, a bilingual corpus of metaphor usage by media and politicians in Britain and Germany, “CORONA-ENG-DEU” is being built, which allows us to investigate this question further. So far, the corpus consists of two samples of press and electronic media texts covering the period February-November 2020. The British sample includes 157 articles from across the whole range of (mainstream) political leanings that use metaphors for the COVID-19 pandemic and its ‘management’ and amounts to 142,439 word tokens. The ‘parallel’ German sample is almost the same size, i.e. 138 articles (125,254 word tokens).

As a first observation we note that the pandemic as well as the scientific and public health measures that aim to slow its spread and ultimately neutralise it, have inspired a wide range of figurative language use, with several main ‘image’ domains becoming prominent in public discourse. Besides war and the wider domain of fighting, these semantic fields include the conceptual complexes journey-movement (e.g. the pandemic’s march vs. state and society’s progress in devising and implementing counter-measures, e.g. circuit breakers; and the race of science institutions and their nation states for developing a vaccine), spatial structure, containment, and construction (e.g. determination of hotspots, leading to regional and national lockdowns, announcement of travel corridors, allocation of regions to tiers of anti-pandemic measures), flood (waves, surge, tsunami of the pandemic, government turning the tide against it), as well as re- (and/or mis-) interpretations of scientific metaphors such as herd immunity

British and German COVID-19 war narratives

When accounting for all texts that contain war/fighting lexis in the two samples that target the pandemic or the policies directed against it (English: battle, beat, blitz (spirit), Churchill, combat, enemy, fight, force, frontline, mugger, veteran, victory, war; German: Bazooka, Front, Kampf, Kampfzone, Krieg, Waffen, Schutzschild, Schlacht, Schlachtfeld, Sieg), the two national discourses reveal themselves to be not far apart quantitatively: within the British corpus, 60 articles contain relevant passages, i.e. 38.2% of all metaphor occurrences; the German sample has 45 such texts, i.e. 32.6%. However, in both national cultures, the field of war/fighting-based metaphors did by no means remain the same over the course of 2020 but developed into divergent discourse-historical trajectories.

The early phase of British public debates in March 2020 was indeed characterised by a surfeit of war-metaphorical and war-referencing conceptualisations. Prime Minister Johnson’s war announcement in a speech on 17 March was accompanied by a chorus of public voices discussing the UK’s battle plan, likely sacrifices, the government being on wartime footing, and the nation having to show warlike stoicism in the fight against the enemy-virus. These metaphorical conceptualisations of the pandemic as a war-adversary were connected in many media commentaries in March and April 2020 with the public memory of Britain successfully enduring and overcoming the Blitzkrieg period of Nazi Germany’s warfare in 1940. These historical references were not metaphoric as such but included a high degree of metonymic references to symbolic aspects of war remembrance, especially, the blitz spirit or bulldog spirit shown by the UK populace in the early years of WW II and epitomized by Britain’s war-time leader Winston Churchill. The pro-conservative tabloid newspapers Daily Mail and Daily Express in particular liked to invoke Churchill as a role model, e.g by showing a picture of Churchill with his famous V[ictory] finger-sign and the caption: “It’s time for the kind of Bulldog spirit personified by Winston Churchill” (Daily Express,11 March 2020) and by challenging Johnson to match Churchill’s achievement: “Can Boris Johnson conjure up the spirit of the Blitz? As the coronavirus crisis worsens, the challenge and risks confronting the Prime Minister are Churchillian in magnitude” (Daily Mail, 16/03/2020).

However, in the weeks following his war declaration, the Prime Minister had little chance to use his rhetoric or other leadership skills, as he fell ill from a COVID-19 infection and had to receive intensive care in hospital. After emerging from recovery in late April, Johnson tried to come back with an ebullient statement using a personal fight metaphor in order to reassure the British public that the pandemic could be beaten, not just in his case but also nationally: “If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.” (The Sun, 27/04/2020). Friendly media accompanied his words with ‘matching’ epithets e.g. “Boris the boxer Johnson” and comparisons, e.g. as “seizing his chance to be the new Churchill in his war on coronavirus” (Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, 27/04/2020). But his detractors were also quick to denounce his renewed Corona-belligerence as hypocritical by contrasting it with the lack of countermeasures: “People say the other parties are soft on crime, but at least […] they don’t watch it mug Italy and Spain [while not doing anything to save Britain]” (The Guardian, 28/04/2020).

In the German corpus, Merkel’s own disdain for claiming war leadership or fighting prowess did not discourage other German politicians and media from using military terminology. The Federal ministers for finance and economy, Olaf Scholz and Peter Altmaier, for instance, promised a massive economic help programme which they called a bazooka (“Bazooka”), to highlight its hoped-for enormous impact, or war-metaphorically speaking, unlimited firepower (Die Welt and Weser-Kurier,13/03/2002). Besides German politicians’ discourses, the German press also reported Johnson’s and other international politicians’ war announcements against COVID-19, with a special focus on the high symbolic and emotional value connected with WWII memories in the UK. Besides the daily press coverage, popular scientific publications were rushed out that prominently employed war-announcements (e.g. Dripke & Mitsch 2020, Warsame 2020). It would therefore be wrong to assume that the German public was not exposed to sustained use of war-based metaphors in their COVID19-coverage. The main difference in comparison with the British public was the absence of such metaphors from Merkel’s rhetoric. Whilst German media, understandably, did not invoke specifically British Blitz memories, they did reference the Second World War as the last biggest catastrophe in living memory and popular memories of the sufferings and privation associated with it. The tabloid BILD, for instance, published articles interviewing old Berliners reminiscing about their war memories of seeking shelter from bombing raids, to put the current experience ‘in perspective’.

When, by late April and early May 2020, the first wave of COVID-19 mass infections and ensuing lockdowns was coming to an end, the use of war-based metaphors in British and German discourses continued but partly shifted in terms of target topics towards other conflict aspects of the pandemic. For example, it took up on the ‘war of words’ between the US and Chinese governments over responsibility of the outbreak and the ‘national competitions’ for effective mass-testing to trace and halt further infections or the development of a vaccine against the virus. In both cases, it was general fighting rather than specific war vocabulary that was employed, i.e. terms such as defending, protecting, winningfighting. Johnson once again showed himself to be more inclined than Merkel to use hyperbolic versions of his metaphors: “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1” (Johnson, BBC-online, 20/05/2020). But this promise of a world beating Corona-defense became a hostage to fortune, because delivery of the tracking system depended on factors the Prime Minster could not control. After the delivery date of 1 June had come and gone, the promise was exposed as irrelevant: “Honestly I couldn’t care less whether it’s world beating or not. I just want it to be virus beating – and it’s not.” (Prof. J. Edmunds, member of the government’s “Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies”, The Independent, 05/06/2020).

The “world beating” claim was the start of a series of attempts at over-optimistic figurative reassurances, also claiming world “leadership” or “moonshot” quality [meaning ‘top high-tech quality’] for the UK government’s response to the pandemic. They all fared little better than the blitz-nostalgia of the early phase of public COVID 19-debates and were denounced as unrealistic and not reflecting public health experts’ advice.

In Germany, the government largely refrained from promising early successes in pandemic treatment, so that the media commented on Corona-related fighting more as international observers, e.g. on the global race for the vaccines as a world war in the lab, or a new cold or secret war (“Weltkrieg im Labor”; “Der Kalte Krieg um das Superserum”;“Krieg der Geheimdienste um den Corona-Impfstoff”). Johnson’s claims of world beating successes in the fight against COVID-19 were also reported by the German media together with the negative verdict already given by their British colleagues (Die Welt,13/05/2020: “Briten haben genug von Johnsons Kriegsrhetorik”). 

Rising infection and death rates in August and September 2020 triggered warnings of a second wave and announcements of defence measures that would be informed by ‘lessons learned’ in the spring. At first, Johnson’s government again promised war like determination and world-leading successes for Britain, but after the infections were “spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario” had suggested, they were forced to impose a new national lockdown that put paid to the optimistic promises (The Guardian, 01/11/2020). Despite the announcements of scientific victories in identifying viable vaccines that might be deployed from December 2020 onwards, assertive uses of war/fightingmetaphors decreased sharply (one corpus occurrence in October and none in November 2020). 

In Germany, the low incidence of assertive uses of war/fighting metaphors in official and mainstream media and politicians’ discourses persisted, with only the vaccine announcements in November being dubbed “victory” (Sieg) or “breakthrough” (Durchbruch). On the other hand, a coalition of anti-Corona-restriction activists calling themselves “lateral thinkers” (Querdenker), nationalists and conspiracy theory followers who viewed the social contact restrictions as thinly disguised preparations for authoritarian rule by the federal government started to articulate a growing resentment against an alleged ‘globalist’ hidden agenda. The far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (“Alternative für Deutschland”, AfD) tried to capitalise on the groundswell of resentment and associate the government with alleged “war-propaganda” (Kriegspropaganda) through “bombarding” the public with their infection statistics, with the purpose of justifying a “Corona-dictatorship” by Merkel’s “war cabinet” (Corona-Diktatur, Kriegskabinett; see Die Zeit and, 29/10/ 2020). At violent demonstrations in Berlin, Leipzig and other cities, co-sponsored by the AfD, the government was accused of “Corona-fascism” (Corona-Faschismus) and protesters posed as “Covi-jews” (Covijuden) with mocked up ‘star of David’ signs, as if they were Jews in Nazi Germany). The government’s new Anti-Infection Law, which was expressly designed to institutionalise regular parliamentary scrutiny of Corona-legislation, was denounced by them as the opposite, i.e. as an “empowerment law” (Ermächtigungsgesetz), akin to the 1933 law that suspended parliamentary control for the duration of Hitler’s dictatorship. Their rhetorical strategy seemed to consist in a two-pronged use involving war terminology: at one level it served to denounce the government’s policy presentation as ‘militaristic propaganda’ through loaded historical analogies with Nazism and the Holocaust, and at the same time, conventional war-derived metaphors (bombarding, war propaganda, war cabinet) insinuated that a war-like conflict was already taking place and supposedly legitimised their polemic.

Preliminary Conclusions

The first ten months of British and German media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic have shown a complex development of war/fighting-based metaphors. As the pandemic impact changed over the course of 2020, so did its public conceptualisation as a “war”. There can be little doubt that war-related metaphors are entrenched in public discourses in both Britain and Germany and that they played a significant role in initially alerting the public to the urgent threat of the pandemic. After that initial phase, they have shown ambivalent impact and some, such as hyperbolic victory declarations have ‘backfired’. As the debate of which they are a part, is still ongoing, their ultimate impact on policy- and decision- building by the respective national administrations can only be gauged in medium- and long-term discourse historical studies.


About the Author


Andreas Musolff is Professor of Intercultural Communication at the University of East Anglia (Norwich). He was Marie S. Curie FCFP Fellow at FRIAS in 2017, during which time he worked on his project “How are national identities and emotional attachment to them expressed across different languages and cultures?”.




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