Any crisis is a challenge and an opportunity. It makes us focus on different things, change priorities and step out of our comfort zone. Does stress really change our perception and affect our decision making process? In this post I focus on WWII as a mind-changing crisis. More reading on COVID19 crisis here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The black swan
A classical crisis is some rare event, which happens once in a century. Even if everybody knows it is about to happen within the next 100 years, nobody is ready or knows what to do. When it happens, nobody really understands it is the real deal and not a false alarm. Then everything changes. Usually, such a crisis will last about a year and then disappear. Some people will get traumas for the rest of their lives. Certain books will be changed and new lessons learned. Most of us will simply survive. This can be an enormous market crash, a small war, a huge weather event, or a rare disease like COVID19. Usually, the epicenter of the event will be localized, but the aftershocks will be global.
My claim is simple: our perception is different before, during and after the event.
WWII in the UK
Churchill is a classical product of crisis. British legendary prime minister was one of the most hated figures in British politics before the war, maybe due to the Gallipoli fiasco. During the war, he was a hero, almost a demigod, with his remarkable rhetorics and moral position. (Churchill was a very romantic figure: he got Nobel prize for literature, and he was also a good painter). However, immediately after the war a very different person was chosen to lead the British Empire’s recovery from the war economy. Would Churchill allow India or Palestine to leave the bankrupt empire? Probably not, and the British people were tired of fighting.
In some psychological tests, people are asked to look at faces and evaluate leadership potential. Strong people are selected to lead during times of stress, and agreeable leaders are preferred in good times.
Germany after the war
Germany lost terribly in two world wars. After each war, the country was totally devasted and the morale was broken. Then there were 10 years of chaos, but then the country miraculously recovered and outshined the great USA. This happened in 30s and in 60s. In 60s, Japan’s revival was even stronger than in Germany. Why?
The situation of a devastated economy in the presence of great resources is a strong magnet for international financiers (due to expected growth rates). The politicians were biased very positively to support the industry, as the country was recovering and all jobs were needed. Old and inert leadership was decimated, but new leadership was rising. It was a perfect environment for hungry, creative and industrious entrepreneurs, both rebuilding old companies and creating the new ones. Eventually, these entrepreneurs’ efforts consolidated into innovative giants with great products. At the same time, Americans were creating babies and enjoying material prosperity: the perfect market for foreign corporations. The rest is history.
The moments of the deepest terror
Occasionally, during a crisis, small groups of people placed in isolated pockets experience spiritual intimacy. When facing adversity, we tend to ask ourselves the big questions about life and come up with new answers. Some people find the meaning of life, others find their strongest desires or best friends. The small things, like the size of the paycheck or the taste of the dinner, tend to disappear, allowing deep focus. People do not intentionally ask themselves hard questions, simply all easy questions suddenly get irrelevant.
Some of the greatest writers and artists of the 20th century discovered their motives during the WWI. WWI was also an ideological crisis. Before the war, very few people heard about Nietzsche. During the war, if a soldier could read, he would probably read Nietzsche. After the war, was a time of very different people, like Hemingway and the “lost generation”.
WWII transformed science and technology. WWII was a technological crisis when the allied forces often felt helpless in front of the German and Japanese suicidal determination. Before the war, the atomic bomb was a curious idea, during the war a military necessity, and after the war a moral bankruptcy. Computers transformed from a possibility into the driving force of our society partially during the war.
The mindset of survivers
Before a crisis, people are usually focused on pleasures. During the crisis, the personal need of survival, and the socially dictated higher purpose drive people to extreme acts: some are heroic, others are selfish or even criminal. After the crisis, we find several kinds of population. Heros reliving traumas. Survivors fighting with guilt. Observers wishing to step in. There is a huge amount of energy, equally focused on dealing with the root cause of the crisis and running away from the crisis into a universe of new meaning. Both of these energies have a huge creative potential.
Survivors do not take life for granted, have a deep understanding of gratitude, feel more empathy to others as individual differences diminish.
Each crisis is different
Wars unite allies and polarize enemies. Disease distances allies and forces the enemies to cooperate. Each crisis is different: it transforms different aspects of human nature.
We have massive crisis events every year, only they are localized to certain places and countries. Maybe three times per century we see a global crisis followed by the global recovery. If the crisis was not too deep, the revival after the crisis is phenomenal. We are all survivors and children of survivors.