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Meaning of 'Calm' poster should not be lost in time

By Alex Welch
On April 4, 2012

We've all seen it. That curious red poster telling us to keep calm and carry on. Some of us have it in our dorm rooms (including myself) and others have seen the image and parodies of it posted on Facebook. What many don't know is that the phrase has a great deal of historical significance. Surprisingly, few people actually seem to know the origins of the poster, which is essential in explaining its ubiquity.

Although it may seem strange to some given how spontaneously the poster found its way on the walls of college students, "Keep Calm and Carry On" is not a new phrase. It's more than 70 years old and was developed during World War II by the British government to help inspire average citizens.

By late 1939, Western Europe was engaged in a savage war against Nazi Germany for control of the continent. After Hitler invaded Poland, both France and Great Britain declared war on the Germans and World War II was in full swing.

In order to maintain morale for the war, which would soon enter its darkest year as Nazi Germany extended its control over all of Western Europe, the British government produced a superb piece of propaganda, a solid red poster with the British crown on it reading, "Keep calm and carry on."

The phrase was simple, concise and to the point. Ordinary British citizens, many of whom had already been sent into combat to fight the Germans, should not back down from the coming fight and try to continue their lives as best they can. The poster and its effect on the British population points to the legendary stoicism of the English.

By 1940, Hitler had conquered Poland, the Low Countries and all of France, before setting his sights on the British Isles. In October, he launched his air force, the deadly Luftwaffe, on a campaign to comprehensively bomb the British into submission. October, 1940, was a month when it would have been extremely difficult for the British to stay calm and collected.

But in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the British managed to withstand the tremendous air assault and repelled the Luftwaffe. The Nazis, as well as the rest of the world, were stunned at this turn of events, given how easily Germany had managed to subdue the rest of Europe.

While it seems facetious to claim that a poster won the Battle of Britain for the English, we can see that the poster has much more significance behind it than most young people (or adults for that matter) appreciate. It helped the British keep their chins up while their homeland was being destroyed.

The importance of this poster during for the British in World War II is certainly clear. But in the contemporary world, the poster still has much meaning. The stagnant economy has left many citizens across the world unemployed and unsure of their futures. For those individuals, a phrase encouraging them to weather the storm may be of great comfort.

Wherever I see this poster, I try not to separate the phrase from the context in which it was inspired. Doing so is a disservice to the history that lies behind the phrase. Instead, I'm reminded that if the British can courageously stand firm against Nazi Germany in the world's darkest hour, I can certainly keep calm and carry on through my undergraduate career, a slightly less formidable endeavor.

These words should always be viewed in their historical context. "Keep Calm and Carry On" is much more than a recent college fad and should never only be viewed as such; it harkens back to a people who did not waver as they withstood a ruthless attack on their homeland when despair seemed the easier option. It encapsulates quite well the wartime spirit of the British, one of perseverance, courage and wit that no German bomber could tame.


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