stories of fear I

Fear had many, many faces in WW2.

It came in all shapes and sizes. It affected everyone.

And fear remained with you long after the war was over.

The prolonged exposure to fear gets lodged in your memory. Emotional intensity – a central feature of war is the way that all feelings are intensified, condensed, telescoped – burns feelings into your brain and your soul, imprints moments directly onto your memory.

Fear makes unbreakable associations in your mind.

Fear transports you right back to that moment in an instant. And it is not just this instant recall or playback of the event. It is a breathless, panic-inducing, heart-stopping fear. It is a re-living, an excruciating encounter with a fear long gone but still real.

Svetlana Alexievich – a phenomenal writer and scholar – has written of the experiences of Soviet women at war between 1941 and 1945, derived from interviews she undertook with the survivors of the horrors of the Eastern Front. She recounts numerous tales of the war close up, capturing the war in both its tiniest details and also its broad panoramas. Here are some vignettes on fear from her wonderful book, The Unwomanly Face of War:


Fear produced truly monstrous choices, and unthinkable outcomes. The fear of death – the need to survive, the need to just live for a few moments longer – can cause you to do terrible things. The stories are heartbreaking,

The Germans found out where the camp of our partisan unit was. They cordoned off the forest… we hid in the wild thickets, we were saved by the swamps where the punitive forces didn’t go. A quagmire. It sucked in equipment and people for good. For days, for weeks, we stood up to our necks in water. Our radio operator was a woman who has recently given birth. the baby was hungry…It had to be nursed..But the mother herself was hungry and had no milk. The baby cried. the punitive forces were close..With dogs..If the dogs heard it, we would all be killed. The whole group. 30 of us… You understand? … The Commander makes a decision. Nobody can bring himself to give the order to the mother, but she figures it out herself. She lowers the swaddled baby into the water and holds it there for a long time…The baby doesn’t cry anymore. ..Not a sound…And we can’t raise our eyes. Neither to the mother nor to each other…

War presents these horrific dilemmas, these heart-wrenching choices in the face of capture and violent death. At this very moment what did the mother think? What swirl of emotions and possibilities were racing through her mind? Was she thinking of herself? Her comrades? Did she have other kids? Was she thinking of the children of all the people she was with? Was she fearful of how this small baby would be treated if they were all caught? Did she fear the judgement of the others if she did nothing, or if she did this most terrible thing?

And was this deed ever spoken of again, or did she hold the pain inside her until she died?


Fear of death and suffering was universal and ubiquitous. Animals too were subject to its particular torments. And the effects of fear on animals only served to compound the feelings of fear experienced by the humans in the war. Horses – who were normally fearful of dead human bodies – just saw so many bodies in the carnage at Stalingrad that they stopped fearing them, stepping on them with increasing regularity. Rats were everywhere in war. They feasted on the dead and dying. They devoured everything they could. But even the rats fled in the face of a bombardment. And they seemed to have a sixth sense…

Not even in the most horrible film did I see how the rats leave before the bombing of a town. This wasn’t at Stalingrad. this was already near Vyazma…In the morning swarms of rats went through the town, heading for the fields. They sensed death. There were thousands of them..Black, grey…People watched their sinister spectacle in horror and pressed against the houses. And precisely at the moment when the rats disappeared from sight, the bombing began…

An early warning sign of bombing, the mass exodus of rats served to heighten the anticipation of fear. People knew what was coming, and they also knew that if the rats were terrified and fleeing, then what were the next few hours going to be like if you were trapped under the bombs?


New fears come along and add to our existing fears. fear of the dark. fear of death. fear of snakes. fear of the forest. And the results were paralysing, physical, immediate…

We crossed the front line and stopped by some cemetery. we knew the Germans were 3 miles away from us. It was during the night and they kept sending up flares. With parachutes. These flares burn for a long time and light up everything far around. The platoon commander brought me to the edge of the cemetery, showed me where the flares were fired from , where the bushes were that the Germans might appear from. I’m not afraid of dead people, even as a child I wasn’t afraid of cemeteries, but I was 22, I was standing guard for the first time…In those 2 hours my hair turned grey…It was my first grey hair, I discovered a whole streak in the morning. I stood and looked at those bushes, they rustled and moved , I thought the Germans were coming from them…And something else…Some monsters…And I was alone…


Some were afraid that they had to wear men’s underwear. Some saw wounds and worried that they would not be able to wear particular types of clothes again, if their legs or hands were maimed. One woman hid her legs and her face in battle, lest they be damaged.


The sounds and sights and smell of war brought horror and terror,

Heavy combat. Hand to hand. ..That is a horror. Not for a human being…They beat, they stab with a bayonet, they strangle each other. They break each other’s bones. There’s howling, shouting, moaning. And that crunching..That crunching! Impossible to forget it..the crunching of bones..You hear a skull crack..Split open. Even for war its a nightmare; there’s nothing human in it. I won’t believe anyone who says war isn’t terrifying.


It was impossible to escape the war after the war. There was nowhere to go. It inhabited dreams, and so sleep was no escape. Fear haunted the dreams of the survivors. Pilots dreamt of the plane falling to the ground and perishing in the crash.

Fear snatched away people’s hopes of a normal life. People were afraid in case the war returned,

For a long time I was afraid to get married. Afraid to have children. What if there’s war suddenly and I leave for the front?

And even the natural world was tainted. For nothing escaped the shadow of fear, a shadow that cast long into the future…

For a long time after the war I was afraid of the sky, even of raising my head toward the sky. I was afraid of seeing ploughed up earth.

fear and war, fear in war, fear of war

I am about to embark upon the next phase of this blog by talking about fear. I am finished with the Letters From Stalingrad and am now going to talk about fear, as this is the chapter I am working on at the moment for my book. I will outline some of the contours of fear in today’s post, and then I will use my blog to try an capture various types of fear, and the different ways that fear was experienced by people in the war: both combatants and civilians.

My hope is to capture lots of fascinating stories – from first hand accounts – which will help us to piece together a “map” of fear as it were. Its height, its breadth, its depth, its quirks and its mysteries, its emotions and its behaviours, its language and its expressions. And in this way, we can begin to understand fear better and also understand war better. I will endeavour to use the words of the protagonists themselves, but will supplement them with my won thoughts and feelings.


Fear was everywhere in WW2. And fears were multiple and overlapping. Fear for yourself. Fear for others. Fear of others. Fear of death. Fear of separation. Fear of injury. Unexpressed generalised fear. Deep abiding fear. Momentary excruciating fear. Fear overlapped with anxiety and dread. Fear produced great resilience and courage, and also panic and cowardice.

Stuart Walton in his work on Humanity: An Emotional History has attempted to define the essence of various human emotions with reference to the work of Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin’s hypothesis was that humans convey their emotions by their facial movements and their bodily movements. These expressions are universal to the human experience, and each of our emotions has similar expressions. He believed there were 6 basic facially legible emotions: happiness, fear, disgust, shame, sadness, anger and surprise.

In fear, Darwin outlined the following physical expressions of fear:

  • opening wide of the eyes and mouth
  • raising of the eyebrows, motionlessness, breathlessness, crouching/cringing, increased heart rate, pallor, cold perspiration, erection of the hair; accelerated breathing, malfunction of the salivary glands, leading to dry mouth, tremor, failure of the voice, dilation of the pupils, contraction of the neck muscles.

At first glance it seems rather self-evident that fear was a ubiquitous part of the landscape of world war 2. After all, this was war. People die. People get bombed. People risk their lives. People get horribly maimed and burned. People have no idea what is going to happen to their loved ones on a daily basis. But was this a different type of fear from the “regular” or “normal” fear of people living in the mid twentieth century? Is there something specific about about fear in wartime? 

Fear is of course a complex thing. I am indebted to a wonderful book by Ian Miller on courage for many of the thoughts and ideas that follow. Fear is connected closely to a whole range of other emotions and states of being: panic, dread, anxiety, horror, terror, angst and the like. The distinction between fear on the one hand and anxiety on the other seems to hinge around the source of the emotion. Fear seems to be rooted in a much more specific, objective and immediate type of threat, whereas anxiety tends to be much more generalized, subjective and anticipated (ie it appears to be looming into view, or is in the shadows somewhere). Fear and anxiety are inextricably linked of course: one can transmute into the other very quickly (if a generalised threat becomes immediate, or is named for example.) It can also be connected to reverence, respect and awe, especially in religious contexts. It emerges in the phobias that humans seem to accumulate. Fear can also vary greatly in intensity. Some fears – fear of the dark for example – seem to have an almost infinite scale. The dark can contain so many potential terrors that they are almost too numerous to name. Fear can also seem impossible to escape at times, for fear can haunt us when we are awake and when we are asleep. Fear is future-oriented: it expects calamity and it knows assuredly that the world is malign. Fear can even operate in the midst of calamity. We can be experiencing the thing that we fear, and at the same time recognise that things still might get worse. There might be more pain and anguish – as yet unseen – to come. But the fear of today can remove the remote fear of tomorrow, and so fear can be highly present-minded too. The arrival of a new fear can push the existing fear to the margins of our consciousness, sequencing them rather than multiplying them. 

Fear also has an incredibly interesting relationship between the individual and the collective. Fear is contagious. It can be caught. And it seems to have a virulent quality to it. It spreads, and as it spreads it provokes alarm and panic. It is caughts easily and it spreads quickly. When others are afraid, we get fearful too. Aristotle has noted that the contagion of fear may be mitigated by the social hierarchies at play. Fear among those who are your superiors is liable to lead you to fear. The reverse is also true. 

This leads us on to questions around the types of behaviours which might be evoked by the contagious action of fear. Fear seems to evoke multiple overlapping and/or contradictory responses. Prolonged experience of fear can sometimes lead to its antithesis: courage, bravery, resilience or heroism. In other people or circumstances it can lead to panic, or cowardice or inertia or a complete breakdown in the capacity of the human to perform even the most menial of tasks. Repeated exposure to fear can produce habituation, whereby fear is decreased and weakened, or it can produce sensitisation whereby fears increase and become more powerful. Fear can come through direct personal experience or observation of a traumatic incident. But fear can also be transmitted vicariously, by being proximate to others who are experiencing fear, or by hearing of events or incidents which cause you to become fearful. Fear creates powerful urges to act in particular ways. We will have more to say on this below, when we come to talk about how fear can manifest itself in wartime, and how soldiers and civilians and organizations tried to develop strategies to manage fear.

Although it has seemed to be an ever-present feature of human life – probably possessing some evolutionary utility in regard to our struggle for survival with predators – it seems to some observers to be acquiring an increased prevalence and significance in modern life. The most prevalent of all fears has been the fear of death, of course, followed closely by fear of the unknown. This latter fear has a peculiar topography, because it is almost limitless and also exists purely in the imagination of the human. The power of fear seems to reside in the fact that it is limitless (almost everything in the future is unknown) and it is also not really open to refutation  or contestation, because as soon as the unknown thing becomes known, something else will rise to take its place. Anticipation of danger also often seems much more likely to induce fear than the actual event itself. Joanna Bourke notes how the fear of being bombed in the UK turned out to be far worse than the bombing itself. Much of the power that fear seems to hold over humans relates to this power it holds over the human imagination, and the feeling that the person who is experiencing fear has no control over the outcome. This is why the imagination is such a powerful catalyst for fear. In the imagination there seem to be no limits to fear. But fear also seems to speak to our sense of being human, of being alive and aware. The world – with its dangers and terrors – makes us feel the power and the mystery of the world, and so makes us feel things deeply. Nietzsche noted that without fear we will soon lapse into “bland complacency and torpor”. Fear makes us come alive, respond to our world, compels us to act, makes us feel deeply.

Interestingly historians have begun to speculate that fear of pain has begun to replace fear of death in the pantheon of human fears. This may relate to the ability of technology to prevent many of the diseases that have habitually killed us. Or that with extending the life-span of the average human in the developed world, the fear of death has been postponed way into the future, leaving other fears to take its place. It may also reflect a deeply unhealthy sense of denial about human mortality that we have in the modern West. The present ubiquity of fear in modern life may also be due to its prominent role in both contemporary politics and contemporary capitalist consumerism. Fear is used extensively by politicians and corporations alike because it is a powerful tool to manipulate human responses and behaviour. It can readily be mobilised in pursuit of a political goal, or to “sell” things to us. This too can be problematic for historians as we try to grasp a sense of the place of fear in a world similar to but also different from our own. Was fear as prevalent back then? Did it have the same power? Is it the same thing we know as fear today?

This question is further complicated by the changing ways that people have described and narrated their emotions. An understanding of how our language has structured our understandings of fear in wartime can be seen in the work of Joanna Bourke. Bourke notes that when emotion is used in narratives, the time period can dramatically affect not only how those experiencing fear describe it, but also at a deeper level their understanding and apprehension of it are almost entirely structured by the linguistic forms and shapes they deploy, We will quote her at length here,

… over and over again, servicemen prior to the Second World War used the language of instincts to describe their emotions in war. Thew drew this language from evolutionary notions about emotions arising out of universal instincts such as self-preservation, curiosity, pugnacity, self-assertion, self-abasement, parental love and revulsion..These instincts were inherited “from the brutes” and could not be avoided. In popular accounts of fear in wartime, this was the language adopted. This fear and panic in combat involved the feeling of being taken over by “primitive blood-lust” and only afterwards returning to their “true selves”… In the terror of combat, men reverted to their animalistic inheritance. This language began changing after 1939 and was dramatically different by the 1960s when the fashionably self-conscious, psycho-analytical style of war memoirs encouraged a more detailed, more individual and more confessional rendering of reminiscences and battle-stories…By the 1960s the language employed was that of psychoanalysis, the language of anxiety.

There have been many official accounts of fear (and courage) in combat. It is important to note here that these are not just studies of fear per se, but are studies with a particular purpose: to enable soldiers to cope with fear, or to overcome fear, or to prevent it from undermining the capacity of soldiers to perform. Large-scale surveys and psychological studies have been carried out by a number of different armies at different times. To give you a flavour of the findings of these reports, we will cite some of their key findings. Let us begin with John Dollard’s Fear in Battle (1944). Between 1942 and 1945 Dollard acted as a consultant with the Morale Services Division of the US Department of Way. Together with psychologists from Yale University Institute of Human Relations, Dollard did a survey of 300 volunteers from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It should be emphasised that these were volunteers (and so their experiences may differ from conscripts) and they were veterans, which may also have skewed the findings a little. 

His “findings in brief” were as follows:

  1. Fear is useful to the soldier when it drives him to learn better in training and to act sensibly in battle.
  2. The commonest symptoms of fear were: pounding heart and rapid pulse, tenseness of muscles, sinking feelings, dryness of mouth and throat, trembling, sweating. Involuntary elimination occurred infrequently.
  3. 7 out of 10 men reported experiencing fear when going into first action.
  4. Fear is greatest just before action.
  5. 64 men out of a  hundred agreed that they became less afraid the more times they went into action.
  6. Fear of “being a coward” diminished rapidly after the first action.
  7. Wounds most feared were those in the abdomen, eyes, brain and genitals.
  8. Enemy weapons most feared were bombs, mortar shells, artillery shells, bayonet and knife, and expanding bullets.
  9. Fear of bombs centred in the sound of the bomb dropping and on the concussion of the exploding bomb.
  10. The presence of hunger, thirst, fatigue, ignorance of plans, idleness increases the danger from fear.
  11. 8 out of 10 men say it is better to admit fear and discuss it openly before battle.
  12. 75 out of 100 believe that all signs of fear should be controlled – in battle.
  13. Experienced men who crack up should be treated leniently, deserters shot, and green men made to stay and face the music.
  14. The most important factors in controlling fear are: devotion to cause, leadership, training and materiel.
  15. Only 1 man in 4 thought that feelings of fatalism or belief in luck were of much importance in bearing fear.
  16. Veteran soldiers learn that to be busy means to be less afraid: “when fear is strong, keep your mind on the job at hand.”
  17. Thinking that the enemy is just as scared as you are is helpful in controlling fear.
  18. 8 out of 10 men believe that hatred is important to the effective soldier – but hatred of the enemy’s cause, not of him personally.
  19. Fear may stimulate a soldier to fight harder and better, if danger to the self also suggests danger to the outfit or the cause.
  20. The best discipline is based on the willing acceptance of orders by purposeful and instructed men. 

We will have much more to say on the management of fear by individuals and by armies. And we will also explore the causes of fear, the expressions of fear and the language of fear.

We will finish here with a poem by Cecil Day Lewis;

Now fear has come again

To live with us

In poisoned intimacy like pus. . . .

The bones, the stalwart spine,

The legs like bastions,

The nerves, the heart’s natural combustions,

The head that hives our active thoughts—all pine,

Are quenched or paralyzed

When Fear puts unexpected questions

And makes the heroic body freeze like a beast


Cecil Day Lewis Ode To Fear 1943