There can be few people who haven’t run into Keep Calm And Carry On in some form. The now familiar red-and-white image has been turned into fridge magnets, key rings, mugs, tea towels, phone cases, cushions – almost any product where it will fit.

It has spread further by being remixed and memeified: Keep Calm And Drink Tea, Now Panic And Freak Out, Change Words And Be Hilarious. It’s a cultural – and marketing – phenomenon. But while it is well-known that Keep Calm originated as British wartime propaganda, the original context is rarely appreciated. Rather than merely being a nostalgic relic of a reassuring past, Keep Calm should be seen as a symbol of terror.

As well as the elegance and simplicity of its design, Keep Calm’s popularity draws on an ideal of stoicism traditionally linked with the British national character. It embodies the “stiff upper lip” of the British people in standing up to Hitler in the Second World War.

In particular, this meant enduring the Blitz, the German bombing of London and other cities between September 1940 and May 1941, with cheerfulness and courage – the so-called Blitz spirit. Despite the terrible suffering and mass casualties inflicted by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Britain did not give in; instead it survived to play a key role in defeating Nazi Germany.

In fact, the Keep Calm poster had nothing to do with the Blitz at all, as most copies were destroyed before mass bombing began. Its origins lie in the prewar expectation of bombing casualties far higher than the British ever suffered in reality.

The expected holocaust

The theory of “the knock-out blow from the air,” widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, predicted that the next war would begin with shattering air raids by thousands of bombers. The great cities such as London would be destroyed by incendiary bombs and poison gas, causing such intense suffering that morale would collapse.

Millions would flee into the countryside to escape the raids, and the economy would collapse. Surrender would inevitably follow within weeks or even days. The idea of the knock-out blow was extrapolated from the limited experience of the first strategic bombing campaigns of the First World War. Many were also determined to avoid the shocking number of deaths of young men over four years of stalemate and slaughter in the trenches of the Western Front.

Of course, the catch, if the knock-out blow theory was accurate, was that instead of soldiers it would be civilians who would bear the brunt of the death and destruction in the next war.

By 1939, the scale of the expected attack meant that the British people were facing the prospect of around 2.1 million casualties in the first two months of war, perhaps as many as 170,000 in the first 24 hours alone.

The reality was very different, because the knock-out blow theory was wrong. The Luftwaffe did not attack London immediately upon the outbreak of war, and while 40,000 British civilians were killed in the Blitz, this suffering was spread out over seven months, rather than concentrated in a few weeks.

As terrible as it was, the Blitz was nothing compared to the knock-out blow that was feared before the war. A generation later, former prime minister Harold Macmillan recalled in 1966 that,

We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today.

Keep calm, but why?

The point of the Keep Calm poster was not that it was believed to represent an innate British trait; instead, the fear was that the working classes in particular were all too likely to panic and riot after an intense bombing campaign.

In the summer of 1939, as war with Germany seemed increasingly likely, Ministry of Information planners designed the Keep Calm poster in order to stiffen morale in the event of just such an emergency. Nearly 2.5 million copies were printed. But unlike two other propaganda posters created at the same time, Keep Calm was never publicly displayed on a large scale, because the mass bombing raids that were expected at the start of the war never came.

In April 1940, with the British people having adjusted to the Phoney War and no sign of an impending aerial apocalypse, the vast majority of the Keep Calm posters were pulped and recycled, with only a few making their way into public view.

In 2000, one of these was found in a secondhand bookshop in Northumberland, and this copy eventually launched the modern obsession with this previously obscure piece of propaganda.

Why does all this matter? Even though the origins of Keep Calm are now well-documented, it is still commonly associated with the Blitz.

A recent Guardian article even claimed that

The specific purpose of the poster was to stiffen resolve in the event of a Nazi invasion.

This mistakes the fears of wartime 1940 – when an invasion was very much a possibility – with those of prewar 1939 – when it was barely even considered. But then, in many ways the war that the British actually fought bore little resemblance to the war they expected.

Keep Calm should not be seen as a reassuring affirmation of a supposedly traditional British coolness under pressure. Rather, it’s evidence of a desperate attempt to maintain order in the face of casualties on a scale that might end British civilisation. Kitsch merchandising it may be now, but Keep Calm was first the product of an age of terror.

Brett Holman, Lecturer in History, University of New England

This article first appeared on The Conversation.