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Britain Under Siege

This 1942 map of German-occupied Europe (with Allied countries in red and German-controlled-or-influenced countries in blue) dramatically depicts how isolated Britain was in the early years of World War II and how perilously close to its shores the Nazi threat had come.

Occupied Europe Map

When war was officially declared in September 1939, the conflict in Europe still seemed reassuringly far away to the British. At first, only eastern Europe was involved. In 1938, Germany had begun its occupation of Czechoslovakia, which was split into two sections and renamed Bohemia/Moravia and Slovakia. Then the Nazis conquered Poland, a chunk of which was absorbed into the German Empire and another chunk, called the General Government, put under German control.

It wasn’t until April 1940, when the Nazis swallowed up Norway and Denmark, that the German peril drew frighteningly nearer. Facing the UK across the North Sea, occupied Norway was a particular threat, since it provided Germany with a gateway to the North Atlantic. A month later, the danger became even more palpable when Hitler launched his blitzkrieg through western Europe, vanquishing Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. Within a matter of weeks, the UK was surrounded by a gauntlet of enemy submarines, warships and aircraft, most of them based in Norway and northern France, just a few dozen miles away from the UK across the English Channel.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the British found themselves with a new if reluctant ally. But Hitler’s onslaught against the Soviets didn’t appreciably diminish the threat of British defeat, particularly since the Germans, at least in the beginning, overran Soviet territory as swiftly as they had done in Poland and western Europe.

Five countries in western Europe (colored white on the map) were neutral — Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, and Ireland. During the war’s early years, when the Nazi advance seemed unstoppable, their governments tended to align themselves with German interests. During that period, the British were worried that Spain and Portugal might actually become allies of Germany, a situation that would have posed a major threat to the crucial British fortress at Gibraltar.

Winston Churchill was also greatly upset with Ireland, which would not allow Britain to use its ports to conduct operations against German submarines. At one point, Churchill ordered the British navy to draw up plans for the seizure of several Irish coastal towns, so that their harbors could be used for British naval bases — an operation that was never carried out.

Yet, at the same time, several of the neutral nations proved to be of great benefit to Britain and the exiled Europeans based in London during the war. Spain and Switzerland, for example, were used by the British government as avenues for the smuggling of agents and others into and out of occupied territory. Throughout the war, thousands of British, American and other Allied servicemen, most of them downed aircrews, were spirited out of Belgium, the Netherlands and France over the Pyrenees Mountains and into Spain, where they were returned to Britain and freedom.

Brexit and Last Hope Island

brexitWhen readers ask me how long it takes me to write a book, I usually tell them three to four years. But that was not the case with Last Hope Island. I first got the idea about ten years ago, but after about a year of research in England and elsewhere in Europe, I decided to stop. I realized that the subject matter was much bigger and more complicated than any book I’d done before. At that point in my writing career, it was, quite frankly, too much for me.

So I put it aside and went to work on other projects, including Citizens of London and Those Angry Days. Last Hope Island, though, kept drawing me back. It was such a compelling story— one that had never been fully explored before — about how Britain, as the last European country to hold out against Hitler, provided a refuge for the leaders of a number of occupied nations, enabling them to set up governments in exile to help defeat Germany. It also had an enormous cast of the most colorful characters I’ve ever encountered. But I was also intrigued by how timely the story had become. One of its attractions for me was the light it sheds on the evolution of today’s contentious relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe — a rift that was underscored last June by Britain’s vote last June to exit the European Union.

In the book, I point out a fascinating, little-known fact: Britain is now preparing to divorce itself from an organization that it actually (if unwittingly) helped to start. Until World War II, the British had done their best to stay clear of continental Europe and its entanglements. But all that changed during the Nazi conquest of Europe, when Winston Churchill and his countrymen realized they needed the Europeans as much as the Europeans needed them. The Anglo-European wartime partnership was a tempestuous relationship, fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. Nonetheless, as the war progressed, both sides were able to put aside their differences and work closely together toward their mutual goal of defeating Germany.

Wartime London was also a perfect breeding ground for European cooperation. The leaders of occupied Europe worked and socialized together in a way that would never have been possible without the war. Their long stay in the British capital gave them a certain distance from narrow national concerns and allowed them to form close personal and official bonds that bore extraordinary fruit once the conflict was over.

The trauma of defeat and occupation had convinced the Europeans that their nations must band together after the war if Europe hoped to achieve any kind of future influence, strength and security. Their close collaboration in London planted the seeds of the campaign for European unification that followed the war — an effort that helped lead to more than half a century of peace and prosperity for western Europe.

Although most nations in continental Europe were eager to retain their close ties with Britain after the war, the British government reverted to its traditional aloofness from Europe and refused to participate in the movement toward European integration. Although it did finally join the European Economic Community (precursor to the European Union) in 1973, it did so reluctantly. It was similarly skittish about its later membership in the European Union.

When British citizens voted this year to leave the EU, it presented them — as well as a fragile Europe — with enormous problems and challenges. The British pound has dropped precipitously, investments in Britain have plunged, and its economy is showing signs of a dramatic slowdown.

Brexit also threatens to do serious damage to the prosperous, cosmopolitan liveliness of London, a vibe that the city acquired in World War II as the de facto capital of Europe and that it has reclaimed in the last few decades. “The concern,” according to a recent Bloomberg news story, “is that a nasty British divorce from the EU could throw [London] into reverse — toward a recent past when it was the depopulating seat of a lost empire, best known for bad food and crumbling infrastructure.”

A horrifying prospect, indeed, for me and every other lover of London.

Last Hope Island

Last Hope Island

Last Hope Island – Available April 2017

When my book Citizens of London was published several years ago, Amazon posted an interview with me. The interviewer mentioned the fact that most of my books have focused on Britain in the early days of World War II and asked me why I was so drawn to that country and period. The main reason, I told him, was that it was such an irresistible story — this small island nation standing up to Nazi Germany, the mightiest military force in history, at a time when no one expected it to survive. Citizens of London dealt with one aspect of that fight — Britain’s desperate effort to get the neutral United States to enter the war as its ally.

My new book, Last Hope Island, which will be published next April, is very much in the tradition of Citizens. It’s the epic story of how, in the dark days of 1940, Britain abandoned its traditional aloofness from Europe and welcomed to its shores the exiled leaders and people of the European countries conquered by Germany. This is a topic that until now has never been fully explored: how London became the safe haven for the leaders of seven Nazi-occupied nations, allowing them to set up governments in exile to continue the fight.

As Last Hope Island makes clear, the partnership between Britain and occupied Europe turned out to be vital for Britain’s survival and, indeed, for Allied victory. Without the Europeans’ help, the British might well have lost the Battle of Britain and Battle of the Atlantic and might never have conquered Germany’s Enigma code. Later in the war, the work of European spies and resistance fighters helped insure the success of D-Day and the Allies’ subsequent march across Europe — an effort that, according to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, played “a very considerable part in our final triumph.”

At the same time, as I point out in the book, Europeans received much from Britain in return. To occupied Europe, the mere fact of Britain’s continued resistance to Hitler was a source of hope, a sign that not all was lost. On the Continent, Britain became known as “Last Hope Island.”

As readers of my books know, I rely heavily on the human angle in writing history. In this book, I really hit the jackpot. Last Hope Island is an intensely human story, with a huge cast of wonderful, larger-than-life characters, ranging from kings and queens to scientists, pilots, spies, and saboteurs. Even the bit players are fascinating. They include a teenage Audrey Hepburn, who served as a courier for the Dutch resistance, and four-year-old Madlenka Korbel, the daughter of a Czech government official in London, who survived the Blitz and grew up to become U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The story of the remarkable wartime partnership between Britain and occupied Europe stands in sharp contrast to the rocky relationship between Britain and Europe today, underscored by Britain’s vote last June to leave the European Union. The irony here is that Britain actually served as the seedbed for the creation of the European Union. As the war progressed, members of the various European governments-in-exile forged tight-knit bonds with each other, both official and personal. The trauma of defeat and occupation had convinced them that their nations must band together after the war if Europe hoped to achieve any kind of future influence, strength, and security. Their cooperation in London planted the seeds for the campaign for European unification that followed the war — an extraordinary effort that helped lead to more than half a century of peace and prosperity for western Europe.

Publication Day!

Those Angry Days was published two weeks ago, and it’s been a real whirlwind since then. Every time a book of mine has been published, I feel as if I’ve come out of several years of hibernation into the frenzy of the real world.  This time, it’s been particularly intense, with lots of speaking engagements and interviews. The day before publication, I had a wonderful hour-long chat with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  Having listened to her for years, I’ve always marveled at how great she is at getting to the heart of a book and its author.  She is a true master at making you feel at ease and, through her insightful questions, teasing out revealing answers.

I also loved being on Hardball with Chris Matthews and very much appreciated Chris’s extremely generous plug of the book.  It was fun, too, to schmooze with fellow authors Jeff Frank (Ike and Dick), Paul Reid (The Last Lion), and Amity Shlaes (Coolidge) on Face the Nation.  Bob Schieffer did a terrific job of getting us to talk about these very disparate biographies and histories.

The best moment, though, came a week after publication. I had just finished giving a speech at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in New York and was sitting down for dinner with my daughter Carly at a nearby restaurant. I checked my email — and found that Those Angry Days had just made #10 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Carly and I immediately ordered two glasses of champagne. When we told the waitress why we were celebrating, she let out a whoop and returned with the champagne, announcing it was on the house.  The perfect end to a perfect day!

 

Iraq and the Lessons of World War II

In the days before America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush and members of his administration repeatedly drew parallels between the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the menace of Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. As Bush and his advisers saw it, critics of the government’s planned military action in Iraq bore a striking similarity to the American isolationists and British appeasers who opposed standing up to Hitler. “Tyrants respond to toughness,” national security adviser Condoleeza Rice declared on Feb. 16, 2003. “That was true in the 1930s and 1940s when we failed to respond to tyranny, and it is true today.”

Not for the first time, the lessons of Nazi Germany and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis. The danger of Saddam Hussein was in no way comparable to Hitler’s threat to the security and survival of Western civilization — a fact made abundantly clear when the White House’s claim of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false.

Nonetheless, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the  Iraq invasion, there is a lesson from World War II that should not be ignored, even though the Bush White House, for its own political ends, did so. It’s the vital importance of engaging in a full-throated national debate before actually taking the country into combat.

For more than two years –from the outbreak of war in September 1939 to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — millions of Americans took part in arguably the most vigorous prewar debate in this country’s history. What was America’s role to be? Should it remain an isolationist nation, clinging to its fortress mentality and focusing only on its own defense? Or, as one of the world’s leading powers, must it assume responsibility for helping to stop the rampages of Germany and its allies? Passionate arguments over those issues raged across the United States, from the White House and Congress to bars, offices, beauty parlors, and classrooms in the biggest of cities and smallest of towns.       Harsh, even violent at times, the dispute ripped apart friendships and fractured families. It was, recalled the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “the most savage political debate in my lifetime.” Yet, for all its bitterness, it was a true exercise in democracy. Citizens’ groups on both sides sprang up to lobby government officials and public opinion. Grassroots activism flourished throughout the country, as volunteers circulated petitions, phoned their neighbors, staged rallies, and wrote letters to the editor. Everyone got a chance to make his or her case, and, as a result, the pros and cons of U.S. involvement in the war were carefully and thoroughly weighed.

By the time of Pearl Harbor, attitudes toward entering the war had shifted dramatically. According to polls, a substantial majority of Americans, once staunchly isolationist, now regarded “defeating Nazism” as the “biggest job facing their country.” Aware that they would have to pay a heavy price if they entered the war, most Americans nonetheless had come to the conclusion that it was necessary. The psychological and emotional preparation they had undergone contributed greatly to the country’s immediate unity once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Contrast that with the way we went to war against Iraq — or for that matter, with our involvement in most of the wars this country has waged since World War II. Almost without exception, they’ve been launched by the executive branch of the government with little or no consultation with –or input by — Congress and the public. Throughout the Iraq war, only those actually serving there were asked to bear any significant  sacrifices; the war’s harsh reality barely touched the vast majority of Americans.

In the end, though, there’s always a steep price to be paid for war, especially one that lasts eight years. The tab for the Iraq conflict has come due in a variety of ways, including the enormous drain on the country’s economy and the military, the crippling physical and psychological disabilities suffered by tens of thousands of servicemen and women, and the damage to our credibility abroad.

The debate over World War II was highly contentious, even painful, but that’s as it should be.  It should be painful to go to war, and Americans should be given the chance, before any future conflicts, to participate in a national debate about whether the benefits are worth the heavy costs that will inevitably follow.

 

 

 

 

 

Abe Lincoln and World War II

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, the excellent Lincoln, has prompted a flood of blog posts, newspaper columns and articles, and broadcast commentaries about the lessons that today’s politicians can learn from President Lincoln and the strategy he used in his battle to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. As it happens, Spielberg is not the only prominent artistic figure to focus on the 16th president and to draw implicit parallels between the challenges that faced him and those facing modern political leaders. In 1938, Robert Sherwood, a highly successful Broadway playwright, used Lincoln as a way of exploring what Sherwood felt was America’s moral responsibility to stop Adolf Hitler in his quest to conquer Europe.

One of the best-known literary figures in New York and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, the 43-year-old Sherwood had become convinced that  Nazi Germany represented a mortal danger not only to Europe but to the United States and the rest of the world. At the same time, he was a diehard pacifist who abhorred the very idea of war, thanks in part to his own horrific experiences in the trenches of France during World War I.  After the war. cynical and disillusioned by the bloodbath he had witnessed, he returned to New York, where he began churning out hit plays, most of which dealt in some fashion with what he considered the mindless, nonsensical folly of war.

As Europe again drew close to the brink of war in the 1930s, Sherwood struggled to find a balance between his hatred of militarism and his growing conviction that Hitler and Mussolini must be stopped. After Britain and France’s sell-out of Czechoslovakia at Munich, he finally abandoned his pacifism: “I feel that I must start to battle for one thing — the end of our isolation. There is no hope for humanity unless we participate vigorously in the concerns of the world and assume our proper place of leadership with all the grave responsibilities that go with it.”

His change of heart energized him into writing another play. Reaching back to the past, it would focus on Abraham Lincoln, who, like Sherwood and millions of other Americans, had been a man of peace forced to grapple with the dilemma of appeasement or war. Abe Lincoln in Illinois follows Lincoln in his pre-presidency days, as he agonizes over what position to take on slavery. Should he remain quiet and let that evil institution metastasize throughout America or should he stand firm against it, thus accepting the possibility of civil war, the idea of which he hates as much as slavery itself?

In tracing Lincoln’s tortuous journey from neutrality to his acknowledgement of the need to take action, Sherwood clearly meant to equate America’s dilemma in the 1850s to the one it faced in the late 1930s — a parallel that was abundantly clear to the play’s audiences. In the view of drama critic Heywood Broun, Abe Lincoln in Illinois  was “the finest piece of propaganda ever to come into our theater…To the satisfied and the smug, it will seem subversive to its very core. And they will be right…It is the very battle cry of freedom.”

Abe Lincoln in Illinois was a smash hit and won Sherwood his second Pulitzer Prize. But he was no longer content with just writing plays. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939,  he decided to step from behind his playwright’s persona and speak out as Robert Sherwood. He became one of the country’s most outspoken interventionists and in 1940, went to work for Franklin Roosevelt as a top adviser and speechwriter.

During this period, Sherwood observed that he still hated war with all his might. But, he added, “the terrible truth is that when war comes home to you, you have to fight it; and this war has come home to me.”

 

 

 

Hollywood: Lobbying for War

In August 1940, just a few days before German bombs began raining down on London, Americans flocked to movie theaters to see a spine-tingling spy thriller whose story was unsettlingly close to real life.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the film, called Foreign Correspondent, focuses on Johnny Jones, a newspaper reporter in New York, who at the beginning cares little or nothing about the growing threat of war in Europe. After being transferred to London, Jones, played by Joel McCrea, is pitchforked into a surreal world of assassinations, fifth columnists, and murderous Nazi spies.  No longer apathetic about Germany’s danger to the world, he becomes a fierce champion of the anti-Nazi cause.

In the movie’s last scene, Jones, in the midst of a Luftwaffe air raid on London, makes an impassioned radio broadcast to listeners in America, in effect urging them to ditch their isolationism and come to the aid of an imperiled Europe.  With lights flickering and an air raid siren wailing in the background, he declares: “All that noise you hear…is death coming to London. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out — this is a big story and you’re part of it…The lights are all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning…Hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights left in the world.”

The Reich’s Joseph Goebbels, a master of propaganda himself, couldn’t help but admire what he called “a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.” Isolationist Sen. Gerald Nye was less complimentary about Hitchcock’s movie — and the flood of other anti-Nazi films that had poured out of Hollywood after the German conquest of most of Europe in the spring and summer of 1940. In a radio rant, Nye called the movie studios “the most gigantic engines of war propaganda in existence…. The truth is that in 20,000 theaters in the United States tonight, they are holding mass war meetings.”

Neither Hitchcock nor Walter Wanger, Foreign Correspondent’s producer, however, was remotely apologetic about the movie’s obvious message — that America must enter World War II. Wanger, one of the film industry’s few successful independent producers, made it clear that his goal in making Foreign Correspondent was “to shake the U.S. into an awareness of what must threaten her if she turned her back on Europe.” Wanger’s staunchly interventionist viewpoint was hardly a minority opinion in Hollywood. Four years before, energized by the growing threat of Nazi Germany, hundreds of screenwriters, directors, actors, and producers had come together to form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which became the focal point of liberal, interventionist activity in the film community. Intent on raising the industry’s political consciousness, the league sponsored rallies, mass meetings, and letter-writing campaigns for a wide array of causes.  By contrast, America First, the country’s leading isolationist organization, found it virtually impossible to recruit members in the film industry. One of the few prominent Hollywood figures who did enlist was the actress Lillian Gish, who became a member of America First’s national committee.  Not long afterward, however, Gish resigned from America First after producers made clear they wouldn’t hire her as long as she belonged to the organization.

The British members of the Hollywood community, which included Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Ronald Colman, and Cedric Hardwicke, tended to be the most zealous interventionists of all. Many of them worked closely with the Churchill  government to promote Britain and its war effort and to encourage the U.S. to enter the conflict. They were joined by an influx of British directors and writers who flooded into the film capital to help in the propaganda effort. Two of those budding British propagandists — playwright R.C. Sheriff and novelist James Hilton — worked together to write Mrs. Miniver, about the experiences of an upper-middle-class family in the London suburbs at the time of Dunkirk and the Blitz. An enormous hit,  Mrs. Miniver, with its story of British resolution and courage in the midst of catastrophe, touched the hearts of millions of Americans. Churchill called it “propaganda worth a hundred battleships”; its American director, William Wyler, called himself a “warmonger” and acknowledged he made Mrs. Miniver because “I was concerned about Americans being isolationists.”

Prominent isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and Sens. Gerald Nye and Burton Wheeler continued to complain bitterly about the “war hysteria” being fomented by the movie studios, but their attempts to regulate the political content of films met with utter failure. Hollywood’s victory over its isolationist foes emboldened it to remain in the forefront of national debates over contentious political issues. Indeed, the film industry’s activism against the dictators in the prewar years was its “political coming out party.” From then on, leading Hollywood figures would have no qualms about making their voices heard on major national and international matters — a situation that still holds true today.