Queen Wilhelmina: “A Bold and Noble Woman”

Queen WilhelminaAs a little girl, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had taken to heart the declared aim of her English governess to make “a bold and noble woman out of you.” From childhood, Wilhelmina’s dream had been to perform “great deeds,” like those of her famed royal ancestors, including William of Orange, the king of Holland and England who had successfully defended both countries against the French in the late seventeenth century.

Before Hitler launched his May 1940 blitzkrieg against the Netherlands, he instructed the commander of his airborne troops to seize Wilhelmina immediately but to treat her with great respect, including presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. Unfortunately for the Fuhrer, his efforts to capture and then woo her were doomed from the start.

Although her mother, husband and son-in-law were all German, the feisty, outspoken Wilhelmina had for years denigrated Hitler and his followers as “those bandits” and declared that “anyone who threatens the interests of my people and country is my personal enemy.” After the German invasion, she wanted to remain in Holland and fight on with her troops but was persuaded by her fellow monarch, Britain’s George VI, to come to London.
Yet, as it happened, Wilhelmina did indeed fulfill her childhood dream of performing “great deeds” like her illustrious forbears. Hers, however, were achieved not on the battlefield but during her London exile. In a never-to-be repeated moment, a modern monarch of the Netherlands was given the chance to exercise real leadership, and Wilhelmina made the most of it.

In the course of the war, she stopped her defeatist government from capitulating to the Germans, kept her country in the fight, and inspired and united her people through her fiery anti-German broadcasts over the BBC. A joke made the rounds in Holland that Wilhelmina’s young granddaughters were forbidden to listen to her on the radio because she used such foul language when she talked about the Nazis.
Throughout the conflict, Wilhelmina had been deeply worried about her people’s reaction to her escape from the Netherlands in 1940. Her concern proved groundless: when she returned in 1945, the Dutch turned out by the tens of thousands to welcome her home. “War brought Queen Wilhelmina a sense of comradeship with her people that she had never known,” Time magazine wrote. “They respected her before. They loved her now.”

King Haakon Fights Back

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One of the many pleasures of writing Last Hope Island was exploring the lives of its large cast of characters, from royals and generals  to spies and saboteurs. I was particularly intrigued by the two kings — Haakon of Norway and Leopold of Belgium — and one queen — Wilhelmina of the Netherlands — who play major roles in the story.  I’ll write a bit about each of them on this blog, beginning with the intrepid king of Norway.

Shortly after midnight on April 9, 1940, King Haakon was asleep in his palace in Oslo when he was awakened by his aide-de-camp  and told that Germany had invaded Norway. Less than two days later, the 67-year-old king was on the run from Nazi troops ordered by Hitler to track him down and kill him. There were two causes for Hitler’s rage: Haakon’s refusal to capitulate to Germany and his call to Norwegians to resist the invaders with all their might.

Queen Wilhelmina and King Leopold would soon have to make a similar choice of whether to give in or to resist Germany, but I found Haakon’s story to be particularly fascinating. For one thing, he was not Norwegian by birth. He was the second son of the crown prince of Denmark and until he became king of Norway, had barely set foot in that country. His maternal grandfather happened to be the king of Sweden and Norway, and when the people of Norway declared their independence from Sweden in 1905, they announced they would welcome a junior member of the Swedish royal family as their king to lessen the chance of Sweden’s opposition to their rebellion. The obvious choice, Haakon (known as Carl then), strongly resisted the idea of taking the throne but finally gave in after strong pressure from his family and his father-in-law, King Edward VII of Britain.

Even though he grew to love Norway, he often felt like an outsider. Many Norwegian officials scorned the monarchy as a useless relic of a bygone age and believed it should have no influence in either foreign or domestic matters.  When Haakon warned about the threat of Hitler in the 1930s and urged the government to strengthen Norway’s shockingly weak defenses, the country’s political leaders paid him no attention.

All that changed, however, after the German invasion. When several government ministers argued that Norway’s situation  was hopeless and that the government should negotiate for peace, Haakon declared that he would abdicate if that happened. His unequivocal stand ended all talk of capitulation and prompted Hitler’s order for Haakon’s killing. For the next three weeks, the king and members of the government, in cars painted white for camouflage, fled north, into the wild, mountainous landscape of northern Norway. Ceaselessly tracking them, the Germans bombed and strafed every place they were thought to be. In one village, Haakon and his party narrowly escaped death when six German dive-bombers dropped incendiary bombs and raked the village with gunfire.

Norway, meanwhile, put up a fierce but hopeless fight against the flood of German troops pouring into the country.  On June 5, 1940, two months after the invasion began,  the king and government leaders made the agonizing decision to leave Norway and escape to Britain to continue the fight. It was the worst moment of Haakon’s life. Before boarding the British battleship sent by his nephew, King George VI, to evacuate him and his ministers, he  said in a broken whisper: “I am so afraid of the Norwegian people’s judgment.”

As events would soon prove, he had no reason to worry.

 

 

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.