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From the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency, millions of Americans have taken to the streets to challenge what they see as his unprecedented efforts to destroy this country’s democratic institutions and to turn back the clock on social and economic justice.
Facebook and other forms of social media have served as the primary engines for this massive grassroots protest, with Twitter — and the hashtags #Resist and #The Resistance —leading the charge.

Today’s American resistance campaign has fascinating parallels with the resistance movement that took root in Nazi-occupied Europe more than seventy years ago. In both cases, there was an initial sense of shock that the unthinkable had happened, accompanied by fear, helplessness, and even despair. In both cases, too, a call for action by the media provided the spark for citizens to band together and fight back.

During World War II, the role now played by Facebook and Twitter was taken by the BBC, whose surreptitious news broadcasts were avidly listened to by the inhabitants of occupied Europe. Every night, millions of Europeans retrieved their radio sets, which had been outlawed by the Germans, from wherever they had hidden them and turned them on to hear the chiming of Big Ben and the magical words: “This is London calling.”

In 1941, a BBC broadcast to Belgium urged Belgians to demonstrate their defiance to German rule by scrawling the letter V (for Victory) on the walls of buildings throughout the country. They did so with gusto, chalking Vs on walls, doors, pavements, and telegraph and telephone posts. So did a growing number of Frenchmen, many of whom learned about the V campaign by listening to the Belgian broadcast. In both countries, chalk sales skyrocketed. A letter to the BBC from Normandy noted “a multitude of little Vs everywhere.”

By the early spring of 1941, the BBC’s entire European Service had taken up the V campaign, with similar results. Not long afterward, someone realized that the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounded like Morse code for the letter V — dot-dot-dot-dash. Those notes, played on a kettle drum, became the European Service’s call sign, and they, too, spread like wildfire throughout occupied Europe. People hummed and whistled them. Restaurant diners tapped them with spoons on their glasses and cups. Train engineers blasted them on their whistles. Schoolteachers called their students to order by clapping their hands with the V rhythm. When a British bomber used its landing lights to flash the letter V over Paris, its crew watched the city light up with Vs beamed back from cars and apartment windows.

The most celebrated champion of the V symbol was Winston Churchill, whose raised right hand, with his index and middle fingers pointed up in the shape of a V, became his signature gesture for the rest of his life.

The V campaign was, as one historian noted, “the first pan-European gesture of resistance, helping Europeans shed their sense of isolation and helplessness and come together in thumbing their noses at the Germans.” It got Europeans used to the idea of fighting back — an idea that morphed into a powerful groundswell of resistance that eventually helped Allied troops liberate the Continent.


Donald Trump has made “America First” his clarion call. That phrase was the centerpiece of his campaign, and he doubled down on it in his inaugural address, declaring, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First.”

As Trump is well aware, America First was the name of a notorious organization that crusaded for America’s isolationism in World War II. In his channeling of that group, our new president aims to turn the United States into Fortress America, closing its borders, walling it off from the rest of the world, and focusing entirely on its own self-interest — as he defines it.

The U.S., of course, was hardly the only nation to put its own interest first in the years before World War II. For the sake of peace — its own peace — Great Britain stood quietly by as Hitler began his march to war. So did France. Smaller European countries, like Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, also refused to get involved, relying on their neutrality to keep them safe. Catastrophe was the result, as one by one, Hitler picked these countries off, leaving Britain as the only European nation holding out against the Nazis.

Belatedly, Britain and Europe did join forces during the war, thanks to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who invited the leaders and military forces of seven occupied European nations to take refuge in London in the summer of 1940. Together, the British and Europeans formed a partnership that ended up making a significant contribution to the Allied victory.

During their long stay in London, the exiled Europeans worked and socialized together in ways that would never have been possible before. The horror of their countries’ invasion and occupation had disabused them of the belief in every country for itself, and they began to explore the possibility of banding together to prevent such a conflagration from happening again. Those discussions planted the seeds for the postwar campaign for European unification — an extraordinary effort that helped lead to more than half a century of peace and prosperity for western Europe.

In a stunning reversal from its prewar isolationism, the United States went to great lengths in the late 1940s to help Europe achieve military and economic security. As a founding partner of NATO, we became a permanent force in maintaining peace in Europe; through the multi-billion-dollar Marshall Plan, we helped jump-start the economic recovery of a war-devastated continent.

If Trump had been around then, he would have labeled President Truman and his administration as fools for squandering America’s wealth on foreigners. In Trump’s view, foreign aid and alliances are a zero-sum game: they win, we lose. In fact, such military and economic support was indisputably in America’s self interest: by helping to stabilize Europe and other allies, our own security and economy were strengthened as well.

Now, under Trump, we are going back in time, “embarking,” as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has noted, “upon insularity and smallness.” Although I usually don’t agree with Krauthammer’s views, I think he’s spot on when he says, “Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.”

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


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.

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.