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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.