When 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.