Tag Archives: world war II

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.

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.