70 Years Ago…
Seven decades ago, western civilization teetered on the brink on a sandy spit of land in the French coast at a little town called Dunkirk.
Over the last few days of May and the first few days of June 1940, 340,000 British troops and thousands more French were evacuated from northern France in what was at the same time a remarkable save and a stunning defeat. Dunkirk, that is all that need be said, to conjure up the image of England literally standing alone against what appeared to be the total superiority of the Nazi war machine. The 70th anniversary of the Miracle of Dunkirk is being remembered in England this weekend.
One veteran who was taken off that bloody beach all those long years ago told the Guardian that the memory is “on my mind all day every day.”
It is hard to make great history – or great speeches – from abject defeat, but when England and the world needed it most, that most remarkable Englishman, Winston Churchill, rose to the occasion. His “finest hour” speech still stands as a superb historical document and as close as any politician can ever come to turning political rhetoric into lasting literature.
The last three paragraphs of the speech Churchill delivered in the House of Commons on June 18, 1940 begin:
“What (French) General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.”
Churchill did many remarkable things with his speech after the Dunkirk disaster, not least being that he leveled with his country about its almost unbelievably dire circumstances. We take it for granted today that Britain would survive, that the United States would enter the war, that Hitler would be defeated. It wasn’t so clear in that long ago spring.
Read Winston’s words and put yourself in that place 70 years ago:
“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Churchill later said that the British people had displayed the heart of a lion in standing up to Hitler. He had the honor to supply, as he said, “the roar.”
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
We celebrate Memorial Day weekend with cookouts, baseball games, a few hours in the garden perhaps, and, I hope, with a few moments of pause to remember. Western civilization did hang in the balance 70 years ago.
It is history worth knowing and appreciating. Happy Memorial Day.
Footnote: There is a remarkable new wartime biography of Churchill – Winston’s War – by the acclaimed British World War II historian Max Hastings. It’s a terrific book. Hastings shows Churchill to be all that he was – brilliant, petulant, difficult, charming, a cigar smoking, champagne swilling leader and orator of the first order.