I recently watched the movie “Darkest Hour”. I was blown away. The movie focuses on Winston Churchill’s initial period as Prime Minister of England in 1940. Shortly after he took power, Belgium and France fell to the Nazis. Literally all of Britain’s 300,000 plus troops were stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk as the Nazis advanced on them, poised to push them into the sea. They were in serious danger of being totally annihilated.
The Nazi armies seemed invincible. Britain stood alone, with few resources and no allies, to fight the German Goliath alone. The U.S. could not provide any military support because we were pledged to be neutral in the fight. A German invasion of England was anticipated, as was a massive air campaign against them.
Watching the movie was gut wrenching. We knew that England survived and that Hitler was eventually defeated. But putting yourself in the mindset of England in May and June of 1940, was devastating.
I remembered something my mother told me about living through World War II. Through hindsight, the defeat of Nazism seems inevitable to us today. It was not inevitable to the anyone at the time. The people living through World War II, day in and day out, had no way of knowing how things would turn out. And for a long period of time, it really looked like it was inevitable that the Axis would successfully conquer and reshape the entire western world.
I didn’t actually understand how dire England’s plight was in the spring of 1940. No one could have predicted the miraculous rescue at Dunkirk. This was only accomplished when 850 civilian pleasure boats formed an armada and crisscrossed the English Channel for nine days, from May 26 to June 4 of 1940. Amazingly, over 300,000 men were safely returned to England. It was one of the greatest and most improbable wartime rescues in history.
Even after Dunkirk, the odds were heavily stacked against England. All of the news was bad, for Europe as well as for Great Britain. The future looked unimaginably terrifying.
My parents lived through this time safely in New York City. Nonetheless, they were horrified at the possibility of a world ruled by the Third Reich. My parents and their families were Jewish, so their fear was magnified. My grandmother, like many Americans, also had family trapped in Europe. So there was a whole other level of fear and anxiety.
I don’t think I understood, on a visceral level, the emotional toll that World War II took on the people in the allied countries. Many allies fell to the Nazis. So the others didn’t have to imagine what life would be like for them under Nazi rule. Unless you were a fascist collaborator, things would not be good for you.
I wouldn’t dream of comparing the Trump presidency with the Nazi conquest of Europe. But this is the first time that I have ever had to worry about democracy as we know it, ending in America. For the first time, I am not certain that all our cherished rights and liberties will survive. Free and unbiased elections may be in danger, as are the financial safety nets our government provides for those in need. The values that I cherish in my country are under attack and may not prevail long-term.
The level of panic I feel when I read an ominous news report is miniscule compared to my parents’ reactions to the headlines they had to read every day in the early years of the Second World War. But I think I finally ‘get’ what it meant to live through the early 1940’s as an anti-fascist and as a targeted minority. I wish I could let my mother know I finally understand what she was trying to tell me about the nightmare of those years.
I also have a new level of appreciation for Winston Churchill and the British people. They vowed to fight Hitler down to the last man. And they meant it. They vowed never to surrender their country to a fascist regime. Now I realize how much courage that took. I understand how real the threat of death or capture was for every Englishman.
I have boundless admiration and gratitude for the brave people of Britain who rose to fight for their values and for their country’s way of life. I hope, if the time ever comes for America, that I will have the courage to “man the barricades” for my country and my values.