On New Year’s Eve my husband Mike and I went to see the movie The Darkest Hour which is a presentation of the early days of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was May of 1940, and Adolf Hitler was marching across Europe seemingly with ease. One country after another had fallen under his conquest and it appeared as though he was unstoppable. Many in Great Britain were certain that the only logical choice for the empire was to broker a peace deal that would allow them to maintain independence while acceding to German influence. There was much talk that Britain had neither the manpower nor the stomach to endure a war with the superior German forces. It almost seemed inevitable that the country would fall just as so many European nations had already done. It was indeed one of the darkest hours in the history of the country.
Winston Churchill had only recently replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The government had lost confidence in Chamberlain and his efforts to maintain peace with the Germans appeared to be appeasement rather than diplomacy. He was being blamed by some for the fall of so many of Britain’s allies and Churchill was reluctantly chosen to replace him as head of the government even though many believed that his tenure would be short-lived. He had not particularly distinguished himself in either World War I or his other forays into governing. Many thought that he would soon be replaced by Lord Halifax who was viewed as a more reasoned leader. Furthermore there was great concern about Churchill’s unwillingness to consider a peace accord with Hitler, whom he considered to be a despicable despot unworthy of deference of any kind.
At the time the entire British army of 300,000 troops was hopelessly trapped by German troops in Dunkirk and seemingly on the verge of total destruction leaving Britain completely unprotected. In a desperate move Churchill commanded one of his admirals to distract the Germans so that civilian sailors might employ their crafts to rescue the stranded troops. It was a daring plan that many thought was dangerously foolhardy. Churchill understood that it was instead the country’s last hope, and he was joined by the King in believing that any peace deal with the Germans was unacceptable. He did not believe that Britain would really be allowed to be independent of Nazi rule, and he could not imagine being able to accept the sight of Nazi flags flying over Buckingham Palace. He remained firm in his resolve to fight off the invading German army one way or another.
Churchill ultimately garnered the support of the government as well as the people of Great Britain when he delivered a stirring speech in which he insisted that Britain would fight to the last man, and if that was not successful then they would rely on being rescued by the other nations of the commonwealth and the people of the new world. His unflinching challenge captured the imagination of his countrymen, and as Lord Halifax noted Churchill had commandeered the English language into the battle.
We know of course what the rest of history was. The United States entered the fray a year and half later, and Hitler split his forces and resources by embarking on a new front of war with Russia. Ultimately he was defeated and Britain never came under his rule. But for the courage of Winston Churchill many historians argue that Europe may have been dominated by Germany and been changed in ways that would have had even more horrific consequences for mankind than they did.
The Darkest Hour was a captivating movie and Gary Oldman did a yeoman’s job of portraying Winston Churchill. More importantly was its story which made clear the dire situation of the world in 1940. I learned many things that I had never before known and they gave me a better perspective of what it must have been like to live during that era, particularly in Europe. This truly is a movie that everyone should take the time to see, but sadly the audience on the day that I went was almost totally comprised of individuals either my age or older. I only saw three young men in the entire crowd which is truly a shame because I doubt that most of today’s millennials have any idea of how dangerous the world situation was back then. I hear so many people today complaining that this is the most menacing time in history, and while there is certainly a grain of merit in such pronouncements I also have to wonder if our present situation even compares to what was happening in the spring of 1940 when the very face of Europe and Asia was changing so rapidly that it appeared that there would be no way to stop the autocratic land grabs. It chills me to even consider what the world might have become without the courage and determination of Great Britain and its eventual allies in the fight against fascism and fanaticism.
There is a popular series on Amazon called The Man In High Castle that considers what the world would be like if Hitler had succeeded in his goal of world domination. It is a dark look at the possibilities that were actually closer to fruition than most of us ever thought. The United States was still little more than a second rate nation at the beginning of that war, totally ill prepared for the battles to come. In the first weeks of the conflict they were utterly befuddled and defeated, but somehow just as with the citizens of Great Britain the American people maintained their resolve to defeat the evil of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. With the combined efforts of some brilliant military men, the bravery of the troops, and the luck of bad decisions by Adolf Hitler good ultimately triumphed over evil, but it is horrifying nonetheless to even imagine how things might have been had the Germans actually won.
If you have not yet gone to see The Darkest Hour or have yet to even consider viewing it, I highly recommend that you do so. Be sure to take your middle school and high school age children with you as well as the young adults in your family. We learn from our history and the story outlined in the film is one that is probably not familiar to most of us when it should be. We face our own tyrants in today’s world and we need to consider the lessons learned in the past as we make important decisions. We also must ask ourselves just how willing we will be to look the other way when we see monsters denying people the human rights that we all deserve. When do we compromise with them and when is it time to draw a line. We need to know these things because the time may come when such hard choices will have to be made.