May 1940- When the whole world went mad and one man stood up to inspired us all.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
Erik Larson 2020
On May 10,1940 Winston Churchill was named prime minister of the United Kingdom at one of the most dangerous and pivotal points in the history of Europe or the World. On that day, Nazi Germany began its invasion of Belgium, The Netherlands, and France and World War II became a very real and existential danger to Britain. No world leader before or since has had to face the chaos and potential perils that Churchill faced that fateful day.
Within weeks, France would fall, a near disaster would happen at Dunkirk requiring an unheard of evacuation of troops, and Churchill would find himself all alone in facing the Nazis who were keen on invading the country and toppling its government. Many great Hollywood movies have been made about this pivotal time, including Oscar winners like The King's Speech, Dunkirk, and Darkest Hour, and this predicament stands out as one of the most seemingly hopeless in history. How Churchill and Britain managed to escape from this dark period is an inspiration to all of us who face much different challenges.
Erik Larson, with his book The Splendid and the Vile, has written a best-selling history of the first year of Churchill's leadership and how he dealt with the enormous challenges he faced. Larson uses historical documents including diaries and written accounts by British, American, and German participants in this critical period, and reading this book is like living the year 1940 through their eyes.
Much has been written about the heroism of the United States during World War II, and rightly so. But before America declared war in late 1941, Many in Europe had to deal with Nazi Germany and attempt to keep them at bay. Churchill begged Franklin Roosevelt for help, but FDR's hands were tied by an isolationist congress that didn't want to get entangled in a war they saw as Europe's problem.
What I realized from reading this book is that had the British not stood up against the long odds of beating back a German invasion, there would have been no D-Day, and no allies left in Europe for whom the Americans to join. Germany would have had free reign all over Europe and history may have ended up very very different. (For a chilling alternate history, watch either The Man in the High Castle or The Plot Against America)
I cannot summarize this 500 page book easily, but here are a few takeaways:
- Brutal air raids on London and British cities took place from September 1940 to May 1941 and killed over 32,000 citizens. Hitler originally told his men to avoid civilian targets, but that changed and the entire strategy became a campaign to bomb the hell out of Britain until they either surrendered or kicked out Churchill.
- The air raids didn't have the intended effect. They only made the British more intent on resisting the Nazi's and brought them even closer together. (Sex and free love was apparently a big thing in Britain during the Blitz- even Churchill's daughter-in-law had an affair with an American.)There was never any thought of capitulating to the Nazi's, and British citizens were preparing to fight with all they had any invasion forces that came over the English Channel.
- The main thing that saved Britain, beside Churchill's stubborn courage, was Hitler's decision to invade Russia in June of 1941. Hitler was more worried about Stalin than Churchill, and the war on the Eastern Front was a big part of the Nazi's ultimate demise.
- Churchill stood on rooftops watching over air raids rather than hide in bomb shelters. He was a bit nuts, and always showed confidence that he was beyond fear. He made a point of visiting bombing sites, something his cohorts tried to talk him out of.
The book goes into detail about Churchill's staff and children, including his wife Clementine and daughter Mary. The personal details from diaries are an interesting window into this dark world. He also covers the Germans, including Joseph Goebbels, who wrote extensively in his own diary about the war and about their plans to bomb Britain. I had not heard the story of Rudolph Hess, the Nazi official who flew a plane alone to Scotland in hopes of negotiating a peace.
The world came dangerously close to a total Nazi victory in 1940, and I can only imagine what it was like to live through that period of time. We are all indebted to the brave British, Americans, Russians, French, and others who resisted this terrible cancer on the world. Winston Churchill had many flaws- he was a racist and had barbaric ideas around treating mental illnesses, but he was the right man at the right time for what he had to do.
I close with some great Churchill quotes, most of which aren't in the book, but still words of wisdom from someone who saw too much suffering and lived to tell. One of his greatest strengths was his ability with words, and Churchill quotes are some of the best ones out there.
• "To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day."
• "To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to change often."
• "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."
• "The price of greatness is responsibility."
• "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened."
• "Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room."
• "One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half."
• "Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught."
• "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."
• "Broadly speaking short words are best and the old words when short, are best of all."
• "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others."
• "Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."
• "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."
• “Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference.”
• “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”
• “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
• "Everyone has his day, and some days last longer than others."
• “You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
• "Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."
• "Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public."
• "Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war."
• "If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves."
• "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events."
• "We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us."
• "There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe to be right."
• "In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet."
• "Every man should ask himself each day whether he is not too readily accepting negative solutions."
• "It is wonderful what great strides can be made when there is a resolute purpose behind them."
• "The first duty of the university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers."
• "In finance, everything that is agreeable is unsound and everything that is sound is disagreeable."
• "All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."
• "This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
• "The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes."
• "All the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honour; duty; mercy; hope."