The Man Who Saved Europe How Winston Churchill Stopped the Nazis
Part 2: Britain Defies the Dictator
It was the summer of 1940, and Hitler, who was the Chancellor of the German Reich by then, was closer to winning the war than he would ever be again. The German had overrun Poland, occupied Norway and defeated and humiliated France, a major power. It seemed only a matter of time before Hitler would dominate all of Europe. He was aligned with the Soviets and the Americans were still neutral and biding their time.
Ironically, it was Great Britain, the only country Hitler truly admired and respected, that defied the dictator. Churchill declared that he had only one goal: "Victory -- victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be."
Great Britain persevered for a good year, from France's capitulation until Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, despite German air raids on London and Coventry, despite German victories in Africa, the Balkans and Scandinavia, and despite the threat of national bankruptcy.
And Churchill deserved the credit for this perseverance.
The prime minister, with his trademark Cuban cigars, polka dot bow tie and conspicuous hats, became the world's most important symbolic figure of resistance against Nazi Germany. Whenever he appeared in public, the crowds would raise their hands and part their index and middle fingers to form the victory symbol, just as he had done.
Hitler berated his rival as a "lunatic," "paralytic" and "world arsonist." Churchill shot back, calling Hitler a "wicked man," the "monstrous product of former wrongs and shame" and said that "Europe will not yield itself to Hitler's gospel of hatred." It soon became clear that the loser in this duel would pay with his life.
The perseverance of the British was of great and probably decisive importance in shaping the course of World War II. How else could the United States have launched an invasion of the European continent if the British Isles hadn't been available to it as a giant aircraft carrier?
And what would have happened if Hitler could have shifted the divisions and bombers to the Eastern front that were tied up in the war against England? It wouldn't have taken Hitler much more to defeat Stalin.
Of course, the Red Army and, with significant casualties, American GIs achieved final victory, but the fact that Churchill had stood his ground in 1940 played an important role in their success.
Britain's 'Finest Hour'
It's been 70 years since Britain experienced its "finest hour," as Churchill called it, but the fascination remains unbroken. There are few wars that can be described without qualification as just wars, and as wars in which the right side prevailed.
Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of visitors stream through the award-winning Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London, in the basement of England's Treasury Department Building on St. James's Park, where the cabinet met during the war. They stroll through the Baroque rooms and gardens of Blenheim Palace, one of England's most magnificent palatial complexes, where Churchill was born in 1874. Or they enjoy the view from Churchill's estate, Chartwell, across the meadows of the region known as the Weald of Kent.
Churchill has long been one of the icons of the 20th century, admired by statesmen in all countries and political parties, from former German Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt to former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush even borrowed a bust of the prime minister from the British government art collection and placed it in the Oval Office, because he saw Churchill as a visionary with whom he hoped to be compared. The Briton, Bush said, "charged ahead ... wasn't afraid of opinion polls ... and the world is better for it."
A Mythical Component to Churchill's Achievements
But as with all great historic figures who embark on the path to immortality, there is also a mythical component to wartime prime minister's achievements, a component to which Churchill himself repeatedly contributed. During his lifetime, he found it amusing that the history books would judge him kindly -- because he intended to write them himself.
And that's what the author of various historical works did. His six-volume work "The Second World War" became a bestseller and was part of the reason he was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature. Readers loved his sparkling style and, of course, the many anecdotes that the sharp-tongued aristocrat told. One concerned his vicious war of words with Lady Nancy Astor, the first female member of parliament, who once hissed: "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your coffee." Churchill replied: "Nancy, If I were married to you I'd drink it."
Since then, of course, countless historians, journalists and political commentators have studied the battle plans of the day, analyzed decision-making sequences and evaluated secret documents. Surprising as it may be, some documents are still classified today, but the existing material is enough to allow us to form our own opinions about this duel, which brought together two men whose paths, until then, could not have been more different.
Both were moderate students and, like all young men, they believed that they were destined to be great men. Hitler hoped to be a successful artist while Churchill, more than 14 years his senior, did poorly in school and eventually embarked on a military career.
- Part 1: How Winston Churchill Stopped the Nazis
- Part 2: Britain Defies the Dictator
- Part 3: Trench Warfare Cooled Churchill's Romance for War
- Part 4: Churchill Advocates a Massive Military Buildup
- Part 5: 'Utter Dejection Was Written on Every Face'
- Part 6: Churchill's Strongest Weapon Was the Word
- Part 7: 'When Will that Creature Churchill Finally Capitulate?'
- Part 8: 'I Shall Drag the United States In'
- Part 9: Churchill's Role in the Explusion of Germans from Easter Europe