February 27, 2015

Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14

Page 47

By Jack Mens

‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’: Churchills onwrikbare geloof in de overwinning [Churchill’s Unshakable Faith in Victory], by Harry van Wijnen. Text in Dutch. Balans, Amsterdam, 350 pp., €29.95. For available copies see bookfinder.com.

May 10th, 1940 is of dual importance: this was the day Hitler launched his assault on France and the Low Countries, and the day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain. Hitler expected the Dutch, a Germanic race, to believe in and accept his New Order, and welcome them into their country. But only 1 1/2% of the population were members of the Dutch NSB Party (equivalent to the National Socialists). The rest hated the Nazis and all they stood for.

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Harry van Wijnen (born 1937) served as parliamentary editor for the Amsterdam daily Het Parool, and editor of the prestigious NRC Handelsblad. He was also Professor of Media at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. His previous works include books on the Dutch press and monarchy and a biography of the Rotterdam tycoon D.G. van Beuringen.

As a boy, van Wijnen experienced the hardships of German occupation. Jews were forced out of government and academic positions. The feared Gestapo rounded up young men for forced labor in Germany. The media, newspapers and radio became German propaganda tools, and listening to the BBC was illegal. The regime tried to confiscate all radios, but about half of them went underground, hidden in attics and barns, so that Dutchmen at given times could tune in to London and Radio Orange, the proscribed Dutch Resistance program. To these furtive listeners, the speeches of Winston Churchill were an inspiration and hope.

Van Wijnen describes Churchill as they saw him from across the Channel, a titanic figure of calm and strength among the busy, nervous denizens of Whitehall. For a year, only Britain and the Empire stood between Germany and total victory, and in the center of it stood the embattled prime minister.

Van Wijnen, an admirer, is not without criticism. For example, he notes the outrage of Sir Hugh Dowding, chief of Fighter Command, when Churchill proposed to send sixty more fighter planes to France in late May 1940. Dowding argued that Britain would need every plane for home defense, and the War Cabinet supported him. According to Dowding’s biographer Robert Wright, it was the only time during the war that Churchill reversed a taken decision, and van Wijnen says the Prime Minister took this very hard.

But he does illustrate, through Dutch eyes, how Churchill’s leadership, energy and above all courage were able to unite the parties, the country and the allies. Many books have been written about this grim period. Van Wijnen, a scholar of England, combines a stirring “underground history” of wartime London with a fascinating view of Churchill during the crucial years 1940 and 1941. He explores Churchill’s radio speeches, and many archives and diaries from Britons both prominent and unknown, the source of the fighting mentality and resolve that determined them to destroy Nazism. He also focuses on the social aspect—what the bombing of the East End did to the poor, the enormous shortage of shelter and housing—while noting how the more affluent were able to leave London and find comfort in the countryside or even in Scotland.

Reading in my native Dutch, I found it hard to put this book down, enjoying the author’s skillful narration and his clear focus on Churchill. After the 1941 bombing and destruction of the House of Commons, for example, he writes of how Churchill personally ensured that the Commons chamber would be rebuilt just as it was, reflecting Parliament’s rich history. The London Blitz destroyed much beside the Commons, but van Wijnen reflects on the cool demeanor of the British, writing of how Henry “Chips” Channon kept entertaining his guests even after the front of his mansion was blown away. The strength of the book is its lively storytelling. Van Wijnen deploys many eye-witnesses to describe people and events which bring the reader close to the tale. He quotes from the diaries and writings of people who lived in London to offer firsthand accounts of what their experiences were like. Among luminaries, he quotes Edward R. Murrow, the unflappable CBS reporter broadcasting in the midst of the bombing, with his laconic opening, “This is London”; of George Orwell in the Home Guard; of J.B. Priestley, the socialist broadcaster; of Vera Brittain, the pacifist author of Testament of Youth; of the famous diarists Harold Nicolson and John Colville. Together, they keep the story moving at a lively pace with color and diversity. The author has plenty to criticize, but that is to be expected in a balanced history. And after all, as the saying goes in Holland, “without Churchill we might all be speaking German.” This book is a fine addition to any Churchill book collection.

Mr. Mens, of Frederick, Maryland, wrote “Churchill’s Visit to Holland, 1946,” on page 28.

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