In 70 years — or in the words of the biblical psalm, three score years and 10 being the span of a man’s life — living memory of events fades away and much gets forgotten.
It probably matters little to most people in our present time how defiantly alone Britain and Winston Churchill stood in facing Adolf Hitler during the last days of May 1940, or to imagine how vastly different our world would be today if Churchill had succumbed to the pressures to negotiate peace with Germany as the fate of France was being sealed by what was seen then as an invincible German military war machine.
It is mostly forgotten now that in the Depression years of the 1930s, the real revolutionary force was fascism — the fusion of nationalism with socialism — which had greater appeal over communism in Europe and North America.
Across Europe the slogan, “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” made popular by Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, had a special appeal among all classes of people and support of the Catholic Church.
In Quebec, for instance, support for Charles Maurras, the founder in France of Action Francaise as the forerunner of fascism, was deep and widespread.
As Max and Monique Nemni reveal in their groundbreaking biography of Young Trudeau 1919-1944, the influence on Pierre Trudeau and his generation in those years of Maurras’s corporatism packaged by church leaders and intellectuals in Quebec was profound in exposing the divide between the French and English in Canada.
The attractiveness for the strongman in politics and for the state imposing order have deep roots among intellectuals. It springs from totalitarian temptation that Jean-Francois Revel, a French political philosopher, explored and whose appeal remains undiminished.
This attractiveness for fascist politics prepared the ground for Hitler’s astounding early successes. And when the German army was closing in on retreating British soldiers around Dunkirk, Britain’s far-flung empire was still at a distance to make any difference between defiance and surrender as the choice confronting Churchill.
Yet it was in those hours, and then weeks to follow with the Battle of Britain unleashed by Hitler, Churchill’s decision for Britain to stand alone, given the odds, made all the difference for the future.
Churchill understood Britain by herself could not defeat Germany, but the supreme test in the spring and summer of 1940 was for Britain not to lose to Hitler, and she did not with Churchill at the helm.
It is remarkable looking back to note if it was not for Churchill in May 1940, Hitler might have eventually died safely in his bed as the overlord of Europe.
Seventy years later — our memory of those dark forbidding hours for freedom much diminished — we have become greatly unmindful of what is required of democracies to check dictators and secure freedom.
Our world ironically is drifting under similar political currents that shaped the 1930s, and as it was then, the enemies of freedom presently gather strength with much more lethal weapons and growing confidence that democracies are soft, internally divided and readily given to appeasement.
There is no Churchill among us, but it cannot be said that we have not been warned.