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The Dangerous Summer of 1940
For a few weeks Hitler came close to winning World War II. Then came a train of events that doomed him. An eloquent historian reminds us that however unsatisfactory our world may be today, it almost was unimaginably worse.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
In the summer of 1940 Adolf Hitler could have won the Second World War. He came close to that. Had he won, we would be living in a world so different as to be hardly imaginable. So let us contemplate that dangerous summer. It was then that the shape of the world in which we now live began to take form.
There was a curious, abstract quality to the Second World War when it started. On the first day of September in 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. In 1914 the Germans had gone to war not knowing what the British would do. In 1939 the British had given Poland a guarantee to deter Hitler, to make it clear that a German attack on Poland would mean a British (and a French) declaration of war against Germany. Until the last minute Hitler hoped that the British did not mean what they said. In a way he was right. The British and the French governments kept their word and declared war nearly three days after the German armies had driven into Poland. Yet the British and French armies did virtually nothing.
Before long the phrase “Phony War,” invented by American journalists, came into the language. Poland was overrun: but in this war, it really was All Quiet on the Western Front. The French and the British troops spent the freezing winter that followed standing still, the French occasionally peering across the wooded German frontier from the concrete casemates of the Maginot Line. If not a phony war, it was a reluctant one.
There was a curious, abstract quality in the mood of the American people too. When the First World War broke out in Europe, not one in ten thousand Americans thought that their country would ever become involved in it. In 1914 the American people and their President, Woodrow Wilson, took a naive kind of pride in their neutrality. When, on September 3, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the American people, he said the United States would stay neutral: but Roosevelt then added that he could not “ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.” Most Americans were not. They abhorred Hitler, yet they had no desire to commit themselves on the side of Britain or France or Poland. They followed the conflict on their radios: it was exciting to hear the voices of famous correspondents crackling through the transatlantic ether from the blacked-out capitals of a Europe at war. Many Americans uneasily felt—felt, rather than said—that sooner or later their country would become involved in the war. They did not look forward to it.
Besides, the Phony War got curiouser and curiouser. It had started between Germany and Poland and Britain and France; but three months later the only fighting that was going on occurred in the snowy forests of Finland, a winter war between Finland and Russia. American sympathies for Finland arose. The British government noticed this. It was toying with the idea of coming to the aid of Finland, for many reasons, including the purpose of impressing American opinion. But the winter war came to an end. Churchill now wished to open a farflung front against Germany, in Norway. Hitler forestalled him. On a freezing, raw morning in early April, his troops invaded Denmark and Norway. They conquered Denmark in a few hours and Norway in a few weeks.
Hitler’s triumph in Norway—which he conquered nearly undisturbed by the British navy and largely unvexed by the hapless Allied troops put ashore and then withdrawn again—had an unexpected effect. The great portly figure of his nemesis had arisen—an old-fashioned figure of a man, whose very appearance rose like a spectral monument out of the historical mist. As a member of the Chamberlain government, Winston Churchill had been responsible for much of the Norwegian fiasco. Yet the representatives of the British people had had enough of Chamberlain’s reluctant warfare. They helped Winston Churchill into the saddle of the prime ministership—by coincidence, on the very day when the German onslaught in Western Europe had begun.
It was the first of several great coincidences that summer: the kind of coincidences that people weaned on scientific logic dislike and others, with a touch of poetry in their souls, love. Or as the great Portuguese proverb says: God writes straight with crooked lines. But, as often happens in this world, we see the meaning only in retrospect. At the time, there was no guarantee that Churchill would last. He could have disappeared after a few weeks: a brave, old-fashioned orator, overtaken by the surging tide of the twentieth century, swept under by the wave of the future. When his horse is shot out under him, the best rider must fall.
On the tenth of May, at dawn—it was a radiant, beautiful morning, cloudless across Europe from the Irish Sea to the Baltic—Hitler flung his armies forward. They were the winged carriers of an astonishing drama. Holland fell in five days; Belgium in eighteen. Two days after the German drive had begun, the French front was broken. Another eight days, and the Germans reached the Channel. Calais and Boulogne fell. Dunkirk held for just ten days. Most of the British Expeditionary Force barely escaped; all their equipment was lost. Five weeks from the day they had started westward, German regiments were marching down the Champs Elysées. Three more days, and a new French government asked for surrender.