The night is darkest just before the dawn.
I just finished what may be one of my favorite books of all time: The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson. It’s a 503-page book that reads like a fast-paced war/spy thriller novel, centered on Winston Churchill, as he navigates through the blitz on London from 1940-41. It delves not only into the personal life of Churchill, but also into the lives of his family, his advisors, and even into the lives of some of his opponents in Germany.
As we approach Christmas, it’s sometimes hard to remember what life was like before the pandemic. Seeing friends and family, going out for supper, going to a movie or a hockey game; all these have become something from the past. It’s astonishing to think sometimes just how much our lives have changed. Zoom meetings, social media and the phone seem to be the only way to connect with our friends and family this Christmas, as government-imposed lockdowns and restrictions reshape the way we interact with other human beings. The novel Covid-19 virus has, perhaps fundamentally, changed the way society operates.
There are many great leaders among us to help us see this pandemic through. Dr. Saqib Shahab, the chief medical health officer of Saskatchewan, has, in my opinion, been a bright spot. His composed, methodical way of managing the restrictions and recommendations, while not flawless, has been a source of calm for many of us. There are other strong leaders, too.
And yet, in reading the Splendid and the Vile, it’s hard not to compare the response of our politicians today with those of Churchill’s era. In perhaps one of the greatest assaults on a modern democracy, Churchill was a source of inspiration. He never backed down from telling it like it was. In fact, sometimes he strongly drove home the serious likelihood of invasion. And yet, immediately after doing so, he could rile his audience into a stern belief that no matter what happened, Britain would prevail. Britain would not fall.
Daily life in London, and many other cities and towns in Great Britain, in 1940-41 was, to put it mildly, bleak. Regular nightly bombing campaigns took a terrible toll, killing over 45,000 Britons, another 52,000 injured, and leaving untold numbers homeless. Heartbreaking treasures were lost, with catastrophic damage to the House of Commons, dozens of historical museums and churches, and hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts lost. Every clear, moon-lit night was a cause of concern, as those bright nights were perfect for German bombers.
Every day it seemed one might see German soldiers invading the island, destroying what remained of London in their wake. It seemed quite impossible for Britain to stand alone against the Axis powers, with the US refusing to enter the war.
Somehow, despite all this gloom and despair, Britons courage deepened, their will strengthened. How could this be? The Germans were quite taken aback by the stubbornness of the Brits, indeed thinking their first bombing blitz would crush the British resolve in one fell swoop. Somehow, Churchill was able to strengthen the resolve of an already resilient people.
One of the things that stood out to me was how he could rally even opposition parties to his cause. In one session in the House of Commons, he asked for a confidence vote after several failures and disappointments in the various theaters of war. The attacks from the other representatives were merciless, with one formerly very strong supporter of Churchill’s calling for “an end of the kind of blunders which have discredited and weakened us.” Finally, after sustaining nearly two days of often harsh criticism, it was Churchill’s turn to speak.
“I ask you to witness, Mr. Speaker, that I have never promised anything or offered anything but blood, tears, toil and sweat, to which I will now add our fair share of mistakes, shortcomings and disappointments and also that his may go on for a very long time, at the end of which I firmly believe – though it is not a promise or a guarantee, only a profession of faith – that there will be complete, absolute and final victory.
“When I look back on the perils which have been overcome, upon the great mountain waves in which the gallant ship has driven, when I remember all that has gone wrong, and remember also all that has gone right, I feel sure we have no need to fear the tempest. Let it roar, and let it rage. We shall come through.”
This speech stirs something in me, even 80 years later! When the time came to vote on Churchill’s proposed resolution, it passed with 447 votes to 3. When we have seen this kind of cooperation and collaboration in our governments? When we have seen them work together to rally the public behind the leader do they need? When have we seen leadership like this? So blunt, open, and honest; depressing and yet uplifting; forcing us to confront the brutal facts and yet making us believe, in no uncertain terms, that we will prevail in the end.
Maybe you have a government leader that makes you feel this way, but it’s more than one individual; it’s the government as a whole, leadership and opposition alike, working together towards a common goal. Allowing the ideological differences to slip away, even if only just for a moment, to show the people of the nation that they will see us through this crisis. The art of compromise.
Christmas may not be what we want it to be this year. And that sucks. No way around it. It’s okay to be disappointed and sad about what has been lost, and what may never be the same again. But, just for a moment, yourself in a tattered house in London in late December of 1940, with cold air whistling through broken windows and collapsed walls, the lights of the city completely blacked out, knowing that this clear-lit night could drop a bomb right on you and your family. You hear the roar of the planes flying overhead. An incendiary drops a hundred feet away, lighting up your street with fire for the bombers to come. You rush out, with a dozen neighbors beside you, to put the fire out. You hear the screaming whistle of the bombs nearby.
And there, in the midst of it all, you see him. Winston Churchill himself, doing his usual tours around the city after the bombings. You ask him, what will he do to get back at the Germans?
He spins toward you, fist clenched, a fire in his eyes. “You leave that to me,” he snarls, and walks away (this actually happened). I don’t know about you, but I know I’d go back to bed a little more optimism.
Governments are made up of people, individuals. And they aren’t perfect – nor do we expect them to be. They’re people not the rest of us, who, at least at some point, believed they could make a difference. I hope they take a page out of Churchill’s playbook. The man who inspired the average, working-class British citizen to believe, against all odds, that the enemy would not humble them. As Churchill himself said,
“I never gave them courage. I was able to focus theirs.”
The courage to prevail.
(Want to listen to an audio version of this post? Click here!)