Lynne Olson’s books fill our bookshelves for I have been reading her books for a long time. This book is good—as you would expect from a writer and historian of her stature—but it suffers from what historians sometimes call over-determination. Throughout the book, I got the sense that Lynne Olson was saying that of course the European Union was going to form, of course it was a bad idea for Churchill to exclude De Gaulle from D-Day Planning, of course Britain should have taken a leading role in the planning of the EU. That’s a lot of “of courses” under any circumstances but especially when you’re writing a book talking about a war.
During the war, people literally didn’t know what was going to happen for the simple reason that anything at all could happen. They might get killed on their way home. Their countries might be bombed into oblivion. Under those circumstances, people’s language was extreme because their emotions were extreme. And because Lynne Olson is to some extent using this book to explain why the UK ended up leaving the European Union, you really don’t get that sense of anything can happen at any second. A sense of urgency which I have every confidence played a major role in drawing the leaders of the European countries together.
Having said that, this is a great book.
The first part of the book is about how exiled leaders—leaders who were completely unprepared to be exiled—arrived in London. And it talks about how London (which Lynne Olson takes great pains to point out was accustomed to be somewhat separate from Europe) reacted to the exiles (of every station in life) from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. The thing is the UK became a haven for these leaders and was (and is) very fondly remembered by the peoples of those countries because there is another side to English culture. The side that says that the English must do their bit. I say this as someone who is married to a Brit and who has therefore had many an occasion to see this first-hand. That is why in the end, Britain became a last hope island and why the BBC became (as Lynne Olson points out) a beacon of hope across occupied Europe. That is also why the BBC was able to produce broadcasts that people were furtively listened to no matter the price and from which they derived hope in a dark time.
This book is split into three parts. The first part of the book is about how Europeans—of every station—fled to England, the middle part is about how they regrouped to fight on, and the conclusion is about the invaluable contribution they made both in men and material to the war effort. Indeed, it is highly likely that without European aid the Allies could not have won the war.
In telling the story, Lynne Olson does not write a mere paean. She tells (for example) how the British secret service thought by the Germans to be the epitome of professional spy-masters was, in fact, a collection of amateurs. A fact that (together with the German plants inside the secret services and the bureaucratic infighting) cost many good men their lives. There are many other such tales. The story that emerges is not one of heroes and villains but of imperfect men and women banding together to do what they could (and then some) in impossible circumstances.
It is a wonderfully written and very human book.
I highly recommend it.
Last Hope Island
Product Name: Last Hope Island by Lynn Olson
Product Description: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War