National Unity in Times of Crisis, Part 1: World War 2 | By Vikrant Sharma

National Unity in Times of Crisis, Part 1: World War 2
By Vikrant Sharma
Founder-Editor, The Global Telescope

The United Kingdom in 1940 was standing at the gates of defeat and German occupation. On May 11, Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign, and Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was chosen to lead a coalition government that was stitched together to survive the war. In the month of May 1940, Germany successfully invaded Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium. France fell the following month. USA had not yet entered the war and wouldn’t do so for another year and a half. Germany was at Britain’s doorstep. Britain was alone, and Germany looked unstoppable.
One of the last frontiers in France was the seaside town of Dunkirk, where British and French troops had been pushed back. The land had ended, and with Germany advancing, they had no where to go. It was a disaster. More than 400,000 Allied men were stuck in Dunkirk, with nowhere to go.
Lying between Dunkirk and England was, of course, the English Channel. Churchill decided to play a very risky move and ordered the evacuation of the men from Dunkirk. With German planes (Luftwaffe) bombing the shore to not let the evacuation happen, the British sent their own planes (RAF) to counter the fire. While the battle in the air raged on, British Navy tried to evacuate the men stranded on the beaches. Since the town had a shallow shore, the Navy could not use its vessels, and hence put out a call for smaller privately-owned vessels. Nobody had predicted what would happen next.
Between 800 to 1,200 boats, mostly leisure or fishing boats, came to help. Some were commanded by Navy personnel, while others were operated by residents who risked their lives to save their countrymen stuck in Dunkirk. Churchill and his administration had only expected about 45,000 troops to be rescued. By the end of the evacuation, that took several days, approximately 198,00 British and 140,000 French troops had been rescued and brought to British soil. In total, Operation Dynamo, as it was called, managed to save and bring back 338,000 men fighting for the Allies.

A Statue of Sir Winston Churchill in London

So how did it happen? Why did hundreds of residents put their own lives at a very significant risk, when absolutely nobody expected them to do so?
Before I answer that, consider the year immediately after Dunkirk. From June 1940, when France fell, to June 1941, when Hitler decided to launch an attack on Soviet Union thereby breaking their non-aggression pact, Britain had to survive German offensive alone. This was at the peak of Germany’s power, when it looked like an inevitable truth that Europe had fallen to Hitler. But one man rallied his nation to fight back and keep going steadfast. Known affectionately as the British Bulldog, it was Sir Winston Churchill.
His speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, just after the evacuation at Dunkirk, has become the stuff of legends. In my opinion, it remains one of the most important, masterful, and historic speeches in modern history. It serves as a poignant reminder of the time in World War 2 when most had written off the British, and German invasion was a matter of time. Spirits ran low in UK as well; however, this speech, and many others, by Churchill served to alter that. I shall quote a few lines from the speech here.
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”
With this historical context in mind, I now arrive at the question I seek to answer- what pushed a nation and its people to survive this time of national crisis? I believe the answer is simple- nationalism.
The only reason people were able to keep themselves going in UK in 1940 was because the political class was united and inspired in the people a will to fight for their country. A weak government or a divided nation would have easily fallen into the hands of Hitler and the world today would have looked very different indeed.
Nationalism as a concept has a bad reputation in some people’s minds. It is considered a term used by tyrannical and fascist leaders to assert control. I disagree with this. While multilateral institutions serve vital functions, the world continues to be dominated by nation-states and their interests. From Nuremberg to the International Criminal Court today, we see a big change in many States who are willing to give up some part of their individual control to multilateral systems that work with the coordination and support of various sovereigns. But it is essential to remember that States are, when push comes to shove, sovereigns in their own right. Bloody battles continue to be fought for separate statehood in various parts of the world. Diplomacy is used as a tool to either recognise or ignore the existence of a sovereign, as in the cases of Taiwan and Kosovo. Thus, sovereignty remains an indispensable factor in the modern world.
Society is not mature enough yet to do away with sovereign states. While the dream of a united world without borders is admirable, it remains today a far-fetched ideal. It is honourable to work towards it, as many multilateral organisations and institutions do today, but it is unreasonable and frankly dangerous to assume society is ready for it. A fact that many people do not know is that Churchill was one of the first leaders to speak out for and work towards European unity, in essence foreseeing the European Union. It is thus possible to be a patriot or a nationalist and work for multilateralism.

Photo by G Schouten de Jel from FreeImages

Nationalism, as a tool, can be used effectively in modern times as well. I present my argument for this in the next part of this blog series, which deals with how some nations have effectively used nationalism and the unity of the political class during the Covid-19 crisis to their advantage and others haven’t.
To conclude this part, I admit Churchill was not a perfect soul. He was racist in his approach to Indians, and some scholars have repeatedly concluded millions died due to his policies in India that caused a famine in Bengal. There are other very serious charges levied against him too. I condemn these aspects of his personality and his life in the absolute, and do not think he was a God to be revered. I do, however, I admire the man for his courage, his leadership, his command over the language, and his ability to bring his people together. These are qualities that are needed in any leader, and every leader can learn much from him.
The words of Margaret Thatcher in her book ‘The Path to Power’ reflect well what Winston achieved- “I had the patriotic conviction that, given great leadership of the sort I heard from Winston Churchill in the radio broadcasts to which we listened, there was almost nothing that the British people could not do.” 

Winston had convinced a whole nation of victory while looking defeat in the eye.


This is Part 1 in a 2-Part Blog Series by Vikrant Sharma titled 'National Unity in Times of Crisis'. Part 2 will be available next week, on May 4, 2020.


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