This is history writing at its compelling best. Lynne Olson has beavered away to find an original angle on an oft-told story and does it with such force of insight that one’s sense of the bigger story is given greater depth. Last Hope Island is simply one of the best books on World War 2 that I’ve read.
Britain was the last redoubt during the darkest days of the conflict – and became home to various European governments in exile. Olson focuses on 6 in particular: the Free French under de Gaulle, Czechs under Edvard Beneš, Netherlands under Queen Wilhelmina, Norway under King Haakon, Poland under Sikorsky, and Belgium. Each had their painful stories of suffering and exile after Nazi invasion – and the mood in 1940-1941 was bleak indeed. The USA had not entered the war, and the USSR had formed a non-aggression pact with Hitler (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact). Britain was the last hope.
But that by no means made the relationship with their hosts straightforward. In fact, British insularity and snobbery could at times be excruciating. This would at times have devastating effects – especially in terms of relationships with the various resistance movements. The magnificent contribution of Polish airmen to the RAF during the Battle of Britain would win people round eventually. And the British secret services – especially in MI6’s ruthless rivalry with Churchill’s pet outfit (and thus safe) SOE – had a fair number of culpable failures, betraying the apparent reputation amongst German forces of British secret invincibility. Many lives in the Dutch and French resistance were lost because of a succession of terrible and amateurish errors.
That said, Olson’s book is full of inspiring accounts of courage and pluck – such as the few who successfully created resistance cells in occupied France, or the remarkable women (and it was mainly women in their early 20s) who ran the escape lines for Allied airmen like Belgian Andrée de Jongh. Most moving for me was the story of General Shan Hackett who was wounded but trapped behind enemy lines after the disaster of Arnhem – and so was taken in by a wonderful Dutch family of 3 sisters. He lived with them for months while he convalesced, right under the noses of Nazi occupiers across the street, until the time to smuggle him to freedom through neutral Spain. They would read the Bible nightly before bed, and Olson takes the relevant chapter’s title from Matthew 25:34-40.
I was a stranger and you invited me in.
In the latter years of the war, after USA and USSR had joined, the significance of the governments in exile was greatly diminished – Roosevelt comes across as particularly cold-blooded in his attitudes to Europe and dealing with Stalin (including a heartless attitude to his distant cousins, the Dutch, who suffered for months after France was liberated). Churchill was now unable to hold sway – and the impact for central Europe would be terrible. Olson conveys this very powerfully in the contrast between the fates of France and Poland (a point which the Economist alone was prepared to make at the time). Churchill was devastated by the Allies’ ultimate betrayal to support Poland in their uprising against the Nazi occupation (because Stalin insisted they be left to their fate in preparation for his own occupation). All their support of the Allies’ cause would come to nought – and as Olson observes, the brutal irony of WW2 is that the war began in order to respond to the invasion of Poland and ended with the country’s decimation and absorption into Stalin’s realms. As Max Hastings wrote,
The Poles ended the war as they began it, human sacrifices to the reality of power.
Of the peoples represented by exiled governments in London, Poland would suffer the worst – 81% of the countries’ civilian casualties would be Polish – 5.6 million people non-combatants died, either through Nazi or Soviet occupation. I had little awareness of the details of the Polish story, to my shame, so this book has been an important revelation.
It is a brilliant, thrilling but salutary tale. And it cannot but put Britain’s relationship with continental Europe (especially post-Brexit) into a new light. There are grounds for holding our heads high in this story – but also many grounds for shame. It really helps to explain the ambivalence even our closest allies sometimes feel about us, despite the genuine gratitude many have for what happened during the war.