The Crowbar of Destiny
Call it serendipity, but a few weeks ago I began reading Erik Larson’s new book on Winston Churchill’s ascent to leadership in May 1940 just as the German army was rolling toward victory in Western Europe. The extreme threat to England was real, and the odds of salvation were impossibly dark.
In the United States eighty years later, a different crisis was developing as a virus was spreading across the globe, threatening the entire world with economic and human devastation. In both cases, victory hinged on the leadership of just a few men. Here is the story of one of those men, Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940.
The army of the German Reich was sweeping across Northern Europe; four hundred thousand English troops were trapped on the northern coast of France; Neville Chamberlain had just resigned as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill had replaced him.
The English government was torn between fighting on against impossible odds or, perhaps more sensibly, signaling to foreign intermediaries an openness to discuss terms of a truce with Hitler.
Could Churchill, with all the odds stacked against him, make a difference? He himself describes the apparent hopelessness of the situation this way: Europe was sinking into “the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science.”
If some of the leading figures in the British government had their way, including Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, Britain would have winked at the evil they saw for the false security that their faint hearts demanded.
Churchill understood the nature of the encroaching evil and he decided only a firm “no” was possible. He said he would prefer to die while trying to save the world from falling into a new dark age: “And I am convinced,” he said, “that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Facing these odds, Churchill’s decision and subsequent actions were heroic by any measure. If he had not been present at that critical moment of history; the darkness of Hitler’s evil empire would have, in all probability, spread to all corners of the globe.
Boris Johnson, England’s current Prime Minister, wrote a biography of Churchill and he describes the remarkable, almost miraculous, difference the right man being in the right position at the right time can make to the direction of human history. Here is how Johnson puts it:
“I don’t know whether it is right to think of history as running on train tracks, but let us think of Hitler’s story as one of those huge and unstoppable double-decker expresses that he had commissioned, howling through the night with its cargo of German settlers. Think of that locomotive, whizzing towards final victory. Then think of some kid climbing the parapet of the railway bridge and dropping the crowbar that jams the points and sends the whole enterprise for a gigantic burton-a mangled, hissing heap of metal. Winston Churchill was the crowbar of destiny. If he hadn’t been where he was, and put up resistance, that Nazi train would have carried right on. It was something of a miracle-given his previous career-that he was there at all. (The Churchill Factor p.30)
Johnson goes on to speculate about what would have happened if Churchill had not become Prime Minister in May 1940. He calls this ‘counterfactual’ history, but it is interesting to speculate, nonetheless. It might seem foolish to wonder how history would have developed if Winston Churchill had not been in the position to stand athwart history, but this particular case, the timely appearance of one man at a certain moment in human history changed the direction the whole world would take.