by Patrick J. Buchanan – September 4, 2002
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” So declaimed Churchill to Parliament as the Battle of Britain began.
Six weeks before, on May 10, 1940, the Battle of France had begun suddenly when Hitler’s Panzers, bypassing the Maginot Line, slashed through the Ardennes and cut to the Channel to isolate the British Expeditionary Force on the French-Belgian coast.
In the last days of May and first days of June, there took place the miracle of Dunkirk, the greatest evacuation in war history, as over 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops were taken off the continent. A vast flotilla had sailed from English ports to save the island’s soldier-sons – truly a glorious page in British history.
Yet in a poll of the British people, asking them to identify the most momentous events in their 20th century history, Dunkirk was not even in the top 10. Nor was Normandy, the Nazi surrender, the sinking of the Bismarck, the fall of Singapore, the collapse of the empire or the Suez crisis of ’56 that led to the fall of Eden’s Cabinet.
What was chosen as “the most momentous event in British history”? The death of Princess Di in a car crash in a Paris tunnel, while fleeing with lover Dodi from the cameras of the paparazzi.
The start of World War II for Britain, Sept. 3, 1939, was No. 2. But ahead of the armistice that ended World War I (No. 5), in which 750,000 British gave their lives, was “Women getting the right to vote” and the “Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement” of 1998.
Was that diplomatic deal, brokered by George Mitchell, really as momentous an event as the sinking of the Titanic or the Somme Offensive that produced 60,000 British casualties on the first day?
More amazing is that ahead of Montgomery’s victory over Rommel at El Alamein, which does not even appear on the list, the British put their 1966 World Soccer Cup victory as the sixth “most momentous event in British history.”
No. 7 is the Queen’s coronation in 1952. No. 8 is the start of the Falklands War. No. 10 is the abdication of Edward VIII. The ninth most momentous event? The assassination of John Lennon in 1980. This would be like Americans placing the death of Elvis among the most momentous events of the 20th century.
According to UPI, the poll that produced the list was conducted by a British offshoot of our History Channel. What it tells us about our cousins across the pond is disheartening. The Brits, who not so long ago ruled an empire upon which the sun never set, have contracted Alzheimer’s. They seem not to know who they are, what they did or where they came from, and to recall best those events that are shown repeatedly in movie clips or on TV – those twin creators of visual realities.
A soccer game, the shooting of a middle-aged Beatle, the death in a car crash of a divorced princess – can this be momentous history to the present generation of Brits? So it would seem.
On the top 10 list of most significant events of world history in the past century, the Brits did better. But here, also, they seem tied to the “telly” and to the present. They chose as the most significant event the attack on the World Trade Center. No. 2 was Hiroshima. No. 3 was the fall of the Berlin Wall. No. 4 was man’s landing on the moon. No. 6 was the end of World War I. No. 7, the assassination of JFK. No. 8, the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. No. 9, the Vietnam ceasefire of 1973. No. 10, Tiananmen Square.
And the missing No. 5? Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
What does this tell us? That the Brits may be as ignorant of their history as U.S. high school students. How can one put the Tiananmen Square massacre, where a few hundred died, ahead of Mao’s triumph in 1949, which resulted in 30 million dead? And is Mandela’s release more important than the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave us Lenin, Stalin and 70 years of tyranny, terror and Cold War?
Nor do Brits seem to consider their own history that important.
Not one event in all of Britain’s 20th century was judged to be as significant as Mandela’s release, which was considered more important than Munich, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the invasion of Poland, the fall of France, Stalingrad, the Holocaust and the fire-bombing of Dresden.
What can one say of a generation that thinks a Vietnam ceasefire, which led to Hanoi’s invasion in 1975, the murder of South Vietnam and the Cambodian horrors of Pol Pot, was anything but a fraud and a delusion?
No wonder many of Britain’s best are migrating over here.