In 1934 there were two statesmen past their prime who warned of the danger of Hitler. One was Trotsky and the other was Churchill. They were both right. Churchill had actually read Mein Kampf, unlike the German newly-weds in the Nazi régime who were presented with a copy of Hitler’s treatise and who presumably discarded the unreadable tract. I think it was the historian of Hitler, Ian Kershaw, who pointed out that the diatribe prefigures all of Hitler’s decisions and acts. Churchill took Hitler at his word and he was right to do so.
The film Darkest Hour, written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Joe Wright, covers the period from 9th May 1940 to 21 days later. In other words, from the eve of Churchill being appointed P.M. until the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is not a war film. It is a movie about decisions and choice. And the moral agony of taking action.
The meat of the film centres on the dispute between the British war party, Churchill and Attlee – who is somewhat of a cipher, assumed, but not overtly presented, to be a backbone of British resistance – and the anachronistic but politically credible appeasers, Viscount Halifax and the still influential former P.M. Neville Chamberlain, whom the French wittily called “J’aime Berlin”.
Churchill and Halifax: Photo courtesy Spartacus Educational.
Darkest Hour follows the disasters of May 1940: the invasion of France on the 10th, the surrender of the Netherlands on the 15th, of Belgium on the 28th and the near-extermination of the British Army in the Dunkirk pocket. Little screen-time is taken up with guns, bombs and planes: instead, the film effectively uses drone-like camera shots looking down to hint at how prone civilians are to the bomber. This vertical shot contrasts with the horizontal tracking shots of the workaday London street. Despite the shock of Guernica and the Japanese bombing raid on Chongqing in 1939, no government was sure about the psychological effects on civilians of those raids. Would morale collapse or not? If, as seemed likely, there was no prospect of beating the Germans in Europe, what was the point of Britain remaining at war with the Nazis? If Hitler was true to his word on his disinterest in the British Empire, why not let them have the continent? This, as the film has it, was the debate.
McCarten, the script-writer, has an ambivalent military, and Halifax and Chamberlain urging negotiation with Hitler in May 1940. He has the latter two this close to persuading Churchill: I do not know if that is true and mightily doubt it, but it makes for very good drama. There is a truth in McCarten’s interpretation, however. Had there not been a Churchill, it is possible that Britain would have negotiated in 1940 and left Europe to Nazism. Sometimes, as Trotsky pointed out about Hitler, individuals make all the difference in history. I think it was Richard J. Evans who averred that the holocaust could not have happened without the charismatic Hitler: even Himmler could not have set it in motion.
The French and British states were the only ones to declare war on Nazi Germany. One was defeated and the other, if it did not win in 1940, did not lose and was only capable of a battle victory over its enemy after three years, in El Alamein. Churchill, for all his faults, and they were many and egregious, was right about the most pivotal and consequential questions of the twentieth century. Should we live with Nazism? Or destroy it?
Darkest Hour addresses that conundrum in the position of a man who could only imagine what Nazism would become. It is about a man who takes another man who says terrible things at his word: and about other men, who do not have the imagination to believe that powerful men can do murderous things or who are happy to live in that world. For that reason, it is better than most world war two movies you will see. It is about how to decide: and we face that every moment of our lives.
There is the old slogan, “Fascism means war”. Any glance at Hitler’s book will confirm that. Yet the war was there to install the slave economies and totalitarian empire state which was the Nazi ideal. It is by no means clear that Churchill’s refusal to submit was historically inevitable. There is no reason to believe that the comforting adage, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is necessarily true. One hesitates to compare every instance of horror with Nazism, but we can say that Ba’athism means mass-murder of one’s own people plus as a client state the submission to, and complicity of, the USSR or Russia. That experiment has been run twice, in Iraq and Syria. In only one case did a man – or even any international organization – cometh in time to halt the atrocities.
Darkest Hour teaches the capriciousness of history. The dice are cast and it is a matter of chance how they fall. Take the pivotal battle in the Pacific theatre, the Battle of Midway. The Americans won largely because of the inferiority of Japanese radar. Yet, German radar was as good as that of the US and UK: had the Germans and Japanese shared the technology, it is likely that the eastern Pacific rim and the hinterland would have been enslaved by the Japanese Empire for many more years. This looks like the arbitrary failure of Hitler and Tojo to coordinate their technologies and self-interests. Luck, in other words.
You can play the game further. Imagine if the UK and Hitler had come to an agreement in May 1940. Hitler would have been free to invade the Soviet Union without diverting resources against an attack from the west, and the Japanese could have resumed their war against the U.S.S.R coming from the East to ensnare the Russians in that huge pincer movement. And all the northern latitudes of the Eurasian landmass could have been under Axis control by, say, the end of 1942, with no prospect of a second front opening up from the Atlantic against the totalitarian states. Britain would eventually have fallen as the sole potential problem for thousands of miles, the southern Asian landmass would have submitted to Japan, and the U.S.A. would have been left as an island of democracy fortifying its western coast against the Japanese Navy.
Perhaps it is too much to assert that the decision by Churchill and the majority of Parliament to continue defying Hitler turned the war but it does look like it was a necessary but not sufficient condition. War films, from Midway to Star Wars are usually tedious affairs: Darkest Hour is an intelligent attempt to analyse a crucial decision.