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A Valuable Lesson From History

Updated: May 10, 2020

9th of May 2020

Yesterday was VE day, celebrating the end of the second world war seventy five years ago and the defeat of fascism in Europe .

Tonight the BBC showed Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman's extraordinary Oscar winning performance portraying Winston Churchill in 1940 at the time of the start of the Second World War. At this time the evacuation of allied forces from Dunkirk was ongoing and Europe faced total defeat by Fascism. The British people and government of the United Kingdom, faced a choice, capitulate and sue for peace, or to fight on against the odds. The film ends with perhaps Churchills most famous oration that galvanised Britain to fight rather than surrender. The final part of this speech is often quoted and is as follows:

'Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. 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, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.'

Churchill received the support of parliament and the British People to fight on, and five years later Britain along with its allies defeated the Nazi's and freed the world from fascist rule.

It is tempting to compare our current predicament of a global pandemic in 2020 to the onset of war in Europe in 1940. However, to do so trivialises to seriousness of the situation in 1940. 1940 was the onset of global warfare that lasted five years. This war killed somewhere between fifty and eighty million people. Six million people of Jewish faith were murdered by the Nazis, who also murdered Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically disabled. We might choose to say: 'what we face today is nothing compared to what we faced in 1940'.

Today, we are in a very different situation. We are thankfully not war, but we are a world united in the fight against a global pandemic. This global cooperation shows how far we have come since 1940. Some argue that social lockdown is not worth damage we doing to our economy, jobs and wealth. But the lessons of history from 1940-1945 tell us that the preservation of something we value is far more important than the illusion of economic security. In 1940 they chose to fight fascism and win, or die in the process. Today we choose to stay in 'lockdown' and restrict our social freedom and perhaps give up some of our personal economic advantage if needed in order to preserve life. Hardly a comparison of equals.

In 1945, at the end of the war, Europe and much of the world was in ruin, and the road to economic recovery took twenty years or more. Many of todays generation have reaped the benefit of that economic growth in a free society that was born out the decision to fight against the Nazis rather than capitulate. This fight produced great hardship and sorrow, but has benefited us in the long run. It therefore falls to our generation to fight a lesser battle against a virus and prioritise the preservation of life and take a much lesser hardship than our forbearers experienced.

As for doubts about economic security and the fallout from the effort and sacrifice in defeating this virus? The history of recovery from the second world war tells us that our prosperity and security will be restored. Perhaps we can install prosperity to a much wider section of our society than we had before the pandemic. A greener and kinder world could be the outcome if we so choose. We can choose to lessen the financial blow and worries about job security by working together to share our common wealth. How we act as a society today and look after each other will be compared to what pervious generations sacrificed. Let us hope that we do not fall short of the expectations that those that came before would have of us today.

The Darkest Hour film ends with a quote attributed to Churchill:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Unfortunately, Churchill never said these words. Indeed, words even remotely similar cannot be attributed to him. However these words should perhaps be the mantra for our time. We should screw our courage to the sticking place and we will not fail. We should fight this disease and ultimately create a better world for the generation to come.



1. "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" is a common title given to a speech delivered by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom on 4 June 1940.

2 A brief synopsis of the second world can be found in:

3. My Quote 'screw our courage to the sticking place and we will not fail' is plagiarised from Shakespeare: This expression comes from the play Macbeth, written by the English playwright William Shakespeare, from the year 1605. Lady Macbeth: ‘We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.’

4. Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Cannot be reliably attributed to Churchill despite numerous internet references. Historians have been unable to find these words in Churchills canon. Richard Langworth appears to be the most credible authority on Churchill quotes and was awarded a CBE “for services to Anglo-American understanding and the memory of Sir Winston Churchill.” Richard has stated that the quote cannot be attributed to Churchill. It is interesting to note that that you can find more internet pages attributing this quote to Churchill rather than debunking it. I have quoted this attributed to Churchill myself in error. There are lies, damn lies and the Internet.

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