Perpetually grouchy British conservative commentator Peter Hitchens, Christian brother to the late atheist (and more optimistic) journalist Christopher Hitchens, in a sour First Things review, predictably disliked two widely admired inspirational films that celebrate British WWII heroism, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. He’s particularly troubled that the former has inspired theater standing ovations in reaction to Churchill’s “never surrender” speech, while the latter has provoked enthusiasm from young people evidently inspired by sacrifices from persons their age on the beaches of France in 1940.
Heaven forbid! We certainly don’t want such films that honor heroism, sacrifice, defiance of evil, and duty to country. Better to have more conventional entertainment drool about carnal and covetous nihilism.
Specifically Hitchens despises both films because they romanticize British defiance of Germany in 1940 when this hour of national valor, while necessary, only led to Britain’s degradation as an American “vassal.” This subordination of a nearly defeated and impoverished once great empire to the U.S. was preferable, he admits, to enslavement to Hitler or Stalin. But it merits no celebration, as “Finest and Darkest Hours were in fact reluctant but necessary steps down the crumbling staircase of national decline.”
Hitchens grimly asserts the “1939 conflict was a war of choice, on poor ground and at a bad time, which we then lost in all but name, handing it over to others—the USA and the USSR—to finish in ways that did not much suit us.” Plus it failed to “save the Jews of Europe,” which wasn’t the war’s purpose anyway, nor was it to “stand up to tyranny” (which cannot accurately describe handing half of Europe to Stalin).” Such mythology “feeds new and dangerous adventures, such as the catastrophic invasion of Iraq,” with which Hitchens has a longtime preoccupation. And he concludes that any “film that told the truth” about the war would “not just fail to win applause” but “probably provoke angry walk-outs.”
From this article and many others Hitchens evinces his distaste for America, whose “special relationship” with Britain is self-serving rubbish. And he doesn’t much like current British society, about which he despairs as nearly irredeemably decadent. For a Christian, Hitchens is not real big on hope, at least not societally. But hope is not a common virtue in much of Anglo-American Christianity these days. You might think from much of the dark rhetoric from conservative Christians especially that the Third Reich had actually prevailed in 1940. After all, it’s never been worse!
You also might think from Hitchens’ morose reflection that Britain, having virtually lost WWII, is now a de facto Third World client state of America’s. In fact, with less than one percent of global population, it has the world’s sixth largest economy. It’s also ranked as one of the politically and economically freest societies in the world, more so than America, if recent reports from Freedom House and Heritage Foundation are believed. Its military remains one of the most formidable in the world, surpassing most much larger nations.
By almost any measure, the British people are materially far better off in 2018 than they were in 1940, much wealthier, healthier, longer lived and in a more egalitarian society. Theirs is a largely successful nation to which, like a America, millions from around the world would like to move if they could. The wider Anglosphere of which it is central, as the parent, is the paramount power in the world today, universally disseminating customs once confined to a few millions on a small island. Has there ever been a greater political success story?
As to the British empire, demography and not WWII ensured its demise. A nation of tens of millions would not perpetually control billions. And arguably the empire was more drain than boost to the British people. Most in the former empire now live within political institutions bequeathed by Britain, which is surely more sustainable and desirable than an imperium.
Britain today, spiritually, is far more secular than in 1940. But at that time Naziism and Communism, not Christianity, seemed like the wave of the future. Surely today’s arrangement is far preferable. And Christianity is surging throughout much of the former empire, thanks to seeds left by Britain.
As to Hitchens’ contempt for the European Community from which Britain is still struggling to disengage, it might be deserved, but even meddlesome bureaucrats in Brussels are preferable to a millennium of European wars and plagues.
In short, the average Briton of 1940, struggling for survival, and of whom few are now left, if told of their country and world in 2018, would surely be amazed and exited by such wonders. Who could have dreamed it? Even Churchill, is his most soaring rhetoric, would not have dared predict it.
Hitchens is bleak about his nation and world somewhat justifiably because it is fallen and full of devilish doings. It always has been, since Eden. Even the best wars end badly. Even the best nations are self serving. Even the best societies are decadent and don’t give God His due. Yet God has mercy, and moves us forward, despite ourselves. We owe Him thanks, not despair and ingratitude. Films like Finest Hour and Dunkirk contain a spark of this much needed gratitude.