Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson (Random House, 2017)
Where we come from to a great extent determines how we view the past, and this is true even for major events like World War II. Although we might think that because it’s in recent memory and because there are so many records of what happened we know the whole story, sometimes our viewpoint obscures large swathes of the reality. If you’re American, you might view the story of World War II as revolving to a great extent around the Pacific and ending with the atomic bomb being dropped over Japan. If you’re British, you probably think of the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and Normandy.
In Last Hope Island, Lynne Olson tells the story of the war from a perspective many of us probably haven’t taken. She looks at the war through the eyes of six governments in exile from their homelands – Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. After each country was quickly and violently taken over by the Nazis, their leaders soon found themselves attempting to coordinate resistance movements from London.
Olson’s book is beyond fascinating. Her wide-ranging narrative takes us to the exploits of the frighteningly incompetent intelligence agencies of England and the underground movements that helped downed airmen escape from occupied territory. She looks at the complex political jostling between nations even within nations, as well as exploring the incomparable value of the BBC as a tool for communicating with the subjugated peoples of Europe.
The book is heartbreaking, particularly in the case of Poland, which fought so bravely during the war. In the beginning, their pilots were mocked by prejudiced Brits, but soon they were the pride of the RAF. Yet by the end of the war, after giving so much, their nation was traded away to the Soviets, who took retribution against those heroes who fought for Allied Europe.
We all know that it was a brutal war and countless lives were lost. We all know that the suffering is hard to appreciate precisely because it was so great. Yet Olson’s book opens up stories we haven’t heard before and reminds us of just how terrible humans can be – but also how brave and wonderful they are. In her stories of lives lost so needlessly because of poor decision by government officials, we see beyond the façade of good guys and bad guys to the fact that, in this world, often people suffer because of inaction or poor choices.
Last Hope Island is a wonderful book and a must-read for anyone interested in World War II.