“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
There is a peculiar sort of beauty in the examples set by men and women who held firm in the face of overwhelming evil.
Eighty years ago this month, the world was brought to the brink of domination by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies. In a series of stunning strategic victories over a matter of days, the German Army overwhelmed, outmaneuvered, and outgunned the combined strength of the French, Belgian, and British Armies, ultimately driving the Allied armies to the French coast to await capture, if not total annihilation, by the German Wehrmacht. Throughout May of 1940, the war in western Europe took a disastrous turn for the worst.
With the United States continuing to delve deeper into an isolationist “America First” philosophy of foreign policy, Europe’s prospects looked bleak as Nazism advanced swiftly. Around this time, a curious political figure stepped into the leadership vacuum within the British Government left by the disgraced former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
Enter, Winston Churchill, one of the most remarkable statesmen in history.1 Already sixty-five years of age and having lived a lifetime of adventures, Churchill was something of a political pariah. Having participated in multiple political controversies throughout his career in Parliament that often left him on the wrong end of the resulting outcomes, Churchill left many prominent European leaders with bad impressions. Overweight, a chain-smoking cigar enthusiast, a constant drinker, and one known for sharp, impulsive witty remarks, Churchill seemed like the least worthy person to lead the fight against the greatest military force in history up to that point. Worse still, Churchill’s military policy was ever-haunted by the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign in 1915 during the First World War when he was First Sea Lord of the Admiralty; a catastrophic military misadventure that left around 45,000 Allied troops dead and a stunning victory for the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers.2
With a record like Churchill’s, it would be understandable to think, as many of his contemporaries undoubtedly did, that his taking on the role of Prime Minister could lead to one final disaster from which the country might never recover. He proved them all wrong.
After seeing the threat the new German Nazi movement posed in the 1930s, Churchill knew that a second confrontation with Germany loomed on the horizon. For his part, Churchill had several qualities worth mentioning. First, he was one of the greatest speakers and writers of the 20th century; by 1940 he had already established himself as one of the best orators in the English language, as well as a successful historian and writer.
In addition, Churchill possessed a unique quality that changed the course of the 20th century: He refused to accept defeat. After all his setbacks and disastrous mistakes, he refused to let himself be beaten. “I shall have made nothing if I had not made mistakes”, he wrote to his wife Clementine during the height of World War I.
Because of this tenacious drive, Churchill kept the British morale and fighting spirit high. They would need it. At the end of May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a sizable portion of the French Army narrowly escaped destruction at the port city of Dunkirk, France, and retreated across the channel, to await the coming onslaught from the German military forces in the forthcoming Battle of Britain. Churchill refused to accept the defeat. As historian and Churchill Biographer Andrew Roberts eloquently puts it,
“When Churchill was finally made prime minister in May 1940, the British had lost the war-comprehensively, according to every metric-but there was a huge difference between losing a war and realizing that one has lost it…Winston Churchill’s primary duty in 1940 and 1941 was to prevent the British people from realizing they had lost the war, and nobody did it better, not least because he utterly refused to accept the logic of the situation himself.”3
Holding out through the subsequent Battle of Britain in 1940 and 1941 was no easy feat, but Churchill rose to the task. Faced with horrific night time bombing raids on major cities, and shortages of food and supplies due to U-Boat naval warfare on the Atlantic, 4 Churchill led the British people through “the storm of war” and, in Churchill’s words, “outlived the menace of tyranny”,until eventually, the United States stepped up to the plate to bring an end to the war. As Erik Larson details in his book The Splendid and the Vile, this hardheaded resolve was driven to the brink but enabled Churchill and the people he served to hold out in the face of stubborn evil until victory was achieved.
We largely know how the story ends. Britain, the United States, and their Allies won the war in Europe almost exactly five years later, in May of 1945. Nazism was consigned to the garbage pile of history, and shown for the vile, disgusting ideology it truly was. However, the example set by Churchill still bears relevance today.
As Owen Strachan notes in his beautiful tribute to Churchill’s leadership, even though our contemporary postmodern culture self-righteously sneers at examples of heroism, Churchill’s example stands in stark contrast, urging us to stand up for what’s right and live a life of boldness and integrity.5
As pro-life advocates, our cause has faced multiple setbacks over the past several decades, and has lately endured bizarre attacks from within our own ranks. We are told that we must give up the fight to recognize the unborn as members of the human family, and devote our time to issues that leave us better able to sit in relative comfort, even as the unborn are killed by the thousands daily. Add to that the immense challenge of addressing thousands of families facing unplanned pregnancies and in need of guidance who come to us in their most desperate time of need.
Pro-life advocates need to follow the example of men like Churchill, and learn to exemplify a warrior spirit. Not a quarrelsome spirit, but one that readily seeks out challenges and responds adequately and effectively; one that finds a way to bridge gaps among people who disagree and bring them together to accomplish a common goal, one that refuses to waver and compromise the truth in order to score temporary victories or win temporary friends. We will face challenges of all sorts; vile, hateful, profane behavior from people who have wedded themselves beyond all reason to the ability to kill their own unborn children. We may face the loss of friends because we refuse to waver, heartbreak and setbacks of all sorts. And, we may even face challenges to our own moral character, through temptations such as greed, pride, and selfishness. The challenge before pro-life advocates is immense, but it can be overcome if we push on.
The example set by Winston Churchill is worth pondering. It shows exactly what it means to be merely human when facing the gravest of odds, especially when the world itself seems to be burning. Refusing to waver in the face of great evil is an example for all men and women to follow, no matter their status in society or position in the culture.
As Owen Strachan beautifully summarizes in his piece, paraphrasing a line from one of Churchill’s speeches,
“He looks directly at us: Be intransigent, he seems to say. In the face of tremendous evil and desperate conditions, never, never, never, never give in.
Never give in, indeed.