"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear
ourselves that, if the British Empire and its commonwealth last for a
thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" So
declaimed Churchill to Parliament as the Battle of Britain began.
Six weeks before, on May 10, 1940, the Battle of France had
begun suddenly when Hitler's Panzers, bypassing the Maginot Line, slashed
through the Ardennes and cut to the Channel to isolate the British
Expeditionary Force in on the French-Belgian coast.
In the last days of May and first days of June, there took place
the miracle of Dunkirk, the greatest evacuation in war history, as over
300,000 British, French and Belgian troops were taken off the continent. A
vast flotilla had sailed from English ports to save the island's
soldier-sons -- truly a glorious page in British history.
Yet in a poll of the British people, asking them to identify the
most momentous events in their 20th century history, Dunkirk was not even in
the top 10. Nor was Normandy, the Nazi surrender, the sinking of the
Bismarck, the fall of Singapore, the collapse of the empire or the Suez
crisis of '56 that led to the fall of Eden's Cabinet.
What was chosen as "the most momentous event in British
history"? The death of Princess Di in a car crash in a Paris tunnel, while
fleeing with lover Dodi from the cameras of the paparazzi.
The start of World War II for Britain, Sept. 3, 1939, was No. 2.
But ahead of the armistice that ended World War I (No. 5), in which 750,000
British gave their lives, was "Women getting the right to vote" and the
"Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement" of 1998.
Was that diplomatic deal, brokered by George Mitchell, really as
momentous an event as the sinking of the Titanic or the Somme Offensive that
produced 60,000 British casualties on the first day?
More amazing is that ahead of Montgomery's victory over Rommel
at El Alamein, which does not even appear on the list, the British put their
1966 World Soccer Cup victory as the sixth "most momentous event in British
No. 7 is the Queen's coronation in 1952. No. 8 is the start of
the Falklands War. No. 10 is the abdication of Edward VIII. The ninth most
momentous event? The assassination of John Lennon in 1980. This would be
like Americans placing the death of Elvis among the most momentous events of
the 20th century.
According to UPI, the poll that produced the list was conducted
by a British offshoot of our History Channel. What it tells us about our
cousins across the pond is disheartening. The Brits, who not so long ago
ruled an empire upon which the sun never set, have contracted Alzheimer's.
They seem not to know who they are, what they did or where they came from,
and to recall best those events that are shown repeatedly in movie clips or
on TV -- those twin creators of visual realities.
A soccer game, the shooting of a middle-aged Beatle, the death
in a car crash of a divorced princess -- can this be momentous history to
the present generation of Brits? So it would seem.
On the top 10 list of most significant events of world history
in the past century, the Brits did better. But here, also, they seem tied to
the "telly" and to the present. They chose as the most significant event the
attack on the World Trade Center. No. 2 was Hiroshima. No. 3 was the fall of
the Berlin Wall. No. 4 was man's landing on the moon. No. 6 was the end of
World War I. No. 7, the assassination of JFK. No. 8, the downing of Pan Am
103 over Lockerbie. No. 9, the Vietnam ceasefire of 1973. No. 10, Tiananmen
And the missing No. 5? Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
What does this tell us? That the Brits may be as ignorant of
their history as U.S. high school students. How can one put the Tiananmen
Square massacre, where a few hundred died, ahead of Mao's triumph in 1949,
which resulted in 30 million dead? And is Mandela's release more important
than the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave us Lenin, Stalin and 70
years of tyranny, terror and Cold War?
Nor do Brits seem to consider their own history that important.
Not one event in all of Britain's 20th century was judged to be
as significant as Mandela's release, which was considered more important
than Munich, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the invasion of Poland, the fall of
France, Stalingrad, the Holocaust and the fire-bombing of Dresden.
What can one say of a generation that thinks a Vietnam
ceasefire, which led to Hanoi's invasion in 1975, the murder of South
Vietnam and the Cambodian horrors of Pol Pot, was anything but a fraud and a
No wonder many of Britain's best are migrating over here.