March 22, 2012
Historian John Lukacs is one of Americas treasures. He has written extensively on our history and, especially, the history of World War II. As an emigre from Hungary, he brings a unique perspective to his writing. One of John Lukacss many excellent books is The Duel: The Eighty Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler. The period May 10August 31, 1940, Lukacs writes, determined whether Hitler would win the Second World War.
What are spiritual puns? Thats Lukacss own phrase. He says there really are not coincidences in history. Instead, he calls them spiritual puns. The classic example he provides is this one. Early in the morning of May 10, 1940, Hitlers sleek, silent, black train suddenly changed directions. It had been proceeding noiselessly northward over specially constructed rails. No characteristic clickety-clack disturbed the rest of the sleeping Nazis as the train veered west. Hitler wanted to be on the Northwest frontier as his panzers broke through theArdennesForest and broke through French and Belgian lines. What American journalists had called the phony war would end that fine spring morning as German forces crashed through the democracies defenses in what soon became known as blitzkrieg, or lightning war.
Just a few hundred miles away, that day, Winston Churchill was being driven to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands and receive the seals of office as Prime Minister. There could hardly have been a worse time to come to power. Leaving the palace, Churchill accepted the congratulations of his body guard, Scotland Yard Inspector Walter Thompson. I just hope its not too late, he said somberly.
For us as Americans, how strange it must seem to read John Lukacss book and realize that our fate was being decided on that May day, too. Although no American was on Hitlers private train and no American was in the War Cabinet rooms where Churchill now presided amid clouds of tobacco smoke, we had a rendezvous with destiny. Our looming presence was felt that day. Hitlers train was code-named: Amerika.
Hitler and Churchill had never met. They almost met one day in Munich, Germany, in 1932. Churchill was there researching the biography of his great ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. But Hitler, not yet in power, decided that Churchill was a washed-up old British politician, so why bother with him? Churchill had angered Hitler by his outspoken writings against the Nazis anti-Semitism. Churchill would live for another twenty years after walking over the bunker where Hitlers committed suicide.
The great eighteenth century English parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, never met Patrick Henry. And there is surely no parallel between these Christian lawmakers and those twentieth century warlords, Churchill and Hitler. But I was struck by what may be another of Lukacss spiritual puns. Burke and Henry shared a common Christian worldview. And we see that in two of their most famous addresses.
For more than a century and a half, American school children would be called upon to memorize parts of Burkes famous Speech on Conciliation. It was delivered March 22, 1775 in London. Also a favorite to be memorized by young Americans would be portions of Patrick Henrys Give Me Liberty speech, given at St. Johns Church, in Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 1775. There was a vast ocean separating them. The sentiments those two great friends of liberty expressed just hours apart made them almost brothers.
All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies [New England] is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces…The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.
Here, Burke understands that these colonists came here for liberty. They were not about to submit tamely to the British yoke.
If Hitler had picked up a radiotelephone and put through a call to Winston Churchill from his private train car, it is doubtful they would have had anything to communicate in May, 1940.
United by the fear of the Lord and by their love of Liberty, Burke and Henry might have enjoyed an extensive conversation. Parliament ignored Burkes sage advice. The Prime Minister, Lord North, proceeded instead with a plan to subdue the Americans, to try to bayonet us into submission.
Happily, Americans did not ignore Patrick Henrys appeal.
Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
Four years ago, I was privileged to take a class of Witherspoon Fellows to Williamsburg, Virginia, and there hear Richard Schumann, historical interpreter. My daughter, who was with child, and my law student son-in-law joined us. Mr. Schumann delivered Patrick Henrys most famous speech in its entirety. As he spoke, his voice rose in volume and tempo. At the conclusion, my daughter said her unborn child leaped in the womb. Now, thats my idea of a spiritual pun. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.