SOMEWHERE in one of Shakespeare’s plays a character remarks that this is a mad world; yet even the limitless imagination of Shakespeare could hardly have dreamed a world so crazy, so fantastic as the one in which we live today. There are times in London when one has to grip one’s sanity as one clings to something firm on a ship that is pitching in a storm.
I am writing this just after Bank Holiday, that fateful day which has been an overture to incredible drama on so many occasions. I was looking recently at an old copy of the Times dated August
On Bank Holiday, 1931, when the world economic crisis was at its height and Britain was being driven off the gold standard,Surrey played Notts at the Oval, there was the usual holiday race meeting at Sandown Park and, of course, a record rush to the sea.
On Bank Holiday, 1939, the same cricket fixture took place at the Oval, a lot of new horses ran at Sandown Park, and there was a record rush to the sea —yet the war was only a month off. There is a grim sequence in all this which might be called “Prelude to Disaster.”
Bank Holiday of 1944 broke with a shimmering sunlight that made the deserted streets of London seem like a mighty stage setting, waiting for the actors and extras to appear. There was not a cloud in the sky, not even a whisp to float on the gentle breeze. It was not an English sun at all but sheer Mediterranean.
The Government hoped the public would not travel but it was not much more than a hope. On bicycles, packed to suffocation in trains, driven in creaking gigs and even on foot, the people made for their ancient heritage, the sea. Banned areas were invaded and the beaches stormed. The people had accomplished what Hitler could not do in 1940.
Soldiers off duty joined in the game and plunged joyously into the sea. It was a glorious debauch and like all English debauches good-natured and uncomfortable. The sun was in the heavens and confidence was in the air. This year Bank Holiday was “Prelude to Victory.”
Succumbing to the spirit of the day I wandered down to Lords to see a test match between Australia and England. In spite of London being empty some 16,000 people had gathered to see the battle, bringing their sandwiches and bottles and pipes, prepared to sit from 11.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Such was the spirit of the day, however, that Englishmen actually removed their jackets, displaying their braces unashamed.
It was the friendliest crowd you could imagine. Everyone talked to everyone else, shared their biscuits and cigarettes, gazed with reverent awe at the sacred grass on which you could have played billiards. How wise these English are about some things! Nota single billboard defiled the lovely scene. Nobody selling popcorn or chewing gum profaned the silence as England went to bat.
No one cared about flying bombs for one spot is as good as another when the bomb is a senseless thing with no powers of selecting a target. Besides it was a glorious game and full of thrills. The Australians had come -from their fighters and bombers; the English from their regiments; but they were all gentleman sportsmen for a day in white flannels and white
3, 1914. It was Bank Holiday and the war was only a few hours off. There was an advertisement to the effect that the Lusitania would be sailing for New York; Surrey was playing Notts at the Oval, and there wus tho usual holiday race meeting at Sandown Park. And thero was, of course, a record rush to the sea. shirts. By the way, England won, but that does not really matter.
So far I have drawn the picture of a beloved country turning back the calendar and spending one glorious day at play. Then why should we say that the world is mad?
LET US look on the other side of the À picture. In Whitehall, while the people played, ministers and civil servants and scientists are preparing to meet the threat of V.2, the rocket which will travel
50, 60 or 80 miles in the air and hurl itself on London a carnage of destruction. If it comes then London be indeed a deserted city, not as a figure of speech in grim fact. The flying bomb has forced an exodus greater than in 1940. Every day the women and children leave in their hundreds for the country where they will be safe. Once more we are a childless community and there is no sound of children’s laughter the parks. We are glad of that. Children in their helplessness are terrified even by the dark in normal times, but when the wailing sirens howl in the night, when the bombs drone their way and shake the earth with terrible explosions, the cries of the little ones are pitiful to hear.
Thousands of houses have been wrecked and there are some districts which look as if two Armies had fought there as on a battlefield. Yet London stands where it stood, scarred, battered but magnificent. In essence it is untouched.
Let me tell you a strange story. A group of young German prisoners was told that they were going to be driven through London on their way to internment. There were terrified protests and threats of mutiny. They thought that they were being led to certain death as no one could live under the bombardment of the flying bomb. When eventually they saw London’s sereno squares and streets and people going unperturbed about their business many of them broke down and wept. “Now we know we have lost,” they said. “We have been told nothing but lies.” Yes, this is a mad world, my masters.
Let us look now on Germany. Last night we listened to the German account of the trial of a field marshal and seven officers in the Court of Honor. What chance has fiction against fact? Do you remember the trial of the Knave of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland,” where there was a demand for the verdict first and the trial afterward? Lewis Carroll thought that was funny. He had not foreseen the coming of the Nazis.
The German announcer gave us this beautiful bit of dialogue between the impartial President of the Court and Colonel-General Hoepner.
HOEPNER: I submitted to arrest because I did not feel that I had acted like a swine.
PRESIDENT: What class of animal do you think you belong to now?
PRESIDENT: No, Sir. You are and you remain a swine.
Throw away your “Alice in Wonderland.” Lewis Carroll is out of date. But the humor does notend there. Field Marshal Beck tried to commit suicide. He fired at himself three times with a revolver. Poor fellow, he only succeeded in injuring himself slightly.
One does not necessarily expect a field marshal to be a crack shot with a revolver but with three chances he ought to have done better than that. We have always said that we must destroy the legend of the Prussian militarist but the Germans are doing it for us. Prouder than Lucifer, stiffly correct, guileful yet innocent, arrogant but unimaginative, suspicious but credulous, these scions of the noble Prussian military caste are being made into figures of caricature by the Austrian sign painter and his collection of thugs.
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What a theatrical producer Hitler could have been! The accused generals were made to wear civilian clothes with no tie or braces. When they stood they had to hang onto their trousers to keep them from falling down. There were cinema photographers and cameramen there to record it for posterity.
One final touch and I am finished with this scene of wild, improbable and cruel farce. Magnanimously, the announcer said, the accused were allowed legal aid but there is not the slightest evidence that the lawyers said one word on behalf of the men they were supposed to defend. If they had done so they would not have lived to see the dawn.
So the generals were taken out and hanged, two hours after the verdict. We did not hear whether they were allowed to wear braces for the final scene. Caricature can go no farther.
Against Curtain of Time
`Yet while one describes these mad, macabre events we would be wise to see them against the curtain of time. Whatever we may think of Adolf Hitler—and Satan is left far behind in terms of sheer evil—he is a man of tremendous force and relentless purpose. He created the legend that in 1918 the German Army was defeated because the home front collapsed. Knowing his Germans, and how they cling to legends, he has set out to prove that in this war the German people were betrayed by the Army.
What is his purpose? He intends that the legend of the invincible Nazis shall live on. They and their inspired leader never faltered. They were remorseless in victory and in defeat. It was the generals who lost faith, the Prussian aristocrats, the monocled magnificents of the High Command. Remember that, you Germans, in the years that he ahead.
As I wrote recently in Maclean’s, the Nazis intend to go underground with their secret arsenals and vast hordes of stolen wealth. They know that they have lost the war, and they know that they cannot return to civil life. In every country of Europe they will have their Quislings, who will also go underground until the tortured continent of Europe will be one vast underworld like that of Capone in Chicago.
Relying upon sympathy and support of the young people under their influence, they will make war—not against the occupying Armies of the Allies—but against any men who try to form a Democratic Government. Ministers and editors will be assassinated, judges will be terrorized, the police will be killed like the Royal Irish Constabulary in the Sinn Fein Rebellion. The Nazis will play for time in the hope that the Allies will draw apart and grow suspicious even as they did after 1918, until finally they will grow weary of the watch on the Rhine. Then, the Nazis will be able to subject Germany once more to their tutelage, not openly at first but through pliant dummies of weak respectability.
Hitler is finished with the war, of that I am certain, but he is not finished with the dream of Nazi domination. Discredited as he is—this fool who thought he was Napoleon; this strutting mountebank who thought to wear a conqueror’s crown-—he has the diabolical strength of the homicidal maniac and the-surpreme egoist. We are not finished wdth him yet unless we hunt him like a poisonous snake and never rest until we sever his head from his crawling body. The world has not seen the like of this man for centuries. He commands the powers of darkness.
An editor friend of mine has just called on the telephone to say that Himmler has been assassinated. Perhaps . . . perhaps not. A pity if a bullet got him instead of the hangman’s rope.
And now let us turn from this study of a debased and wretched country to Westminster where, in the closing moments of the session, Winston Churchill gave us a review of the war and the world.
For many months he was silent. The troubles of Moscow, Washington and Algiers weighed heavily upon him and his lips were sealed. But on this occasion he was back to the days of 1940, when his voice rang out across the seven seas and civilization dared to hope.
His 70 years fell from him like a cloak. His voice was vibrant and his wit was like a rapier. He had nothing but a story of victory to tell and he told it grandly. On every front the German Army was falling back to defense lines that did not exist. Europe was in revolt and even Turkey—that semiOriental barometer of events—had broken with the impotent Reich. It is the measure of the man that Churchill is most modest in triumph as he was most arrogant when he was a party of one. His tributes were to others and especially the fighting men.
So I must end this strange letter, which tells you little that you did not know before but will perhaps give a picture of the Old World at this moment —a picture which may be of some passing interest if read in the years to come.
Think gently of this England. There is much that is wrong here and there will have to be changes but was there ever a people who winced less or refused to cry aloud when the fates were malignant, or who boasted so little when the hour of victory came? Keep them in your hearts and in your prayers, for without their courage and their patience you in Canada would not have been able to face your glorious future won by your sons and the sons of British mothers.
Europe and ravaged humanity still looks to England. If her children be true to her in peace as in war this Island may yet lead the sad people of the world to a world which even a Shakespeare will not be able to describe as mad.
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