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‘My generation saved the world from the Nazis,’ Dad said. What will this one do? | Opinion

My pip of a father, John Henneberger, walked around every day building people up: “You’re doing a great job,” he’d tell anyone who was. “You’re a great American,” he’d say. So it got my attention when, not long before he died in 2017, he asked the doctor who was examining him this question: “My generation saved the world from the Nazis. What is your generation going to do?”

Naturally, the poor guy had no reply. But can we please not let the answer be, “Lose the republic”? Or “Mess around and let Putin put the band back together”?

In part, I’m sure, because my dad served in World War II, I look to one of history’s great encouragers, Winston Churchill, as someone who could if we let him inspire greater confidence and collective action in this moment that has so much in common with the one he helped lead the world out of.

That’s why this week, I’m reading Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile.” His book isn’t new, even to me. But it’s one I returned to after Donald Trump’s stupefyingly vile talk about encouraging Russia to “do whatever the hell it wants” against any NATO ally who doesn’t “pay,” and, then, just six days later, Russian resistance leader Aleksei Navalny’s death in a prison in the Arctic.

The courage and clarity that Navalny showed was always going to live on after him, in a way that the poisoners never seem to appreciate. “Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you.” Navalny told his people in a 2022 documentary. “You are not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong.”

That was Churchill’s essential message, too: You are not allowed to give up. Ukraine never will, and we cannot let them lose everything because we did.

Churchill led during WWII with heart, courage

Larson’s book, which pulls us into Churchill’s first year as prime minister, starting on May 10 of 1940, shows us a man who between his heavy drinking and many quirks would never be asked to form a government today. Just a couple of tweets — sorry, Xs — about that night Winnie put on some music and skipped around a room full of dinner guests in his red dressing gown, and Hitler, who tried so hard to engineer Churchill’s ouster, would surely have gotten his wish.

(Neither, for that matter, could FDR be elected now; can’t you just see Trump mocking his wheelchair?)

But Churchill’s great gift was his ability, by showing no fear and by finding the right words, to keep his people pulling together while the lights were out and the bombs were falling. He “mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle,’’ as an adversary put it in the 2017 movie “Darkest Hour.”

Just before France fell, he began a BBC radio broadcast this way: “I speak to you for the first time as prime minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country.” Larson says he “explained how the Germans had broken through the French line, using a ‘remarkable’ combination of aircraft and tanks. However, he said, the French had proven themselves in the past to be adept at raising counteroffensives, and this talent, in tandem with the power and skill of the British Army, could turn the situation around.”

“The speech,” Larson wrote, “set a pattern that he would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism. ‘It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour,’ Churchill said. ‘It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.’ ’’

Yes and yes.

Now we hear that not only is Navalny gone, but the Russian military pilot Maksim Kuzminov, who defected to Ukraine in his Mi-8 helicopter last August, and then had his life threatened on Russian state TV, has been found shot to death and run over in Spain. Putin is not subtle, and yet even as our ally Ukraine loses ground thanks to our inaction, House Speaker Mike Johnson says there’s “no rush” on approving the aid that’s already been on hold for four months.

Is sacrifice for the common good still possible? Of course it is, though we’d first have to agree on what that would look like. When we return now to Churchill’s famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches,” to save what matters most, it’s hard not to think that we these days prefer to fight one another, more or less constantly, over the most trivial and even made-up issues.

This is not made-up: If House Republicans continue to be content to let Putin keep what he’s trying to steal in Ukraine, and if we keep right on giving away our own democracy a handful at a time, out of the self-hatred that spite for our fellow Americans really amounts to, those would be mistakes that we might not be able to walk back.

We don’t have to let either of those related calamities happen on our watch, though. Because even in this time of “they’re all bad” and, as one of our chief nihilists, Tucker Carson, recently put it, “every leader kills people,” these two things are still true: It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour, and still more foolish to lose heart.