Distinguished historian John Lukacs has examined five days in London in May 1940 when the future of Western civilization hung in perilous balance. Between May 24 and May 28 was the weekend when Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet had to decide whether to come to terms with Hitler or fight on alone – dauntingly alone.
Admittedly, America is not facing odds today anywhere near so alarmingly bleak, but nonetheless George W. Bush and Tony Blair may well feel the hairs at the back of their neck prickle in recognition of what Winston Churchill faced as they read this tightly written, impressive and courageous little book, “Five Days in London” (May 1940, by John Lukacs. Yale University Press.)
Lukacs opens his book by simply stating: “This book attempts to reconstruct the history of five days that could have changed the world. The setting is London, and the five days are Friday through Tuesday, 24 to 28, May 1940. Then and there, Adolph Hitler came closest to winning the Second World War, his war.”
Lukacs states that there was only one man who knew how close Hitler had come to his ultimate victory and that man was Winston Churchill. He mentions how Churchill writing after the war gave the title “The Hinge of Fate” to the fourth volume of his “War Memoirs.” That particular volume covers the year 1942 – near the end of which the Germans were turned back on many fronts. November 1942 was the military hinge of fate on the battlefields of Egypt, North Africa and Russia: distinct military turning points.
Even then, says Lukacs, Britain could not have won the war on its own of course. Ultimately it was America and Russia that did. But in that month of May, Lukacs expresses no doubt: Churchill was the man who did not lose it. Churchill saved Britain, Europe and Western civilization. And yet, about that particular all-crucial hinge of fate, Churchill’s “War Memoirs” – essentially his “History of the Second World War” – are largely silent.
Lukacs takes the reader through the decision of declaring to the War Cabinet – some 25 men –”Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.” and the enthusiastic reaction of the cabinet members, winding up with Churchill declaring stirringly:
I am sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this, they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do, because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.
Quite wonderful, deeply inspiring words, but according to Lukacs, “It is not devoid of truthfulness.” There is a fuller description of that meeting in Hugh Dalton’s memoirs and diaries, which cites Churchill as saying “It was idle to think that if we tried to make peace now we should get better terms from Germany than if we went on and fought it out.” Dalton concludes: “It was quite clear that whereas the Old Umbrella [Neville Chamberlain] – neither he nor other members of the War Cabinet were at this meeting – wanted to run very early, Winston’s bias is all the other way.”
What makes Lukacs’ history so compelling are observations like his noting Churchill never underestimated Hitler, and why Hitler was such a dazzlingly dangerous adversary. And, yes, Lukacs has his comments on Hitler, the West and Czechoslovakia. In November 1937, Hitler told his generals they might as well start preparing for war, since England and France would clearly be writing off Czechoslovakia – a year before they did. Israel being a virtual island in an Arab sea, you might see how in a down mood Ariel Sharon may have spoken out as he did.
The Lukacs book is a brilliant piece of historical writing and one with considerable relevance for a world balancing on the edge of potential disaster –not so desperate as in May 1940, but edgy enough to give us all serious concern.