Five Days in London: May 1940

by John Lukacs

Paperback, 2001




Yale University Press (2001), Edition: (3rd), 256 pages


The days from May 24 to May 28, 1940 altered the course of the history of this century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or to continue the war. The decisive importance of these five days is the focus.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lkernagh
An interesting examination of what Lukacs contends as being a period of time when Hitler was never closer to winning his war in Europe. In May 1940, a number of key factors were at play: Hitler’s driving forces had France on the verge of defeat; Belgium surrender to Germany and the British Expeditionary Forces found themselves holed up on the coast of Dunkirk with no allied assistance to back them up. Compounding the situation was the fact that the current majority in the British Parliament, was currently tolerating Hitler’s growing presence on the continent. Lukacs arrives at his conclusion through a myriad of information gleaned from the memoirs and public/private papers of various key players such as Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain. The fact that Churchill was still new in his role as Prime Minister (he was appointed by King George V to the role only on May 10th) is of note, as is the criticism (unknown to Churchill at the time) American President Franklin D. Roosevelt held of Churchill’s abilities. The fact that Churchill remained resolute that any accommodation with Hitler would lead to the eventual demise of Britain and Europe, shows a strength of character deserving of praise. While there is a fair bit of focus on the debate going on in the British War Cabinet of how best to proceed, this is important as Lukacs is able to demonstrate how Churchill used personal diplomacy and moral persuasion to bring the War Cabinet to his line of thinking and to overcome Lord Halifax and the distrust Churchill faced from a number of his colleagues. Lukacs also provides the reader with interesting public opinion barometric pressure readings gleaned from various newspaper polls, giving the book a more “point in time” of the British feelings at the time, and how calm British stoicism was at play, even during those uncertain days.

Whether Lukacs is correct in his premise – that those last days in May of 1940 were the closest Hitler ever came to winning his war against Europe – is anyone’s personal opinion. Either way, Lukacs writes in an informative manner. As a fond observer of human behaviour, I really enjoyed the inclusion of the personal opinions of various key players as they really helped shape the developments for me. On a possible downside, I listened to the audiobook version and found that some of the footnotes tended to interrupt the rhythmic flow of Lukacs’ writing.

A solid read for anyone interested in Churchill, the early period of WWII or political diplomacy in general.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
The title pretty much tells you what you’re getting with this one. Lukacs drilled into a short time frame after Winston Churchill became prime minister and some of his cabinet members wanted avoid war with Hitler at all costs. The subject matter is interesting, but his writing style is a bit stale. It feels a lot like he’s defending his dissertation instead of just writing a book. He keeps circling back on a point and explaining why he made it, which was distracting. The actually history was interesting, but the writing style didn’t work for me.

He would cite a letter or speech word-for-word as if he’s trying to prove that the point he was making was based on fact. If I’m reading nonfiction books on a historical event I tend to trust that the author has done their research. There’s also usually a biography full of the cited works at the end of the book that people can check if they want to.

BOTTOM LINE: I won’t be searching out any more work by this author, but I enjoyed learning more about this short window in history. It was interesting to see how much can hinge upon what seems like a small decision.
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LibraryThing member lamour
Lukacs theory is that WW II was won in these five days at the end of May 1940. While Belguim surrendered to Hitler and the evacution of Dunkirk occured durimg these few days, these were not the crucial events. According to him the key circumstance was that Churchill was able to over come the defeatist views of some of his cabinet colleagues and not seek possible peace terms from Hitler. Lord Halifax was his key opponent in this because he did not think England had a chance to win considering the military position they were in at that moment. In the end Churchill prevailed and won the public's support and the backing of some key peopel in Parliament and Cabinet.

Lukacs gives us great detail while making the narrative fly along, thus making a very readable account of a key moment in the history of Western civilization. To me the fascination was seeing names of important figures in British politics and culture of that period that I had not read about since my undergraduate research days. Duff Cooper, Harold Nicolson, Stanley Baldwin, George Orwell and Nancy Astor are some of those.
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LibraryThing member Embejo
this book looks in detail at 5 important days (24th - 28th May) in London in 1940 during which many important decisions were made in the British War Cabinet and by Prime Minister Churchill. These decisions viewed in retrospect were the most cruical days of the war for England and the Allies, and the time when the great debate took place of whether to negotiate with Hitler or to fight on.

While I found much of the book very interesting, I think I have bitten off more than I can chew given my very basic knowledge of the history. I have found it somewhat tedious and overly intellectual for my own history poor intellect!

I was impressed by the way the author took an almost hour by hour analysis to these days by piecing together the events of the day from many sources: War Cabinet minutes, telegrams, private diaries, letters, memoirs, newspapers and military records. It’s a very detailed book and perhaps that is what bogged me down a bit. Probably a good book for someone who has already a good broad knowledge of the history of the war and who has an interest in the who’s and why’s of political decisions.
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LibraryThing member Wolcott37
An historian often feels compelled to return to a subject. Sometimes the revisit is to revise earlier theses and sometimes it is to look in closer detail at some aspect of his object of study. John Lukacs works on Churchill and World War II fall into the latter category. Lukacs, and ardent Churchill supporter, sees Churchill as the pivotal figure in the history of the Twentieth Century, and his decision to keep Britain fighting Germany at any cost in the Second World War as his key decision. This is the subject of Five Days in London May 1940. For Lukacs, the critical span of time was May 24th to the 28th, 1940, as the BEF staggered back to the coast and France tottered towards capitulation. Lukacs has covered the early part of the war before, each time with an increased focus on Churchill’s role. In his introduction to Five Days in London May 1940, Lukacs describes this work as “part of a lopsided trilogy: from three pages in The Last European War to fifteen pages in The Duel and then to two hundred and twenty pages in this one.”

Lukacs draws from interesting sources. While the main thrust of the narrative is to follow the events in London around the cabinet and, to a lesser extent, on the battlefield in France, he also discusses the mood of the country through newspapers, private diaries and most interestingly, the reports of the Mass-Observation group of the Ministry of Information, pioneers in public polling. On the mood of the public, one gets a surprising result. The newspapers are still full of advertisements for holiday (in France!) and there is as yet an air of some peacetime normalcy. The Mass-Observation group reports are fascinating. The picture that they paint is of a public divided in opinion and morale along sex and class lines-not yet the mythic image we have today of the “Finest Hour”. From the contemporary newspapers, the information is enlightening by its unenlightening nature. The precarious situation on the ground in France is not apparent-there are misleading articles on phantom soon-to-be launched counter-attacks and non-existent ever stiffening French resistance. Whether this is the natural result of the fog of war or a deliberate misinformation campaign is out of the scope of this work and is not explored by Lukacs.

A running theme in the works of John Lukacs is his playing down of the communist threat to Western Europe in the interwar era. This is again shown in the dismissive attitude he has towards the Tory leaders Baldwin, Chamberlain and Halifax in the 1930s. They were convinced that the only winners of a European war would be the Soviets and their pawns in the west. Baldwin, for instance, said that the outcome of a European war “would be Germany going Bolshevik”. Lukacs says that in the 1930s in Europe “the Left was weak. Except for the Soviet Union, there was no Communist regime anywhere on the globe; except for small minorities and some intellectuals, Communism did not attract masses of the people.” Here Lukacs is wrong. In Britain, the General Strike was a recent event. On the continent, the abortive revolutions of 1919, the Soviet invasion of Poland, and Kun’s Hungarian Soviet were closer in time to 1940 than 1989 is to us. Lukacs’ statement that the best opponents of Hitler were traditionalist patriots like Churchill, DeGaulle or Stauffenberg and the 1944 plotters overlooks the fact that the Nazis had liquidated the strong communist presence in Weimar through brute force and by co-opting large parts of their agenda. This idiosyncrasy in Lukacs’ thought detracts somewhat from his account of the time.

The internal machinations of the cabinet over what to do are the main focus of the narrative. Halifax and Chamberlain were still seeking some sort of accommodation, perhaps with Italy as an arbiter (the Italians having not yet entered the war). Churchill, according to Lukacs, in his heart-of-hearts had no plan but to carry on. First, to try and give a backbone to the French by the knowledge the Britain would carry on no matter what, and secondly and more importantly to do whatever it took to get America in the war. This is where the greatest controversy emerges. Churchill feared that Britain would be reduced to a minor partner or even a satellite of Germany if German domination of Europe was accepted. But as we now know, the price to pay for American entry into the war was Britain reduced to a minor partner of the United States and the ultimate dismantling of the Empire-something the Germans would not have wanted.

Lukacs’ focus on those five days allows the reader to see that accidents of history sometimes play out well, Dunkirk being a famous example. As is clear from the cabinet minutes, no one expected the withdrawal to go as well as it did, least of all Churchill. A critical accident I was not aware of was that of Neville Chamberlain. The former prime minister is considered a complete failure by most historians, but his mere presence in the cabinet prevented the loathsome David Lloyd-George from accepting a post as Minister of Agriculture and securing a spot back in power. Had Lloyd-George rejoined the cabinet, given his still considerable prestige, a coalition of himself, Halifax and Chamberlain could have forced a negotiated peace on Churchill, or even removed him from power. Halifax would most likely have been the new Prime Minister in that circumstance, and he was no supporter of Hitler. However, it doesn't take much imagination to see how a defeated and demoralized Britain could turn to someone like Lloyd-George. I think that Churchill and Lukacs both underestimate the damage that a Lloyd-George premiership would have done at that time. Churchill felt that better “someone like Lloyd-George than someone like [Sir Oswald] Mosley”, the leader of the British fascists who was arrested the day before the five days covered in this account. Lloyd-George was an admirer of Hitler (calling him the greatest living German in 1935) and the Nazi/Fascist domestic platform which is similar to the Lloyd-George welfare state in may respects. Given the defeatist attitude that he held even after the entry of the United States and Soviet Union and the success of the Battle of Britain, it is easy to imagine him as the British Petain.

There are moments in history where the right man is in the right place at the right time, and certainly one of those moments was the afternoon of May 28th, 1940. Lukacs certainly captures it well. The cabinet minutes record that Churchill said that “the nations that went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.” After a brief adjournment, Churchill called together the whole cabinet-as opposed to just the War Cabinet-and reiterated his point that Britain after an armistice would be reduced to a slave state of Germany. Halifax finally agreed. Churchill’s eloquence and tenacity had won the day.

While I disagree with some of Lukacs’ conclusions (for instance-the war could have ended in 1940 with a “Cold War” between Germany and the remaining western powers, and that cold war ultimately ending the same way the actual Cold War did), I think Lukacs does a good job telling the story of those five days and identifying the crucial point. As he insightfully says “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War; in the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940, Churchill was the one that did not lose it.” Contemporary works on the Second World War almost always end on a triumphant note celebrating a Panglossian view of the world since then. It is refreshing to read one that does not. I agree with Lukacs’ final somewhat pessimistic statement on our present and future:

“At best, civilization may survive, at least in some small part due to Churchill in 1940. At worst, he helped to give us-especially those of us who are no longer young but who were young then-fifty years. Fifty years before the rise of new kinds of barbarism not incarnated by the armed might of Germans or Russians, before the clouds of a new Dark Age may darken the lives of our children and grandchildren. Fifty years! Perhaps that was enough.”
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LibraryThing member kencf0618
Magisterial and trenchant, this close reading of history focuses on the five crucial days when Hitler came as close as he ever did to winning what was indubitably /his/ war on his terms. Inasmuch as the BEF was presumed to be as good as lost and Churchill's young cabinet bruited suing for peace, this was civilization's closest approach to the abyss until the Cuban Missile Crisis decades later. (Fortunately they took away Hitler's Evil Genius Demerit Badge in 1942.) An excellent sequel to _The Duel_, which is on a broader canvas.… (more)
LibraryThing member onesmallhole
From the Library of C R Goodman, 26 Sundown Avenue, Dunstable, Beds. 8.11.99
LibraryThing member stevesmits
This brief history tells of the debate over five days in May 1940 when the allies resistance to Hitler in France and Belgium was collapsing. Churchill had just assumed power and was facing the possible capitulation of Belgium and France and the destruction of the British army encircled by Germans at Dunkirk. The main focus of the book is the differences between Churchill and Halifax over whether to seek a settlement with Germany or continue at war. Churchill, as we know, prevailed, but the course of resistance was by no means the clear one to take.

This is not a book written for a popular audience. Though brief it is quite closely argued and assumes the reader has knowledge of subtle aspects of British political dynamics.
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LibraryThing member nandadevi
Deep history, that's to say history at a level of detail that is almost forensic. The author is fortunate both in his choice of topic, and in his sense of what makes history. For five days in 1940 the fate of the world turned on a hairs breadth, in a debate between Churchill and forces within his own Conservative Party that were sympathetic to the cause of Naziism, and an even greater number who believed that defeat was inevitable (including the US) and that Britain had better surrender and ask for the best possible conditions. I wouldn't put the fact that Churchill carried the day in the end down to any nobility in the character of many of those politicians, as a breed they are contemptible and have destroyed their own country many times over since then, far more effectively than Hitler ever could have. But perhaps there was a flicker of something back then, some notion of self respect, but it's surely deserted us now.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
Of all the books written about Churchill's part in WWII this one zooms in on the few days when he became Prime Minister. It makes one think of what might have happened had someone else got the job. Not for a casual reader, this is a close examination of a political microcosm.
LibraryThing member MasseyLibrary
The days from May 24 to May 28, 1940 altered the course of the history of this century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or to continue the war. The decisive importance of these five days is the focus of John Lukacs’s magisterial new book. Lukacs takes us hour by hour into the critical unfolding of events at 10 Downing Street, where Churchill and the members of his cabinet were painfully considering their war responsibilities. We see how the military disasters taking place on the Continent-particularly the plight of the nearly 400,000 British soldiers bottled up in Dunkirk-affected Churchill’s fragile political situation, for he had been prime minister only a fortnight and was regarded as impetuous and hotheaded even by many of his own party. Lukacs also investigates the mood of the British people, drawing on newspaper and Mass-Observation reports that show how the citizenry, though only partly informed about the dangers that faced them, nevertheless began to support Churchill’s determination to stand fast.Other historians have dealt with Churchill’s difficulties during this period, using the partial revelations of certain memoirs and private and public papers. But Lukacs is the first to convey the drama and importance of these days, and he does so in a compelling narrative that combines deep knowledge with high literary style.… (more)
LibraryThing member dmmjlllt
I wanted to liket this a lot more than I actually did. For some reason I've got in my head that Lukacs is an author I should really enjoy, but this is the fourth book of his that I've tried and I remain somewhat underwhelmed. You never really get the sense of urgency that he clearly wants to convey in this story - I very much found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. The writing is sometimes oddly infelicitous, too, though perhaps that's an English-as-a-second-language thing?

Anyway, I'll probably try one more by him. Maybe.
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LibraryThing member citizencane
The title of this book refers to the period from May 24 through May 28, 1940 and concerns itself with primarily with the deliberations of the British War Cabinet during the darkest days of World War II as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) retreated to the Channel ports and ultimately the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from Dunkirk. The history textbook accounts of World War II tell us that Churchill's assumption of the prime minister's role two weeks earlier was evidence that support for his hardline opposition to Hitler and the Nazis was now settled British policy and that it was a given that the British would "fight them on the beaches", etc.

Lukacs' narrative makes it clear that it was not a foregone conclusion that Britain would fight on to the bitter end come what may. The War Cabinet consisted of Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and Labor representatives Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. The discussions among this group included nine formal meetings during the five days with the collapse of Belgium and the rout of the French forces as a backdrop. In the middle of this week the decsion was made to evauate the BEF from Dunkirk. Churchill was essentially unchanged in his policy though acknowledging the desperation of their situation. Halfax favored an approach to Mussolini prior to Italy's entry into the war to facilitate an armisitice and negotitations based on Britain's willingness to cede some undefined portion of its overaeas territoriies to Germany and potentially Gibralter and Malta to Mussolini as payment for services rendered. In return Britain's independence and autonomy would be recognized and observed. At the sme time Paul Reynaud, the French premier encouraged the contacts with Mussolini and also urged the British to contact Roosevlet as the leader of a still neutral United Stated to broker a negotiated settlement that would recognize Hitler's conquests but give the French and the British a way out of the war if they were offerred reasonable terms.

Churchill generally received the lukewarm support of Attlee and Greenwood. Chamberlain was supportive and played a critical role in mediating between the postions of Churchill and Halifax. As Lukacs makes clear it was not generally believed at this point that Churchill's leadership was for the duration. He was not favored by the king and not the clear cut favorite at any time of his own Conservative Party many of whom expected a "restoration" of Chamberlain or perhaps Halifax's accession to the prime minister position. By the end of the week it was clear that the Mussolini gambit in particuilar and generally speaking the likelihood of an armistice leading to Britain's withdrawl from the war were put to rest. Regardless of whether of not the French signed a separate peace the British would carry on alone.

In parallel with the political narrative Lukacs reviews the state of British public opinion and public awareness in the latter part of each chapter, day by day. The newspapers were never really on top of the real state of affairs in France which may have been a positive thing for Britain's morale. A public opinion operation known as M.O. for Mass Observation was comprised of non-scientific day to day accounts comparing opinion by region, class and sex. Generally the greater the status the more pessimistic the outlook. Also, opinion in London was far more worried that in the rural areas. And women in general were more depressed about events than their men.

One more item worth highlighting is the role or lack thereof played by David Lloyd George, Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister during the victory over Germany in 1918. Churchill approached Lloyd George on a couple of occasions about joining the Cabinet as Minister of Agriculture. He was turned down twice ostensibly due to Lloyd George's hatred of Chamberlain. Lukacs believes that in the worst case scenario if Britain was defeated Lloyd George might have been the leader best placed to obtain terms from Hiller. He doesn't explicitly compare Lloyd George to Marshall Petain but the reader is invited to make the comparison for himself.

Five Days in London is an exceptionally fine deep dive into a brief time slice that in the author's opinion was the real "Hinge of Fate" of the war in that it the closest Hitler would ever come to winning "his was".
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
A nice piece of micro-history by a Czech historian with a crush on WSC. Redolent of "the Day Lincoln Was Shot", it's a lively look at the British decision to fight on after the fall of France in 1940. Lukacs jokes that his next book will be entitled "The Forty-five Minutes", a look at just the portion of the Cabinet Meeting at which the decision was made, but I think he could stop here! Just the right amount of detail for this type of thing. Read it!… (more)


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