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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Anyway, I'll probably try one more by him. Maybe.
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".