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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Reading List: Five Days in London

Lukacs, John. Five Days in London. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08466-8.
Winston Churchill titled the fourth volume of his memoirs of The Second World War, describing the events of 1942, The Hinge of Fate. Certainly, in the military sense, it was in that year that the tide turned in favour of the allies—the entry of the United States into the war and the Japanese defeat in the Battle of Midway, Germany's failure at Stalingrad and the beginning of the disastrous consequences for the German army, and British defeat of Rommel's army at El Alamein together marked what Churchill described as, “…not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end, but, it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

But in this book, distinguished historian John Lukacs argues that the true “hinge of fate” not only of World War II, but for Western civilisation against Nazi tyranny, occurred in the five days of 24–28 May of 1940, not on the battlefields in France, but in London, around conference tables, in lunch and dinner meetings, and walks in the garden. This was a period of unmitigated, accelerating disaster for the French army and the British Expeditionary Force in France: the channel ports of Boulogne and Calais fell to the Germans, the King of Belgium capitulated to the Nazis, and more than three hundred thousand British and French troops were surrounded at Dunkirk, the last channel port still in Allied hands. Despite plans for an evacuation, as late as May 28, Churchill estimated that at most about 50,000 could be evacuated, with all the rest taken prisoner and all the military equipment lost. In his statement in the House of Commons that day, he said, “Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings.” It was only in the subsequent days that the near-miraculous evacuation was accomplished, with a total of 338,226 soldiers rescued by June 3rd.

And yet it was in these darkest of days that Churchill vowed that Britain would fight on, alone if necessary (which seemed increasingly probable), to the very end, whatever the cost or consequences. On May 31st, he told French premier Paul Reynaud, “It would be better far that the civilisation of Western Europe with all of its achievements should come to a tragic but splendid end than that the two great democracies should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living.” (p. 217).

From Churchill's memoirs and those of other senior British officials, contemporary newspapers, and most historical accounts of the period, one gains the impression of a Britain unified in grim resolve behind Churchill to fight on until ultimate victory or annihilation. But what actually happened in those crucial War Cabinet meetings as the disaster in France was unfolding? Oddly, the memoirs and collected papers of the participants are nearly silent on the period, with the author describing the latter as having been “weeded” after the fact. It was not until the minutes of the crucial cabinet meetings were declassified in 1970 (thanks to a decision by the British government to reduce the “closed period” of such records from fifty to thirty years), that it became possible to reconstruct what transpired there. This book recounts a dramatic and fateful struggle of which the public and earlier historians of the period were completely unaware—a moment when Hitler may have come closer to winning the war than at any other.

The War Cabinet was, in fact, deeply divided. Churchill, who had only been Prime Minister for two weeks, was in a precarious position, with his predecessor Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who King George VI had preferred to Churchill for Prime Minister as members, along with Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. Halifax did not believe that Britain could resist alone, and that fighting on would surely result in the loss of the Empire and perhaps independence and liberty in Britain as well. He argued vehemently for an approach, either by Britain and France together or Britain alone, to Mussolini, with the goal of keeping Italy out of the war and making some kind of deal with Hitler which would preserve independence and the Empire, and he met on several occasions with the Italian ambassador in London to explore such possibilities.

Churchill opposed any effort to seek mediation, either by Mussolini or Roosevelt, both because he thought the chances of obtaining acceptable terms from Hitler were “a thousand to one against” (May 28, p. 183) and because any approach would put Britain on a “slippery slope” (Churchill's words in the same meeting) from which it would be impossible to restore the resolution to fight rather than make catastrophic concessions. But this was a pragmatic decision, not a Churchillian declaration of “never, never, never, never”. In the May 26 War Cabinet meeting (p. 113), Churchill made the rather astonishing statement that he “would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territory”. One can understand why the personal papers of the principals were so carefully weeded.

Speaking of another conflict where the destiny of Europe hung in the balance, the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. This account makes it clear that this moment in history was much the same. It is, of course, impossible to forecast what the consequences would have been had Halifax prevailed and Britain approached Mussolini to broker a deal with Hitler. The author argues forcefully that nothing less than the fate of Western civilisation was at stake. With so many “what ifs”, one can never know. (For example, it appears that Mussolini had already decided by this date to enter the war and he might have simply rejected a British approach.) But in any case this fascinating, thoroughly documented, and lucidly written account of a little-known but crucial moment in history makes for compelling reading.

Posted at February 3, 2007 20:23