Books

Hitler’s near-victory

Brian Bethune March 27 2000
Books

Hitler’s near-victory

Brian Bethune March 27 2000

Hitler’s near-victory

Books

From the perspective of half a century, the outcome of the Second World War seems inevitable, given the combined might of the Allies. “That is certainly true,” says historian John Lukács, author of Five Days in London (Yale, $30.95), a superb reconstruction of a crucial moment in the war. “But it is not true enough. Nothing—nothing— better illustrates the importance of individuals in history than the war. Above all, there was Hider, who started it, and Churchill, who did not lose it.”

Lukács pinpoints the span of May 24 to May 28, 1940, as the precise period in which Winston Churchill did not lose the war, despite the powerful forces arrayed against him. With the United States and the Soviet Union still on the sidelines, France was on the verge of

collapse, and more than 300,000 Allied troops seemed trapped at Dunkirk. More insidiously, defeatism was spreading through Britain’s upper classes, and the nation’s five-member war cabinet was balanced on a knife edge.

Without Winston Churchill, the war would have been lost in May, 1940

Two members were recent arrivals, Labour Party leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. Very much the junior partners in the coalition government, they spoke little. The dominant members were the Conservatives: Churchill, prime minister for only two weeks and still widely distrusted by many in his own party; Neville Chamberlain, the former prime minister and architect of the prewar policy of appeasement; and foreign Secretary

Edward Wood, Lord Halifax. Both Halifax and Chamberlain commanded considerable support among Conservative MPs. Any open break with either man could have been disastrous for Churchill. And Halifax had given up on defeating Germany—he wanted to negotiate peace, thinking to save Britain by ceding Europe to the Nazis.

Perhaps the finest aspect of Lukács’ book is the way it shows how rational— almost inescapable—Halifax’s conclusion was. Even outside Germany, the 76-year-old American historian writes, “in the minds of many people, Hitler’s rule, his regime and ideas, represented a new primary force. In May, 1940, it not only seemed irresistible: in many places and in many ways it was.” Throughout a decade of Nazi triumph, the European Establishment was fractured over how best to respond, according to Lukács. With parliamentary democracy seemingly crumbling across the Continent, many thought Hider less an evil menace than the only possible bulwark against Soviet communism. “But Hider’s main, instinctive enemies” also came from the political right, Lukács emphasizes: “old-line, traditional patriots like Charles de Gaulle and Churchill—reactionaries, in fact.” Using official cabinet records, Lukács meticulously re-creates the crucial five days of meetings. To counter Halifax’s insistent demands for peace feelers, Churchill had few tangible assets at hand. But what he did possess proved decisive: an instinctive feel for the British people’s will to resist, a cleareyed grasp of the true nature of Nazism, and his own enormous courage and resolution. For four days, Churchill dodged, delayed and refused to yield. He slowly brought along other war cabinet members, most crucially Cham-

berlain, to his profound belief that Hitler could be—had to be—defeated.

On May 27, an exasperated Halifax threatened to resign, a potential crisis that would have destroyed Churchill only days before. But the prime minister had the upper hand now, and after the two men emerged from a private walk in the garden of 10 Downing Street, Halifax was still in office. The next day, addressing the full cabinet, Churchill for the first time felt free to say: “Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.” Although it would be two years before Russian and American power finally turned the tide, Hitler was never again as close to victory as he was in those five days.

Churchill, with his customary magnanimity, made little mention of internal British divisions in his own memoirs. Describing that climactic cabinet meeting, he wrote that the ministers “came running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation, I should have been hurled out of office.” That may have been true, but to adapt John Lukács’ most characteristic phrase, not nearly true enough.

Brian Bethune