Saturday, April 6, 2013

Five Days in London by John Lukacs


Five days in London by John Lukacs focuses on the five crucial days in Europe from May 24 to May 28, 1940. This was a time of extreme crisis for Great Britain and for democracy. On the continent, Hitler’s armies were soundly and quickly defeating the armies of France and Great Britain. France was swiftly heading toward collapse. Europe, west of The Soviet Union, was looking like it would soon be under the complete domination of Germany. British forces in France, the British Expeditionary Force (B. E. F.), seemed in the opinion of everyone in the know to be headed for surrender. The invasion of Great Britain loomed.

The tenacious Winston Churchill had recently become Prime Minister of Great Britain. Churchill was absolutely determined to fight on to the end if need be. He was not going to compromise with Hitler, period. However, Lukacs illustrates how there were forces in the British government that were lobbying hard for a compromise, some would say a surrender, to Hitler.

Lukacs is somewhat hard on Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. The author details how Halifax was an ally of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Halifax was a major advocate of the failed policy of appeasement during the years leading up to the war. In May of 1940 Halifax became the primary proponent of compromise and accommodation with the Nazis. During the dark days of May 1940, the Foreign Secretary, not without at least some good reason, seemed resigned to a German victory. 

Halifax advocated strongly for negotiations through Italy as an intermediary with the Third Reich. The Foreign Secretary hoped for a compromise that would retain most British sovereignty and independence, possibly at the price of some British colonial concessions to Germany. Churchill countered that such a peace initiative would be the beginning of a slippery slope that would at least lead to British disarmament as well as the installation of a pro-Nazi British government. Lukacs strongly sides with Churchill’s prognostications on the issue.

Lukacs does not impinge upon Halifax’s patriotism or values, but he is highly critical of his opinions and portrays him as a man who is terribly out of step with his times. At one point the author even describes Halifax’s personal memoirs as bland!

Lukacs explains how at this time Churchill was a new Prime Minister with an untested reputation. He was mistrusted by many elements in the British government. The conflict with Halifax could easily have led to his losing the position of Prime Minister and thus, Lukas contends, British defeat.

Lukacs writes,

Hitler was never closer to his ultimate victory than during those five days in May, 1940”

By the end of May 28th however, as a result of adroit political and rhetorical maneuverings, Churchill had established a position that was universally accepted by the British public and most of the establishment. Great Britain would go on fighting even in the face of short term calamities such as the loss of the B. E F. and the fall of France. Lukacs describes how even Churchill was surprised that in the coming days, at least the B. E F. was saved.

Churchill has written extensive memoirs, which I have not read. Lukacs contends that the Prime Minister actually held back details concerning the positions of Halifax and other defeatists out of magnanimity towards his colleagues.

Before reading this work I knew next to nothing about Halifax. Though Lukacs’s interpretation seems credible, I will withhold forming an opinion of such an important figure based upon this single account. 

Lukacs ends by detailing his presumptions about what a German victory against Great Britain would have meant. He argues that it would have been the end of the Western world as we know it, 

"Britain could not win the war. In the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill was the one who did not lose it. Then and there he saved Britain, and Europe, and Western civilization.”

I find a flaw in Lukacs’s general reasoning. He too often lays out what he believes to be definitive consequences to hypothetical events. A few examples of these contentions: the loss of the B. E. F. would not have had an appreciable change in British resolve, if negotiations with Hitler were initiated they would have inevitably led to British surrender and British defeat would have led to eventual American capitulation to Hitler. Lukacs may be right about these things, but he too easily disregards other possibilities. With this said however, it is clear that had Great Britain been defeated, most imagined alternate histories would have indeed been much bleaker than the reality of the history that we know. 

This is a dramatic and riveting book. The five days of the title were truly a time of existentialist crises for Great Britain and for democracy itself. Lukacs details it all with accounts of War Cabinet meetings and maneuverings and military strategy, as well as with historical evidence concerning the mood and opinions of the people of Great Britain.

Ultimately, this book is a stirring celebration of Churchill and his actions. Great Britain looked into the jaws of an evil intent on devouring civilization and courageously fought it off.  Lukacs has written a testament to Churchill who did not flinch and who rallied the British public to do the same. The situation was indeed very bad in May of 1940. Without the luxury of hindsight, Halifax, in some ways, seemed to be a realist.

I would not recommend this book to readers who have little knowledge of the early days in of World War II in Europe. This is a book that digs deeply into a very tight subject and presupposes that the reader is equipped with basic background information. A very basic understanding of the European situation of the era is an almost mandatory prerequisite for comprehending this work. However, those familiar and interested in this period will find this to be an irresistibly interesting read. It is also a must for those who are interested in the behavior of governments and publics in times of crises. Even if one is cautious in accepting all of Lukacs’s contentions and “what ifs”, this is a story of one of the most pivotal five days in history and is instrumental in understanding the major events of World War II and the twentieth century.



32 comments:

Naida said...

This does sound interesting. Good to know that it's best for those who are already familiar with what happened in the early days of World War II in Europe.

Suko said...

Excellent review, Brian. Those five days were obviously very critical ones. This sounds like a very intense book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Indeed I would say that one needs to be a little bit of a buff to enjoy this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Yes, it was an intense book about times that were so very intense. It seemed that the figures involved did understand this too while it was happening.

Andrew Blackman said...

Interesting review, Brian. It's a good idea to focus on just those five days - it's quite a well-covered period of history, but just focusing on five days is a clever way of looking at things in a new light. The 'Churchill as stubborn, unflinching hero' argument is not exactly new but Halifax doesn't get a lot of attention, so it's good to hear about him.

For a while I was reading this review thinking the book was by Georg Lukacs and getting very confused - doesn't sound like him at all!

stujallen said...

I love the tv show days that changed the world and this seems like five days that did change the world ,thank for sharing Brian ,all the best stu

Parrish Lantern said...

Interesting review, but as you state it seems the writer had picked his hero & would brook no alternate view.

Parrish Lantern said...

PS. have added you to the Blogs Dollox

Brian Joseph said...

H Andrew - Indeed it is well covered. In the past few years however at least popular attention seems to be must more focused on the ensuing months and the Battle of Britain which had not yet been in May, 1940.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - Thanks for the inclusion, I am honored!

Though I did not allude to it in my commentary, there is certainly plenty of material regarding Churchill's life and carrier open to criticism. However, by focusing upon just five days, at least some of it becomes irrelevant.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I have not seen that show but it really sounds like it is worth watching.

vb said...

the book seems alluring especially as it deals with the crucial five days in Britain's history...I m sure i would love this one even though I hav never been a fan of churchill..But Halifax's criticism seems to have had a grt influenece of Churchill..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - I do believe that when you look at his life Churchill did many questionable things. As this book just focused on a very tight subject and time frame most of those questionable actions did not come into play here.

I knew nothing of Halifax before reading book but he seemed to have a big impact on his times.

Harvee said...

I've gotten a sense of the intensity of those times in wartime England from historical novels!! But this book is the real thing. Excellent review!

Heidi’sbooks said...

These very specific, micro-histories seem to be a common way to really get to the meat of things. Thanks for the review. This looks like a great book. Looking back, appeasement seems rather frustrating, but hindsight is 20/20.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Historical novels can indeed be interesting. From what I have seen, there seems to be many that take place during the Blitz. this was a few months earlier. Though debatable, Lukacs contends that these months were more crucial.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Indeed appeasement taken as far as it did was frustrating. Churchill himself though out of power was indeed dismayed by it. Lukacs points out that the period covered in this book was after the time of appeasement. England and France had indeed fought Hitler but looked in some ways to have lost the fight.

Sharon Henning said...

This sounds like a great book. I'm currently reading a biography of Churchill and this sounds like it would be a good complement.
I know what you mean about authors asserting beliefs without necessarily substantiating them or at least ignoring other possibilities. It's why we need to read proactively and not passively (which you know already:)
Great review, Bryan.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks for the great comment! Indeed one really does need to think about what one is reading.I do not believe that there is anything wrong with writers being opinionated. Also it is impossible to prove everything one asserts completely. I love the diversity of ideas presented in books. I do think one needs to be skeptical however.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Wow, that is exactly the sort of book I like reading and I've never heard of it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Just shows the benefit of reading book blogs.

Richard said...

Brian, I love it when good historians can let their hair down enough to do things like calling somebody's memoirs "bland"! Anyway, even though this sounds like a worthwhile read, I think my next 20th century Euro history book will be Richard J. Evans' "The Coming of the Third Reich." Please keep your history reviews coming, though--too many other bloggers only focus on fiction!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I actually heard about this from an odd source. I am generally not a fan of Rudy Rudy" Giuliani. With that said I had heard that he was in the middle of this book when the 09/11 attack occurred and he claims it helped his resolve in dealing with the crises.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I just looked up The Coming of the Third Reich. It really looks to be a great book. I look forward to reading your comments on it.

Rachel Bradford said...

Thanks for the interesting summary! It's probably not a book for me since I'm not familiar enough with war history - but it's always nice to read your reviews. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Thanks for the good word.

I should just clarify that I think one needs more of a basic understanding of the diplomatic - political situation in the early days of WW II in Europe to really get all that this book is about.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Yes, this one is on my list of books I would like to read. It sounds very interesting and is one of those books which opens your eyes to dangers you hadn't really realised existed.

Name said...

Dear old Winnie. I have a soft spot for him because without his dogged determination things would have turned out very differently in Europe. So many of the British Aristocracy and the members of the government were pro-Hitler and anti-Communist that it all could have turned horribly pear-shaped had Churchill not been PM. I will have to read this book, I think.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet (For some reason you appear here as "Name") - This is actually a point that Lukacs makes. One reason for appeasement was that the British Conservatives thought that Hitler would be an effectively counterweight to communism which indeed they feared more.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thank you for another cogent analysis of an important book! Although I'm not very familiar with this period in history (alas, I don't read much history...), I do remember enough from my high school world history classes to know that Churchill was one of the giants of Western civilization. I remember reading about how he rallied the British to stand up to Hitler. Although of course Britain couldn't have done it alone, as you point out, Churchill set an example of courage and resilience in the face of a truly monstruous evil.

I had not heard of this Halifax before, or maybe I just don't remember him from my history classes. Well, it doesn't sound like he's worth remembering. Lol.

As I read this excellent review, I couldn't help thinking that policies of "appeasement", as opposed to those of aggression or defense, have to fit the times and the situation. However, when a free nation is faced by an enemy as formidable as Hitler, no appeasement is possible, since it will only produce the result such an enemy really wants -- surrender of the free nation to its insatiable need for conquest and domination.

Thanks for another fascinating review!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I am thinking that halifax's role was probably not mentioned in too many high school history classes. This book really digs into details. One interesting thing about may 1940 was that it was well after the period of appeasement. Many people really thought that Hitler had won and that great Britain was soon to be over run no matter what anyone did. Churchill just would not give up.

Maria Behar said...

Churchill was definitely a great statesman. Had he not been at the head of the British government at the time, we would have been studying a totally different history in high school!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I think that is true. There are several ways that folks often look at history. Some think that the major trends are inevitable, others think that it is more personality driven.

Of course folks like me do believe that there are major trends that to some degree are inevitable, yet sometimes individuals make enormous differences and push the trends in different directions. Churchill was likely one of those.