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.
“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.