Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 13, 2009

Five Days in London (1999) , by John Lukacs

5-days-in-london1This book has been on my TBR for ages, ever since The Spouse read it when it first came out.  Lukacs is an American historian, and it is his interpretation of five crucial days during World War II when Churchill and Halifax debated the possibility of an accommodation with Hitler.

A brief timeline of events is in order, even for those of us with some familiarity with the sequence of events:

1933 Hitler becomes Chancellor.

1936 Germany replaces France as the leading power in Europe; European states seek his favour; Britain is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The Berlin Olympics.

1937 Neville Chamberlain becomes Prime Minister.  He sends Lord Halifax (Edward Wood) on a Goodwill mission to Germany, and later appoints him Foreign Secretary. 

1938 In March Hitler occupies Austria to the apparent jubilation of most of the Austrian people.  He occupies part of Czechoslovakia as part of the Greater German Reich, leaving the remainder an impotent satellite.  France, an ally of Czechoslovakis won’t/can’t intervene without Britain, and Britain isn’t willing to go to war over it, in part because they are too unprepared to be able to win at that time.  Chamberlain returns from the Munich conference claiming ‘Peace in our Time’, earning (with the benefit of hindsight) the ignominous label of an ‘appeaser’ by those who overlook a near universal distaste for war after the slaughter of WWI. 

1939 Hitler claims the rest of Czechoslovakia by occupying Prague, breaking his word.  This was crucial because the basis of the Munich agreement was that Hitler had achieved his previous territorial claims based on ‘reuniting Germanic peoples’ and would make no more; but Prague was not and never had been Germanic.   Hitler’s ambitions are now seen to be perilously greater than previously thought.  Chamberlain is discredited, and even Halifax is no longer in favour of appeasement.  Public opinion in Britain swings around to a ‘thus far and no further’ point of view, and in September Britain guarantees Poland that they will not stand by and see her invaded by the Nazis. In September Hitler invades Poland anyway, & Chamberlain declares war.  (Menzies, far away in Australia, does so too, of course.) From September 1939 to May 1940 nothing decisive happens and this period is dubbed the Phoney War.

April 1940 Hitler invades Denmark and Norway.  (Lukacs says that Churchill provoked this by insisting on a British coastal presence on the Norwegian coast when they couldn’t adequately defend it.) The defeat of Norway brings down the Chamberlain government – he is not seen as the right leader for Britain in time of war.  A National Government consisting of both Labour and Conservative Ministers is formed.  Halifax is Chamberlain’s preferred successor but he refuses it: he knows he can’t ‘contain’ Churchill the Warrior. 

May 10th Churchill becomes PM at the very time when disaster strikes.   On the same day the German invasion of Western Europe begins.   Holland surrenders 3 days later;  Brussels is abandoned; British and French troops are trapped in Flanders & Belgium; the Germans are at the British Channel.  Mussolini comes in on Germany’s side; there is a desperate bid to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Boulogne and Calais.  The Germans seem invincible, and there is widespread defeatism. Even Churchill foresaw that the French would surrender.  In the face of the collapse of Western Civilisation the Americans are stoutly isolationist and no help can be expected from them.

May 23rd Boulogne falls; Calais is surrounded.  The BEF at Dunkirk is hemmed in from the south and the east.

churchillNow follows, according to Lukacs, the most decisive events of the war.  Between May 24-28th, five crucial days, the British Cabinet debates what to do about a French proposal to sue for a peace mediated by Italy.  Churchill, as we all know, is determined that Britain will never surrender, but Halifax – like many others – thinks that defeat is imminent and that there could be terms negotiated that are acceptable: that however unpalatable, it may be better to let Europe fall, i.e. Europe under the Nazis, America and Britain with its Empire intact.  Unable to resolve the impasse within the inner cabinet, Churchill has a meeting with the whole cabinet and sways them with his oratory.  They endorse the decision to fight on because Churchill convinces them that any Nazi terms would involve giving up the fleet and being a vassal state under someone like the British fascist, Oswald Mosley. (p183) 

The decision to fight on meant that by the end of 1940 ‘London was the capital of freedom, the fountain of hope for millions of Europeans who listened night after night to the broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation  That inspiring condition would last throughout the war.’ (p207).  Although Australia had to fight Churchill to have our Aussie troops return home to fight the Pacific War and defend our homeland, it remains the fact that it is Churchill we have to thank for the defeat of the Nazis and the survival of Western civilisation.  Lukacs says that

The greatest threat to that Western civilisation was not Communism.  It was National Socialism.  The greatest and most dynamic power in the world was not Soviet Russia.  It was the Third Reich of Germany.  The greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century was not Lenin or Stalin.  It was Hitler. Hitler not only succeeded in merging nationalism and socialism into one tremendous force; he was a new kind of ruler, representing a new kind of populist nationalism.  What was more, the remnants of the older order (or disorder) were not capable of withstanding him; indeed, some of their conservative representatives, in Germany and elsewhere, were inclined – for many reasons, including their fear of Communism – to accommodate themselves to him.  It was thus that in 1940 he represented a wave of the future.  His greatest reactionary opponent, Churchill, was like King Canute, attempting to withstand and sweep back that wave.  And – yes, mirabile dictu – this King Canute succeeded. (p218)

The battle to overcome the defeatists on home soil won, Churchill then saw things go from bad to worse: Italy entered the war in June, and France fell on the 17th.  The Battle of Britain began in August, and the Americans belatedly offered some desultory support in the form of some aged destroyers.  (They sent the bill later: according to The Penguin Historical Atlas of the British Empire (p114) most of Britain’s post war debt of £3.5 billion pounds was owed to the USA, a nice price for standing alone in defence of Western civilisation for so long).  In December Halifax became Ambassador to the US (and later took Churchill to task for his postwar comment about the Iron Curtain because it upset the Russians.)  It is not until Hitler unwisely declared war on the Soviet Union in 1942 and was defeated at Stalingrad in 1943 that there was a turn for the better and by November 1942, Churchill was able to talk confidently about ‘the end of the beginning’.  D-Day in June 1944 saw the Germans on the run though there was much more bloody fighting before Germany surrendered in May 1945.)

Revisionists who criticise Churchill for the loss of the Empire are taken to task by Lukacs – there is a clear assertion of the man’s long term vision.  He was concerned for Europe, not just for Britain, as he quite clearly said: ‘Britain was fighting by ourselves alone, but not for ourselves alone’ (p213) .  He was aware that  if ‘the price of survival of British independence and British democracy was the eventual transference of much of the imperial burden to the Americas, so be it’ and the same applied to Soviet domination too (p214) .  He saw London as ‘the custodian of Western civilisation’ (0215) and was ‘committed to the restoration of law and democracy in Western Europe, including Germany. (p217)

It is a very interesting book.

PS 1.10.09 There’s also a very good review on this book by Mark Meynell.


  1. thanks for the link, Lisa!


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