Five Days in London,
May 1940

by John Lukacs

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Yale: New Haven & London, 1999

236 pages

February 2007

Leadership, or inevitability?

Victoria Memorial, Buckingham Palace, and Guards - London, February 1939 (small) Our sense of inevitability seems to increase with our distance in time from events; current happenings solidify into history and then crystallize into fate: shining, clear, and obvious to all. Thus, the outcome of World War II essentially was foreordained. The material and population preponderance of the Allies (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, America, China) were bound to triumph over the Axis (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan). Virtue, leadership, luck, perhaps the stars in their courses, all aligned themselves properly so that the good guys, after a tough struggle, would and must win.

How critical was their leadership to the Allies' winning the Second World War? And if the quality of their leaders and those leaders' choices could have been vital, was those persons' control of events all that inevitable? Could it have been someone else at the helm of one of the Allied Powers? What if one of the leaders had failed to gain office, or having gained it, been unable to wield effective control of the war effort?

Only one of the major combatants changed leadership while at war: Great Britain. France and Italy changed leadership after being knocked out of active fighting, each basically changing sides.

In May 1940, with the smaller of the Allies being sequentially beaten by Nazi Germany, and the strongest Allied land power then at war, France, in imminent danger of military and political collapse, the Allied cause looked bleak and was to get catastrophically worse. The cause of freedom in the West faced a dark and doubtful future.

The disaster of appeasement

In Britain after half a year of war, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's hopeful policy of appeasing the dictators finally had run its course. People and Parliament had borne enough, and wanted and surely needed more clear-sighted and forceful leadership.

The choice came down to Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary; and Winston S. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty since war broke out.

Halifax was comfortable with the Nazi leaders in the 1930s, and considered their aspirations reasonable. Even half a year into the war, he thought that an accommodation with the irresistible Hitler could be found.

Churchill had recognized Adolf Hitler's warlike intentions as early as October 1930, more than two years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Churchill was a tireless foe of appeasement during the 1930s, and held firm against negotiating any peace with a victorious Nazi Germany.

Never give in

John Lukacs, in his concise book Five Days in London, May 1940, applies a sharp and thoughtful focus to the two political crises centering on Chamberlain, Halifax, and Churchill and the prosecution of the war. The first and more visible to history was over Chamberlain's resignation and the selection of his successor on May 10th; the second, two weeks later, involved Churchill's attempt to gain mastery in the War Cabinet and ensure that his own resolve for victory and independence would set the course for British policy. Neither was inevitable.

Churchill himself, in Their Finest Hour, the pertinent volume of his memoir-history The Second World War, covers this of course. But Churchill is — Lukacs suggests — somewhat more assured and considerably more magnanimous after the war, than is quite justified by a detailed examination of the day-to-day struggle for leadership and thus inevitably for policy. Martin Gilbert provides more detail in the appropriate volume of his grand biography, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour 1939-1941. Lukacs' focus in Five Days in London, particularly on the second crisis within the War Cabinet, is sharper than either. Lukacs carefully goes through each day, 24 May - 28 May 1940.

Cabinet, Parliament, & public opinion

It was clear that Churchill would not give in to Nazi Germany. But that he would both gain and keep the chance to lead Britain was not foreordained. Many of us today, all around the world, owe our lives and our institutions not only to Churchill's determination but to his prevailing within the forces leading Britain in May 1940: in the War Cabinet, in the larger general Cabinet, in Parliament, and in British public opinion.

Lukacs analyzes all of these in fascinating detail, against the fearful backdrop of the Dunkirk evacuation and the French collapse:

This book attempts to reconstruct the history of five days that could have changed the world. The setting is London, and the five days are Friday through Tuesday, 24 to 28 May 1940. Then and there Adolf Hitler came closest to winning the Second World War, his war.

One man who knew how close Hitler had come to his ultimate victory was Winston Churchill. In the years after the war he gave the title The Hinge of Fate to the fourth volume of his War Memoirs. That volume dealt with the year 1942, near the end of which the Germans were turned back on many fronts.

In November 1942 he said to the British people that this was not yet the beginning of the end but perhaps the end of the beginning. November 1942 was the military hinge of fate on the battlefields of Egypt, North Africa, and Russia: the military turning points. Even then 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. And about that hinge of fate his War Memoirs — essentially his History of the Second World War — are largely silent.

If the fate of freedom turned then on a hinge of resolve, it was Churchill who turned it. We should know and remember this.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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