May 1940

By John Lukacs

Yale Univ. 236 pp. $19.95

The eminent historian John Lukacs might have had a certain presidential candidate in mind when he wrote in this pithy book: "Churchill understood something that not many people understand even now. The greatest threat to Western civilization 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."

Patrick Buchanan recently created a stir by disagreeing with all of these sentiments. Buchanan's views may not be representative of conventional wisdom, but his isolationist lexicon is a useful reminder that six decades ago a great many people on both sides of the Atlantic were convinced that the Anglo-American world could come to an accommodation with a Nazi-dominated Europe.

Sometimes the most difficult task facing a historian is to convince his reader that what did happen was not necessarily what had to happen. In this volume, Lukacs demonstrates just how close Hitler came to winning his war against Britain in five critical days in late May 1940.

Lukacs calls his work a "microcosmic history." It is an entire book devoted to examining a period of time to which the author assigned a mere three pages in "The Last European War" and 15 pages in "The Duel." The result is an eye-opener. We learn how little we knew even about such a well-trod piece of historical terrain as the origins of World War II.

One reason for this gap in our knowledge is the simple fact that pieces of the historical record have disappeared. Winston Churchill himself was silent in his memoirs about these five days in May. And Lukacs reports that, curiously, relevant diaries and correspondence have been "weeded" and "culled" precisely to hide how strong were the voices of appeasement within Churchill's war cabinet.

Lukacs marshals a powerful argument to show that the appeasers might easily have carried the day. Most of Churchill's colleagues within the Conservative Party regarded him as at best a "delightful rogue." Many associated his career with the criminally blood-drenched debacles of World War I. The day after Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, Lord Davidson wrote: "The Tories don't trust Winston. . . . After the first clash of war is over it may well be that a sounder Government may emerge."

The five days examined by Lukacs--May 24-28, 1940--were days of unremitting disaster. Hitler's forces stood on the English Channel, surrounding more than 300,000 British troops crammed into Dunkirk. Though Churchill later asserted that the question of whether the British should fight on "never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda," we now know that there were at least five meetings in which this very topic was hotly debated for hours on end. Furthermore, Churchill's foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, made it clear that he favored opening up negotiations with Hitler: "We must not ignore the fact that we might get better terms before France went out of the war." Only against great odds, writes Lukacs, was Churchill able to wear Halifax down and isolate him politically in the full cabinet. Of this basic narrative there is no doubt.

What is arguable, however, is the significance Lukacs attaches to these debates. To his mind, Hitler was never closer to victory than when the British appeasers almost prevailed during these five days. For Lukacs, this was the real "hinge of fate." The West could still have won the war even if subsequently the air battle of Britain had been lost, or if Hitler had captured Moscow or if D-Day had failed. But "had Britain stopped fighting in May 1940, Hitler would have won his war."

Lukacs also argues that Churchill was willing to sacrifice much to defeat the German fascists. This included transference of the British "imperial burden" to the Americans--but also tacit acceptance of a Russian sphere in Eastern Europe. Why? Because, as he told Gen. Charles de Gaulle in November 1944, this Russian occupation would not last: "After the meal comes the digestion period."

Lukacs thus credits Churchill with a very large--and still controversial--vision indeed. Ultimately, he wagered that the Soviet Communists ruled an economically weak and disintegrating empire. (Lukacs cites the fact that in 1953 Churchill predicted that communism would disappear in Eastern Europe by the 1980s.) By contrast, Churchill's rather less reactionary colleagues in the Conservative Party were inclined to accommodate themselves to Hitler out of their instinctual fear of Bolshevism. The irony is that it took a British aristocrat with reactionary sensibilities to understand that it was Hitler's National Socialism that represented the real threat to the old order. As George Orwell wrote in 1944, "It is significant that in the moment of disaster the man best able to unite the nation was Churchill, a Conservative of aristocratic origins."

This gem of a book, the distillation of an important historian's life work, is a compelling antidote for those afflicted with historical amnesia.