His Finest Hour
John Lukacs on the week that Winston Churchill saved civilization
Jan 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 16 • By JOHN C. CHALBERG
For a quarter of a century, historian John Lukacs has treated World War II like a photographer with a zoom lens, bringing his subject into progressively closer focus. His 1976 work The Last European War told the story of the European theater from Hitler's September 1939 thrust into Poland until Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His 1991 book The Duel reconstructed the contest of wits, rhetoric, and arms between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill from the time of Churchill's elevation to the prime ministership on May 10, 1940, to Hitler's secret decision to invade Russia. Now with Five Days in London: May 1940, Lukacs dwells on a duel of a different sort that took place near the beginning of the war, when "the danger, not only to Britain but to the world, was greater and deeper than most people still think."
This duel was waged within the British War Cabinet from May 24 to May 28. Perhaps to the reader's surprise (and certainly to Churchill's relief), the combatants were not the suddenly unleashed lion (Churchill) and the stubbornly unrepentant appeaser who preceded him as prime minister (Neville Chamberlain). Rather, the duel of Lukacs's story pits Churchill (and a repentant Chamberlain) against the third Conservative of the five-member War Cabinet: Lord Halifax, foreign secretary under both Chamberlain and Churchill.
In Lukacs's view, the "great conflicts" in British politics through much of the 1930s were not between Right and Left, but between "two Rights." Such was still the case when Churchill, the "reactionary," was forced to confront Halifax, the conservative aristocrat. Barely two weeks into his prime ministership, Churchill had yet to solidify his control over the government, much less to establish his leadership of the country. He did have the tacit support of Chamberlain, who had changed his mind about both Germany and Hitler. But, as Lukacs so precisely and damningly puts it -- Chamberlain "could not change his character." He was not a war leader and he knew it.
To Chamberlain's everlasting credit, he remained in the War Cabinet at a time when conservative support for Churchill was anything but firm. To many conservatives, Halifax perhaps foremost among them, Churchill was a hopeless reactionary. As foreign secretary, Halifax might well have succeeded Chamberlain at 10 Downing Street instead of Churchill. The king preferred Halifax; so did key members of his party. But say this much for Halifax: He, too, knew himself very well. A patriot first and a politician a distant second, he was right to spurn the prime ministership, even as he was wrong to persist in thinking Hitler could be appeased.
Halifax at bottom lacked resolve when it came to the impending clash with Hitler. He failed to understand, as Lukacs puts it, that Hitler "would have been contemptuous of the kind of Britain that would inquire for terms." Nonetheless, Halifax was "not a defeatist, nor was he an intriguer." He was simply wrong on the only issue that mattered at the moment.
Why Halifax was so wrong about Hitler bears some consideration. Lukacs's Hitler was not a madman. Certainly he behaved nothing like a madman in the spring of 1940, when Germany came perilously close to winning the western phase of the last European war. Lukacs's position, which he elaborated in The Hitler of History (1997), is that Hitler in late May 1940 was still a highly popular national leader, a wily diplomat, and most important, a military strategist who was not bound to fail in his effort to control all of Europe. He was also a revolutionary. As a mobilizer of the masses, he was unparalleled. Moreover, and more to the point, as a populist and a nationalist he represented a potential wave of the future far more than Stalin did.