It all happened behind closed doors; it depended on the discussions between a handful of senior English politicians; no one else outside their circle had the slightest idea of the importance of these discussions. But if the arguments held between Friday 24th and Tuesday 28th May 1940 had turned out differently, the history of the last 67 years would have been unimaginably different. The outcome of the Second World War and the subsequent history of the world depended on those days. Well, this is the radical thesis of a gripping book called 5 DAYS IN LONDON by the Hungarian-American 20th Century historian, John Lukacs. It is a fascinating book because Lukacs has managed to piece together who was doing what at what time on just these 5 days (in London, Paris, Berlin and to some extent Washington). You don’t normally get history written with such detail. So what was the big deal?
Churchill had become Prime Minister on May 10th in terrible circumstances. The British had been defeated in Norway by Hitler and now Hitler was beginning his invasion of Western Europe. Churchill’s passing comment to his bodyguard, W H Thompson, was “I hope it is not too late” (p13) as they drove back from Buckingham Palace.
14 days later, things looked even worse:
- France was tottering, with the French leaders and generals feeling helpless against the enemy onslaught
- 250,000 British troops were trapped on the French coast near Dunkirk by the advancing Nazi forces (Churchill did not expect to get them all back, hoping against hope that they would be able to “bring back to this country as many of our best troops and weapons with as little loss as possible“… “The very thought of having to order this movement is appalling, as the loss of life will probably be immense” – pp26-27)
- Many British leaders felt equally helpless and defeatist, not just because the odds stacked against them were so great, but also because many actually had great sympathies with Hitler’s politics and were impressed by his achievements to that point. So there was huge pressure, especially from Churchill’s fellow Tory MPs to sue for peace with Hitler, somehow to make the best of a bad job.
Nevertheless, Churchill was willing to go it alone, even if the troops were wiped out at Dunkirk. It wasn’t simply a matter of saving the Empire (which Hitler would inevitably try to take inany peace deal negotiations) – it was because of his horror of Nazism, which had been building for years. His hope all along was then to hang in there to the point when America would join the war (by no means certain at this early stage). On 15th May, he had written to Roosevelt, clearly envisaging the possibility of France falling on this date:
As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realise, Mr President, that the voice and the force of a United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear. (5 Days in London, p72)
On 21st May he wrote again:
[this government might go down in battle] but in no conceivable circumstances will we consent to surrender. But if members of the present administration were finished [in other words, Churchill’s own administration] and others came in to parley amid the ruins, you must not be blind to the fact that the sole remaining bargaining counter with Germany would be the fleet, and if this country was left by the United States to its fate, no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants. Excuse me, Mr President, putting this nightmare bluntly. Evidently I could not answer for my successors who in utter despair and helplessness might well have to accommodate themselves to the German will. (5 Days in London, p73)
The remarkable thing about this is the raw courage taking this stand took. Churchill was a realist – he knew full well that he might fail. He also knew that there were members of his own party rather hoped that he would. And in particular he knew that amongst his own War Cabinet, he had to contend with one or two colleagues who temperamentally and politically were for appeasement. He had to win the argument – with everything stacked against him. And that is the subject of this book – the War Cabinet met several times over these 5 days – and in the end he did win the arguments. If he had not, history would have been totally different. Who knows what Europe would look like today, let alone the entire Western world? Lukacs concludes with these extraordinary words, all the more astonishing for being found in the text of an academic history (albeit a very accessible one):
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. 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 old 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 that 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: because of his resolution and – allow me to say this – because of God’s will,of which, like every human being, he was but an instrument. He was surely no saint, he was not a religious man, and he had many faults. Yet so it happened. (5 Days in London, p217-8 – my emphasis)
The point of mentioning all this will actually seem quite a puny one after these remarkable and grand statements, but it is striking nonetheless. Near the end of the book, Lukacs quotes a letter written on 29th May by Harold Nicolson (an MP and associate of Churchill during the war) to his wife Vita Sackville-West about the impact that Churchill’s stand in the face of terrifying odds had been:
My darling, how infectious courage is. I am rendered far stronger in heart and confidence by such bravery. (5 Days in London, p198)
I was immediately reminded of the impact that the apostle Paul had on his fellow disciples when not even imprisonment stopped him (cf Philippians 1:12-14). Oh to have such courage – and to have others who will ‘infect’ us with such courage today to stand for the things that matter.