Lukac's masterly and meticlulously researched coverage of the 80 days in 1940 from 10th May to 31st July is an exercise in historical political analysis that challenges many preconceptions. One is left with an abiding impression of what ultimately a close run thing it all was!
Endeavouring to be fair and equal in coverage to both Hitler and Churchill, the book uses the symbolic "duel" between these two as the only remaining contestants with all other European and global leaders having either disappeared or holding back in the face of German military successes and the UK facing isolation as their only opponent. The period starts with Germany launching its attack on France and the Lowlands on the same say that Churchill became UK prime minister and finishes with Hitler privately deciding to consider attacking Russia in priority to the UK and the UK finally winning informal US commitment to provide initial military support,
Inevitably Lukacs by explaining why Churchill was the "ultimate" winner of the two, shows how initial decisions taken in isolation in that period had longer term ramifications and irreversible consequences for each side. The duel element was clearly not simply down to each individual's actions but more their reaction to events as they unfolded, though Lukac's accepts that in assessing Hitler there are still major gaps in our knowledge compared with Churchill who through his own history of the period and many other observers left a more detailed record of what happened and how he reacted.
In the UK, Churchill struggled from a weak starting point as the new PM to survive internal opposition in the Conservative inner cabinet and party, his hand being ironically strengthened by support from the Labour Party and its two members in his War Cabinet! As Western Europe collapsed around the UK, he had to use all his skills to contend with a hard push led by Halifax in particular in the Cabinet, to open or at least indicate a willingness to consider peace negotiations with the Germans indirectly. His resolution that to start in any form down such a slippery slope would be fatal, was only carried when the wider Cabinet post Dunkirk showed spontaneous support for his stance and then Chamberlain moved to his support. Alongside his initial speeches in Parliament and then on radio sharing with an increasing audience of the British people how bad things might get, the fiasco of the British military defence preparations in June and July post Dunkirk and failed operations in Norway, the UK did not have a lot going for it if the Germans had ever attempted an initial beachhead!
As is now better understood, Hitler was more intent that as the sole survivor in Western Europe the UK should soon see the futility of its position and sue for peace in return for being allowed to keep its Empire, in which he had little interest. With his western front then secure at little military cost, his efforts could be turned to the east. How else to explain the lack of any immediate German follow through against the UK after the crushing defeat of France (time which it is shown the UK badly needed in which to recover). By the time Hitler's view culminated in a major Reichstag speech in July offering peace negotiations the UK government had already passed that point. Allied with an underprepared German navy which was clear from the outset that it could not support any seaborne invasion till 1941, Hitler was to become solely reliant for the first time (ultimately unsuccessfully) on his air forces winning the day by smashing the British air defences and achieving air domination.
Lukacs makes great play over Hitler being by nature an aggressive nationalist and Churchill by experience a pragmatic patriot. This led to Hitler being inflexible and goals driven plus an over focus on seeing Churchill as the problem, while Churchill being principles based was more pragmatic. While it is true Hitler's reading of international events was always poorer on the evidence presented here and by personal background he was less worldly than the well travelled Churchill (post his Western European victory his only social activity was to visit WWI battlefields!), one gets the growing feeling that what Hitler really needed was a comprehensive Foreign Office and diplomatic corps infrastructure which could offer guidance and counsel. Whether he would have ever listened is debatable but the UK Foreign Office (plus a Cabinet of some international experience) versus Ribbentrop and not very insightful German Embassy reports, seems an imbalance that must have had its consequences on events. In particular Hitler's reading of handling the USA and Russian governments across 1940 seems to have been done in nearly sole isolation with ultimately disastrous consequences in both cases.
Lukac's love of this period has of course subsequently been revisited more recently in the later book "Five Days in May, 1940' which goes into much greater detail and analysis of Churchill's travails in his first few weeks as Prime Minister and the War Cabinet challenges he faced - this book however is the better read given its breadth and scope, "Five Days" being of interest in mining deeper one specific aspect of the story.
on 13 September 2015
I bought this and Lukacs' other book on this period, Five Days In London, which I read first. They are both excellent books on what could be argued as the most critical period in British history when the country faced the prospect of losing a war with the most evil regime in history. One may argue that the choice made by the wartime coalition war cabinet saved the world from diasaster. Lukacs has strong views, which he expresses fully but I was left with the impression that this man has thoroughly researched his subject.