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Review: Five Days in London December 19, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

John Lukacs, Five Days in London, May 1940 (1999) has a simple thesis. The United Kingdom could not have defeated Hitler alone, but she could have lost the war before the Soviet Union and the USA entered as Allies. And she never came nearer to this, according to Lukacs, than 24-28 May 1940 – the five days of the title – when Britain’s war cabinet broke into two factions: one determined to fight (if need be) to the death; the other prepared to negotiate peace with Nazi Germany should the opportunity arise.

So far so good. You have a thesis. You have May 1940, perhaps the most interesting month in world history, only ten days before Italy plunges into the fray. You have characters that novelists would struggle to invent: Churchill and Hitler, Chamberlain and Mussolini. You have unforgettable moments: Lord Halifax in the rose garden or Churchill telling his colleagues that ‘nations that fight to the death rise again!’, momentarily reducing Britain’s chief executive to a high school debating society.

But how do you actually write all this down? There are two obvious solutions. One is to put together a micro-history, using the war cabinet meetings as a skeleton key for understanding Britain in 1940. Alternatively, you could write a reconstruction in flawless prose in the style, say, of Rick Atkinson’s Day of Battle, going to the Met Office to find whether it rained on the morning of the 28 or looking through butler’s diaries to see how Churchill liked his boiled eggs.

Lukacs though does neither of these things. Instead, the book reads like a series of notes rather than a ‘proper’ work of history. Our author bounds from British public opinion, to the breakdown of the BEF in France, to Britain’s ruling classes and then over, dizzily, to Germany: and as if to underline the lack of order in the text he has the most eccentric footnotes Beachcombing has ever come across (and that’s saying something).

Yet, not withstanding all this, here is the best history book of the thirty to forty that Beachcombing has read in the last twelve months. How is it that a rule breaker can be so good?

Beachcombing himself is confused on this point. But it is probably the quality and peculiar transparency of Lukacs’ thought. All historians have a backroom on the upper left hand side of their brains where they work through their views on historical truth, and other ‘theological’ issues relating to their discipline. Lukacs though, at least in this volume, does it on the page. Not only do we get lectured on the difference between public opinion and public sentiment and the British unwillingness to deal in abstracts, we also get hectored on the very nature of history itself. Coming from some jumped up history lecturer at a British polytechnic (tipo Beachcombing) this would be excruciating, but coming from a man of Lukacs’ stature it makes for a transforming experience and the gravity of those five days magnifies these issues rather than causing distraction.

Many books claim to touch on hinge moments: The Rock Concert that Changed History, How Tomato Ketchup Saved Western Civilization and the like. But this one really does. Though perhaps the war cabinet did not come as close as JL suggests to bending, Halifax (representing the ‘appeasers’) was fairly isolated, Churchill’s determination to fight on was not rewarded with consensus until the 28.

Beachcombing can’t help but quote as a taster of this remarkable book the final paragraph. It gives some sense of just how odd and yet how powerful Lukacs’ prose is: reaction’s answer to Eric Hobsbawm. Remember as you read this that for most of the war the author – a ‘Jew’ – worked in a Hungarian Labour battalion… Remember too that his country would be condemned to almost fifty years of Soviet occupation afterwards.

In 1989 I wrote a book about the duel between Churchill and Hitler. Now ten years later, we can see that in 1989 not only was an entire century closing (the short twentieth century from 1914 to 1989) but an entire age was closing as well, an age that had begun about five hundred years ago and that was among other things, characterised by the struggle and increasing coexistence of Aristocracy and Democracy, with the latter gradually rising the former gradually weakening. Now we have begun living in a global democracy – unquestioned democracy, with its unforeseeable circumstances and conditions and perils – is beginning. This is neither the place nor the time to speculate about that. But what we must understand is that the history of the fifty years from 1940 to 1990 was inseparable from what happened in 1940, just as the Cold War too was but the result of the Second World War. At best, civilisation may survive, at least in some small part due to Churchill in 1940. At worst, he helped to give us – especially those of us who are no longer young but who were young then – fifty years. Fifty years before the rise of a new kinds of barbarism not incarnated by the armed might of Germans or Russians, before the clouds of a new Dark Age may darken the lives of our children and grandchildren. Fifty years! Perhaps that was enough.

Beachcombing, who shares most of Lukacs’ deplorable and nostalgic tendencies, finds the author’s conclusion here both credible and terrifying.

Strange history is always looking for strange books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com