The days from May 24 to May 28, 1940 altered the course of the history of this century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or to continue what became known as the Second World War. The decisive importance of these five days is the focus of John Lukacs’s magisterial new book.
Lukacs takes us hour by hour into the critical unfolding of events at 10 Downing Street, where Churchill and the members of his cabinet were painfully considering their war responsibilities. We see how the military disasters taking place on the Continent—particularly the plight of the nearly 400,000 British soldiers bottled up in Dunkirk—affected Churchill’s fragile political situation, for he had been prime minister only a fortnight and was regarded as impetuous and hotheaded even by many of his own party. Lukacs also investigates the mood of the British people, drawing on newspaper and Mass-Observation reports that show how the citizenry, though only partly informed about the dangers that faced them, nevertheless began to support Churchill’s determination to stand fast.
Other historians have dealt with Churchill’s difficulties during this period, using the partial revelations of certain memoirs and private and public papers. But Lukacs is the first to convey the drama and importance of these days, and he does so in a compelling narrative that combines deep knowledge with high literary style.
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In his six-volume history of World War II, Winston Churchill deemed the year 1942 as "the hinge of fate," the year in which the German and Japanese armies began to be turned back. John Lukacs suggests that the last days of May 1940 were more important still in turning the tide of war in democracy's favor, for it was in those few days that Churchill convinced his cabinet that Britain should fight on, alone, if need be, against Adolf Hitler's regime. Even as a quarter of a million British troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, Churchill struggled to reverse the British government's policy of appeasement. In this, he faced opposition from several quarters, including prominent figures within his own Conservative Party. Writing with evident admiration for Churchill--who, he points out, was not well liked, and who had been prime minister for only two weeks when war broke out--Lukacs gives his readers a fly-on-the-wall view of the heated conferences between such well-known participants as Harold Nicholson, Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain, and Alexander Cadogan.
"Churchill understood something that not many people understand even now," Lukacs writes in the closing pages of his book. "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." By convincing his government that his view was correct, Churchill afforded Western civilization a slim chance at survival--no small achievement, and one well worth honoring with this fine study. --Gregory McNameeAbout the Author:
John Lukacs was professor of history at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, until his recent retirement and has been visiting professor at many universities. He is the author of twenty-one books, among them The Hitler of History, The Duel, The End of the Twentieth Century and The End of the Modern Age (which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), and the most recent, A Thread of Years, also published by Yale University Press. He is the recipient of numerous academic honors and awards.
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