Monday, October 31, 2011

Five Days in London

Over the weekend I read a theatre review in The Daily Telegraph about a new play called Three Days In May which is about the extraordinary 72 hours in May 1940 when, after the defeat of France, the British War Cabinet debated doing a deal with Hitler. The villain of the piece is Lord Halifax representing the Nazi-loving English aristocracy who thought an arrangement could be made with the Fuhrer. The hero of the piece is Churchill who saw exactly what kind of a man Hitler was and knew that if Britain capitulated or surrendered it would become a slave state. 
The play is largely based on an amazing history book I read a few years ago called Five Days In London by John Lukacs. As Publishers Weekly explains in its summary: 
Lukacs posits that it was during those five days in London "that Western civilization, not to mention the Allied cause in WWII, was saved from Hitler's tyranny...Had Britain stopped fighting in May 1940, Hitler would have won his war...Thus he was never closer to victory than during those five days in May 1940." A quarter-million British troops were trapped by the Germans at Dunkirk. The British public, ill-informed about this reality, remained apathetic, and the War Cabinet was divided over what action to take. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had yet entered the war, but Churchill resolved to fight "till Hitler is beat or we cease to be a state."

I don't know what the play is like but the book is absolutely riveting. You don't need to be a big fan of alternative history to posit a scenario whereby Britain makes peace with Hitler; Germany attacks Russia with the full Wehrmacht (unbogged down in Africa or anywhere else) and easily wins. In Lukacs's book the tension between Halifax and Churchill all boils down to one cabinet meeting where Churchill told his cheering colleagues that he would rather die in the last ditch than make a separate peace. The cabinet refused to make a deal, somehow a quarter of a million men got evacuated from Dunkirk and the British won the Battle of Britain. By October 1940 Britain was still alone but feeling a lot more sure of itself and any deal with the Nazis was off the cards. By June 1941 Hitler invaded Russia and by December 1941 the war was effectively lost because Zhukov beat the Germans at the gates of Moscow and Hitler foolishly declared war on the USA. I find Lukacs's view pretty compelling...if Churchill had wobbled or been less than convincing in that climactic cabinet meeting in May 1940 then perhaps the thousand year Reich would have become a horrifying reality.