Hinge of Fate

By Benjamin Schwarz


Melians: ” . . . it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke . . . to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.”

Athenians: “Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious . . . reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.”

— THUCYDIDES, The Peloponnesian War


For Great Britain, the unusually sunny and warm May of 1940, as Graham Greene wrote, “like a corpse was sweet with the smell of doom.” The quarter-million men of the British Expeditionary Force awaited what seemed like certain capture or slaughter on the beaches at Dunkirk, while Britain’s sole ally, France, was on the verge of collapse. The British Empire would soon face alone two, possibly three, great powers. It seemed inevitable that German bombers would amass across the narrow Channel to destroy Britain’s cities and that German armies would gather to invade the island. In their corner, the British possessed an ill-defended and immensely vulnerable empire, an antiquated and inadequate industrial machine and insufficient and fast-diminishing national wealth. It was the grimmest legacy ever inherited by a British prime minister. Winston Churchill, who had assumed that office on May 10, met with his war cabinet for five days in late May, during which it debated the question of whether to seek terms from Germany. These debates are the subject of historian John Lukacs’ aptly-titled “Five Days in London.”

These deliberations have riveted historians ever since the cabinet minutes became available for study. Those records illuminate the complex anatomy of high government decision and the character and personalities of great politicians under enormous stress. Even more compelling, they reveal the agony surrounding the hardest question that statesmen must ever decide for their country: whether it is more dangerous to submit or to fight. Thus, although Lukacs has a dramatic story to tell and for the most part tells it well, it’s not as new a tale as he would have it. True, his is the first book specifically on the five days, but the deliberations within the war cabinet and the mood of both high government officials and the general public have been treated in equal detail, although not always in Lukacs’ accessible manner, in monographs and biographies by Clive Ponting, Andrew Roberts, Sheila Lawlor, David Dilks, Martin Gilbert, John Charmley, David Reynolds, Maurice Cowling and P.M.H. Bell, among others.

Moreover, none of these historians would quarrel with Lukacs’ basic argument–that had Britain negotiated peace with Hitler’s Germany, the outcome of World War II and the fate of Britain would likely have been very different–because it’s almost a tautology. But many of these historians would dispute his assessment of the precise issues that divided the cabinet and his related tendency to divide his dramatis personae into fools, on the one hand, and Churchill, the omniscient and indomitable hero, on the other. These differences spring from Lukacs’ approach in this book, an approach that I’d call unhistorical and one which evades the extraordinarily difficult questions with which British statesmen were forced to grapple in May 1940.

Controlled Assessment2012_clip_image002As he acknowledges, Lukacs is not a specialist in British history. But, he argues in his preface, in writing about this subject he has “had one advantage over many [British historians]”: “my knowledge about Hitler.” This, he asserts, allows a deeper “perspective,” permitting him to treat the debates within the war cabinet not as merely “a footnote in the political history of modern Britain” but as “the hinge of fate” in which Churchill emerges as the “savior” of Western civilization. Here Lukacs, who is really no more of a specialist in German history than those British historians, seems to underestimate the training offered at Oxbridge and the London School of Economics and to assume that the insight into Hitler offered in this book–that the German chancellor was an extremely bad man, not to be trusted–is arcane or controversial. But far more important, by using this approach as his starting point, Lukacs is essentially examining a crucial historical episode backward. We know now about Hitler’s enormities and how World War II unfolded, and we know (or, as at least some British historians would say, we think we know) that Churchill made the “right” decision by refusing to seek an accommodation with Germany in May 1940. But the first–and most difficult–task for the historian is to put himself or herself in the position of his or her subjects; to strip away what we know now to understand what they knew then, in short, to enter their minds. To understand all, of course, doesn’t mean to forgive all; but to appreciate properly the drama of the story he is examining, Lukacs needs to empathize with all the figures in the war cabinet, not just with Churchill. Had he done so, he would have recognized that nearly all the rational arguments were on the side of those who wished to parley with Germany–a fact that in the end, in most ways, adds to the stature of his hero.

Lukacs’ lack of historical empathy with the problems confronting Britain’s statesmen starts with his caricature of the British government’s policy of “appeasement” in the 1930s, a policy advocated by and identified with the antagonist in Lukacs’ drama–Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. This oversimplification leads Lukacs to overlook the constraints and fears that weighed heavily on most British policymakers during the five days he examines. Appeasement remains one of the most controversial subjects of British historiography, but since the official archives became available to scholars three decades ago, it’s clear that the once-prevailing interpretation of the appeasers as foolish, cowardly or incompetent (a view that, on this side of the Atlantic, still holds in the popular imagination and among politicians and State Department officials) cannot be justified. Historians still differ on the wisdom or, more accurately, the necessity, of appeasement, but by analyzing the factors influencing British policy, they all recognize the terrible dilemmas facing statesmen in London as they sought to protect Britain’s far-flung global interests (threatened by three different and powerful aggressors in three different theaters) with extremely limited financial and military means. In the event of war with Germany, War Office and Admiralty planners predicted that it would prove impossible to defend the empire, while Treasury and Foreign Office officials foresaw economic and financial collapse and, whatever the outcome of the struggle, a world in which Britain’s influence, even its independence, would be enormously diminished. All of these forecasts, of course, proved correct. True, historical revisionists usually go too far (and I disagree with such historians as Dilks and Charmley who argue that appeasement was the best policy toward Germany circumstances allowed), but Lukacs holds to a harsh, outdated view of appeasement that cannot be supported by the evidence. Because he is insufficiently appreciative of Britain’s weaknesses in the prewar years, Lukacs fails to grasp how those constraints influenced the statesmen who advocated policies in 1940 that he excoriates.

Five Days in London is built around a seemingly simple argument with two premises: 1) had the British stopped fighting in May 1940, Germany would have “won” an “ultimate victory” and, therefore, 2) the debate in the war cabinet between Churchill and Halifax–who argued that the British should accede to their soon-to-be-beaten French allies’ request and attempt to ascertain Germany’s likely peace terms–was “decisive” for “the fate of Britain” and indeed the world. But was it? The crux of Lukacs’ argument rests on the apparently divergent positions advocated by Churchill and Halifax. Here my interpretation–and that of several historians–differs from Lukacs’. In asserting that “Hitler failed because Churchill prevailed,” Lukacs, oversimplifying Halifax’s stance, argues that had the Foreign Secretary won the debate, Britain would have “stopped fighting.” But Halifax was in no way advocating immediate surrender. The Foreign Secretary repeatedly and unequivocally stressed that he would favor fighting to the end rather than surrender Britain’s independence or the means of assuring it–the navy, the air force and continued rearmament. To allow Britain to obtain what he considered a breathing space along the lines of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens with Napoleon in what he assumed would be a decades-long struggle with Hitler, Halifax was willing to consider a deal with Berlin at the price of relinquishing the colonies taken from Germany at the end of World War I, some British Mediterranean possessions, some French overseas territory and perhaps the de jure recognition of Germany’s de facto conquests in the east. Halifax argued that if negotiations were conducted at all, the sooner they got started the better, since peace terms were likely to be more acceptable while France was still in the war and before British aircraft factories were bombed (which would jeopardize production of fighter planes, Britain’s essential line of defense).

Although it’s important not to minimize, as have some historians, the extent to which Churchill’s position differed from Halifax’s, it’s equally important not to exaggerate those differences, which Lukacs does. The image of Churchill as the stalwart hero, pursuing the goal of “victory at all costs” and refusing even to contemplate negotiations with Berlin, which Lukacs embraces, isn’t entirely supported by the historical record of those five days in London. Despite the rhetorical bravado of his public declarations, in discussions in the war cabinet Churchill stated that, although he wouldn’t approach Hitler with terms, he would discuss terms if they were proposed by Germany. Moreover, he is recorded as declaring that “if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies he would jump at it,” although he didn’t see any such prospect. The following day he declared in the war cabinet that he was prepared to accept “peace on terms of the restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe [presumably including continued occupation of Czechoslovakia and Western Poland],” although, again, he believed that such an offer was “most unlikely.” Finally, numerous statements by Churchill show that in May 1940 he anticipated an eventual negotiated settlement with Berlin but that he believed no satisfactory terms could be obtained until Brit ain could negotiate from a position of strength by demonstrating to Hitler that it couldn’t be conquered. In short, Churchill’s stated position in May 1940 was that by continuing the struggle, Britain would secure not total victory but acceptable terms.

It could be argued that the distinction between Halifax’s and Churchill’s positions was a tactical one of whether Britain would get better terms now or later. Nevertheless, it’s an important distinction. Halifax didn’t sufficiently appreciate that by late May 1940 there was really very little that Britain and France could offer Hitler which he was not already in a position to take. With greater insight Churchill recognized that, at the very least, Britain had to maneuver into a better bargaining position, and he took the clear-eyed (if debatable) stand that “a time might come when we felt that we have to put an end to the struggle, but the terms would not then be more mortal than those offered to us now.” Moreover, although Lukacs erroneously conflates ascertaining peace terms with making peace, it is true that, as Lukacs (echoing Churchill) argues, once negotiations begin they tend to take on a life of their own, and in any case peace talks would have been devastating to British morale, perhaps vitiating London’s ability to fight on were the parley to fail.

But still, Lukacs fails adequately to place his readers in the position of British statesmen in May 1940. First, during those five days,wwii1.alone every policymaker assumed that, without a negotiated settlement, the quarter-million British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk would be killed or captured. Second, the idea of an armed truce with Germany didn’t carry the same moral odium it does today. This period, after all, was well over a year before the Nazi regime began the “final solution,” and though Halifax and Chamberlain, no less than Churchill (who in 1935 speculated whether Hitler “will go down in history as the man who restored honour and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation”) found the Nazis repugnant, Great Britain had managed to work out a modus vivendi with even the expansionist and genocidal regime of the Soviet Union. Third, and most important, Britain was under the same economic and military constraints that had impelled the appeasement policies of the 1930s; in fact, after a year of war, those constraints had intensified. The mere continuance of the war would itself inexorably bring an end to Britain as an independent power through national bankruptcy and economic ruin. The inevitability of economic collapse, coupled with the bleak strategic prospects, might have seemed to point to one answer: to accept that Germany now dominated Europe and make the best possible peace with Hitler’s regime.

Although he mentions the group only once, I suspect that Lukacs’ quarrel is really less with his antagonist, Halifax, than with a controversial school of revisionist scholars, which has made an important mark over the last 15 years on the historiography of British diplomacy. These revisionists, most notably Charmley, have essentially expanded the argument above to condemn Churchill for not reaching a settlement with Germany, which they assert could have safeguarded British independence and maintained the empire. The revisionists point out that in 1940, Churchill had no strategy for winning the war, because the conflict was at that point simply unwinnable for Britain. And more important, they argue that by fighting on to 1945, Churchill assured the liquidation of the empire and guaranteed that the only victors would be the Soviet Union and a United States of America that used hardball economic diplomacy throughout the war to ensure that Britain would forever be hobbled as a major power (on this last point, the United States is certainly guilty as charged).

Lukacs’ impatience with the revisionists, or at least with some of their more extreme arguments, is certainly understandable. It’s true that Churchill’s best reason for fighting on was one of which he had no knowledge at the time: namely that as early as July 1940 Hitler was contemplating turning against Russia. (Had Hitler not turned east and had he not compounded his folly by joining Japan against the U.S. in December 1941, the outcome of Britain’s war with Germany would almost certainly have been different.) Of Hitler’s intentions, no prediction can be found in British intelligence reports and strategic assessments. And so the revisionists condemn Churchill’s “strategy” in 1940 as simply one of “wait and see” (a strategy Churchill himself encapsulated in his private motto of 1940-’41: “KBO,” or “Keep Buggering On”). But although the revisionists’ characterization of Churchill’s strategy is accurate, that strategy did work in the end, and it was hardly unreasonable of Churchill to hope that in the chaotic diplomatic and military environment that he helped sustain by simply not reaching a settlement, America and the Soviet Union–two states whose long-term interests clashed with Germany’s to a far greater extent than did Britain’s–might well be dragged into the conflict against Hitler.

Moreover, contrary to the revisionists’ arguments, an armed modus vivendi with a Germany dominant in Europe would have been impossible for Britain to maintain. Britain was an island geographically but not economically, and therefore its independence could have been threatened indirectly as well as directly. With Germany in possession of bases along the north and west coasts of France, the British were acutely vulnerable to blockade and hence would have been largely dependent on the sufferance of Berlin, rendering Britain’s “independence” a fiction. Given his desire to defend and applaud Churchill, it’s a shame that Lukacs’ criticism of the revisionists’ position isn’t explicit, sober and detailed. For instance, he could have pointed out that the revisionists’ argument that Churchill sacrificed the British Empire by choosing to fight on is true but beside the point. First, they assert rather than assess the notion that the empire contributed greatly to Britain’s strength. The most detailed studies argue, however, that economically and strategically the empire cost the British more than it benefited them. Historian Corelli Barnett’s contention that Britain’s imperial position was a “classic, and gigantic, example of strategic over-extension,” serving “only immensely to weaken and distract her,” can be disputed, but clearly Britain’s rewards from its empire were not nearly as great as the revisionists assume. Moreover, the revisionists’ position ignores the lessons of Britain’s Jstrube1involvement in World War I, when even those British statesmen most devoted to the empire argued vigorously that German hegemony had to be forestalled because, they held, once dominant on the Continent, Germany would resume its fleet expansion with greater devotion and resources than before, shattering British naval mastery, the sine qua non of Britain’s imperial system. Most important, in asserting that if Churchill had reached an accommodation with Berlin, the empire could have been saved, the revisionists neglect Britain’s long-term economic and military weaknesses which they hold should have compelled London to seek a settlement with Germany in the first place. Simply put, no matter what course Churchill followed in 1940, Britain’s ability to maintain its position as a world power was over. Ironically, Churchill, the arch-imperialist, presided over the fall of the British Empire and the collapse of British power. But irony isn’t causality: post hoc doesn’t mean propter hoc.

Both Lukacs and the revisionists whom he opposes, then, fail to take into account the long-term dilemmas and limitations of British power. Filling the picture with one man obscures this essential background. This leads the revisionists wrongly to criticize Churchill; it also leads Lukacs to lionize him (always a mistake for the historian) and to castigate Halifax and the prewar appeasers when his subject–and the drama of his story–demands that he explain why they held the positions they did. Lukacs rightly admirers Churchill’s wartime heroism, but that shouldn’t lead him to judge Halifax craven or foolish. The question they debated is the most difficult one imaginable for people in power to confront (indeed, it’s one that no U.S. statesman has ever been forced to face) and the “right” stance, even the heroic one, is highly contextual. Had the course of the war gone differently, as it so easily could have, Churchill, far from the pugnacious hero, would now have the same reputation he enjoyed before World War II: a romantic bungler, whose impetuousness and bravado needlessly got people killed.

As things turned out, of course, Churchill’s pugnacity safeguarded Britain from dependence on the sufferance of Germany. But even Churchill’s bulldog spirit couldn’t hold back the tide of history. By the end of those five days in May, British statesmen had decided, at least for the near future, not to parley with Berlin and hence they girded themselves and prepared their country for the coming onslaught. But those statesmen knew that whatever the outcome of the upcoming battle fought by Spitfires and Hurricanes in the skies over Sussex and Kent, Britain’s time as an independent power was gone forever. The country no longer had the resources to prosecute the war. Its fate would be decided by another nation: Either Britain would become a dependency of the United States or it would have to seek peace with Germany. And long before America joined Britain in the conflict, London’s capacity to remain in the struggle depended on decisions taken in Washington: decisions to make available first arms, then credits to purchase them, then shipping to transport them, then naval protection for the shipping. Clearly Churchill would to the end of his life prize his memories of the courageous year of 1940, but he also prized Britain’s role as an independent state and so, when as an old man he spoke of Britain’s travails in the two world wars, he can perhaps be forgiven for despairing: “We answered all the tests. But it was useless.”

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