Victory for the forces of conservatism. Two weeks after Churchill became PM the cabinet had to decide whether to continue the war. Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the long weekend that could have changed the world

Five Days in London May 1940

John Lukacs <em>Yale University Press, 288pp, £12.95 </em>

ISBN 030

We have all learnt to value social and economic history, the longue duree and the deep current; the traditional history of kings, cabinets and "high politics" is at a discount, while warfare itself is seen through the eyes of the common soldier or the woman at a factory bench as much as the eyes of "great men".

And yet I do not think that the most reductive materialist historian could pretend that the political, diplomatic and personal history of the last two weeks of May 1940 was trivial. John Lukacs does not think so. He has already written The Last European War 1939-41 (1976) and then The Duel (1991), about the contest between Churchill and Hitler from 10 May to 31 July 1940.

Narrowing his focus still further, he now publishes a fascinating essay on "five days that could have changed the world". In his view - a little hyperbolic but intentionally provocative - this was the one point when Hitler could have won the second world war. It might be called the longest long weekend in history, from Friday 24 to Tuesday 28 May 1940, two weeks after Churchill had become prime minister.

He had succeeded Chamberlain on 10 May, ironically thanks to a military debacle in Norway for which he was largely responsible, and just as the German attack in Holland and Belgium began. Before the end of the month, the allied forces in France had in effect been defeated, with the British army retreating to Dunkirk, from where it was by no means certain that it could be evacuated.

It was a stunning victory for German arms. Lukacs recognises the uncomfortable truth that Hitler "represented an enormous tide in the affairs of the world", deploying "the energy, the discipline, the confidence and the obedience of the German people whom he succeeded in uniting beyond the accomplishments of any other leader in their history".

By contrast, Churchill had come to power in a country that was - or, at any rate, whose ruling political class was - much less united. As Lord Davidson correctly wrote to Baldwin: "The Tories don't trust Winston." He added that: "After the first clash of war is over it may well be that a sounder government may emerge."

That prediction was wrong, but it was a closer-run thing than is often realised. Churchill had only just pipped Halifax in the succession to Chamberlain and retained him as foreign secretary, knowing that Halifax, the arch-appeaser, still favoured compromise with Germany. Thus the destiny of England - "indeed, the outcome of the second world war - depended on two things . . . the division between Churchill and Halifax", as well as the fate of the army at Dunkirk.

There were two separate intrigues with Italy. One tried to induce Mussolini to act as a peace-broker - "Signor Mussolini", Halifax thought, "would be anxious, if he could, to persuade Herr Hitler to take a more reasonable attitude" - while the other tried to induce him to stay out of the war. Neither succeeded, to the regret of "the party of peace" in London.

Documentary evidence for these crucial days is incomplete. Not surprisingly, Halifax carefully weeded the papers he left behind, which might have been yet more incriminating. But then, when he came to write his own history of the war, even Churchill was a little disingenuous. On Sunday 26 May he had "thought that it was best to decide nothing until we saw how much of the army we could re-embark from France. The operation could be a great failure," which was not quite his account years later.

If one man comes out of the story worse than Halifax it is R A Butler, still a sainted figure on the Tory left (if such a thing exists any more). Before the war he had been another ardent appeaser and munichois. That alone should not damn him. It wasn't inherently wicked to want peace; and, as A J P Taylor said, historians do a bad day's work when they write off the appeasers as fools or cowards: "They were men confronted with real problems, doing their best in the circumstances of their time."

Even in his contempt for Churchill - "the greatest adventurer in modern history" - Butler was far from alone, as Davidson's letter shows. But his personal clandestine attempt to arrange a settlement with Germany in the summer of 1940 was disloyal to the point of being treasonable, and his biographers have been indulgent in the matter.

Although he has consulted some archives, Lukacs confines himself mostly to printed sources, with particular favourites. He rightly admires Andrew Roberts' life of Halifax, but at times one might think it the only book he has read.

Nicely interweaving the stories of the army at Dunkirk and the war cabinet in London, Lukacs describes Halifax's feline attempt to frustrate Churchill. On the Monday, Halifax still questioned whether "our independence was at stake" and why, if it wasn't, Churchill would not "contemplate any course except fighting to a finish". We know how the story ends. For all the alarms and excursions, despite the faint hearts, Churchill adroitly saw off Halifax. On 28 May, the prime minister met 25 members of his new government. It was at this meeting that he said, "quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance: 'Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on'." There was then an extraordinary scene as these hardened professional politicians, some close to tears, cheered Churchill and slapped his back.

One other point is well made. Hitler was "not a traditionalist", but rather "the greatest revolutionary of the 20th century". He was widely seen, and feared, as what our present Prime Minister would call a progressive figure; in Lukacs's words, the brutal, demonic energy of national socialism seemed to Churchill "alarmingly new". But Churchill had his own great asset that epic summer, "the deep-seated conservatism of the British people", mutely determined not to yield to that horrible new tyranny. Hitler's failure to master all of Europe was a heroic victory for the forces of conservatism.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome