Five days in May – how Churchill halted Hitler
RTE recently showed Into The Storm, about Winston Churchill at war. Brendan Gleeson was brilliant as Churchill, even better than Albert Finney in the prequel, The Gathering Storm. The core of the story was that Churchill's long struggle against appeasement was still going within his war cabinet as late as May 1940.
There are three lessons to be learned from that struggle. First, that appeasing a delinquent aggressor never works. As Churchill correctly warned his war cabinet, even if Britain made some kind of shameful peace, Hitler would come back for more.
Second, appeasement degrades all involved, including the aggressor. Appeasement deprives him of the destruction of his evil desires and thus the possibility of remorse and redemption. By standing up to the Provisional IRA, we did Sinn Fein a favour that finally forced it to take the path of peace.
Finally, a leader who challenges an aggressor leaves a lasting moral legend. Britain was lucky to get a brave old man like Churchill, who still makes his people feel proud to be British. France got a cowardly old man like Petain, who put Jews in concentration camps, the memory of which still makes his people hang their heads in shame.
Consequently, it diminishes a democracy when an elected government gives into threats. This is true whether the threat be a major one,
like that of the Provisional IRA, or a more subtle one by those who wield economic power. Any attempt to avoid dealing frontally with such a threat is an abdication of authority.
Thomas Aquinas defines authority as a service to the people. The policeman draws his baton in defence of all against disorder. Good government needs moral grit.
That is why all democrats should salute Winston Churchill, then a British politician but not yet a statesman, who, 73 years ago this month, armed with nothing much more than moral grit, helped save western civilisation. Because, contrary to conventional wisdom, Hitler came very close to victory during five days at the end of May 1940.
John Lukacs, the distinguished historian, distilled a life of thought about Churchill and Hitler into his classic Five Days in London: May 1940.
He believes Europe was saved from a fascist future from May 24 to 28 inclusive, when the newly appointed and still politically weak prime minister, Winston Churchill, fought a five-day battle of wills with his then highly respected foreign secretary, Viscount Halifax.
The battle was about whether or not to continue the war with Nazi Germany. Because we know Churchill won that battle, we cannot believe that he could have lost. But Lukacs shows that it was touch and go. So take Brecht's advice and try to make what now looks inevitable look as fraught and fresh as it seemed to those who lived it.
Start by looking at the world through the sensible eyes of Halifax. The German army, in the greatest feat of arms in history, had taken just three weeks to slice through Belgium, Holland and France. The British army was trapped at Dunkirk. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union looked like entering the war. Britain was absolutely alone.
At this terrifying moment, when some people in England were painting swastikas inside their doors, Halifax, the most eminent Tory grandee, came to the war cabinet with peace soundings from Italian intermediaries.
As Churchill himself admitted, Halifax had a good case – an admission that should make you review any reflex notion that Churchill was just a dictatorial bulldog.
Far from it. Churchill was a politician first and last. He had the politician's pragmatic respect for the facts.
He never fooled himself, whether about the ability of German soldiers, whom he believed to be both brave and brilliant, nor about the appeal of Halifax's rational response, coming from a High Tory who was widely respected.
Churchill, by contrast, was not highly respected. He had lost six elections and been driven from office as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was seen as a political adventurer and his anti-appeasement stance was out of sync with the public mood. By the mid-1930s he looked like a cranky old political failure with no future.
His critics, however, missed the moral resources he had carefully cultivated with a rich private life. Although he suffered from lifelong depression, which he famously called his "black dog", he was the type of depressive who may be listless in daily life but becomes a heroic watchdog when confronted by a major crisis.
Churchill also drew strength from his defeats. Driven from the post of First Lord of the Admiralty in World War One, he signed up as a soldier and fought in France.
While there, he wrote to his wife, linking public defeat with private growth. "As one's fortunes are reduced, one's spirit must expand to fill the void."
He sustained his spirit with the help of art and crafts. At a low point during World War One, he took up painting. Later on, when politically rejected, he renovated the run-down property of Chartwell. He became so good at bricklaying that he was accepted into the Guild of Bricklayers.
In short, Churchill was in love with life. Maybe that was why he sensed Hitler was in love with death. Because even now there is no explaining Churchill's extraordinary prescience about the pure evil in Hitler.
But from Halifax's point of view, Churchill's natural enemy should have been not the nationalist Hitler, but the communist Stalin.
Churchill was an aristocrat, a conservative, a politician who had fought communism all his life. So how did he put his personal, class and political prejudices aside? How had he seen that Hitler had within him what would become the Holocaust? How had he seen it from the early 1930s when most of Europe – including most English and Irish people – saw Hitler as simply a German super-nationalist ?
John Lukacs lays it out lucidly. "Churchill understood something that not many people understand even now. The greatest threat to western civilisation 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."
From this flows Lukacs's firm conclusion. By going it alone, Churchill made sure America would enter the war and also changed the dynamics of the situation.
"Had Britain stopped fighting in May 1940, Hitler would have won his war."
How did Churchill beat Halifax? By being a good politician.
Knowing that he could lose the vote in the war cabinet, where Halifax was getting a good hearing, on May 28 he suddenly summoned a meeting of the larger outer cabinet, where he reviewed all the arguments and won ministers to his side.
How did he win them and thus win the war ? By making a speech that few people know about; a speech that finished with a sentence shorn of his usual rhetorical drum-rolling; a sentence so graphic, so grim, so fearless, so final, that the cabinet knew this man was different and that there was now nothing to be done but follow him to the death.
"If this long island history of ours is to end at last, then let it end when each one of us is choking on his own blood upon the ground."