June 9, 2013

Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09

Page 51

No Contradiction Accepted

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning, Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister, by John Lukacs. Basic Books, 2008, 148 pp., $24. Member price $19.20.

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By Antoine Capet

Dr. Capet is Head of British Studies at the University of Rouen, Mont-Saint-Aignan, France.

The idea of writing books on particular events or days in world history is not new: France used to have a very successful series entitled “Ce jour-là…” (on that day…). The format seems to be enjoying a revival, with for instance Peter Stansky’s book on The First Day of the Blitz and John Lukacs’ latest offering, ostensibly on Churchill’s famous speech of 13 May 1940, now known as the “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech, coming after his Five Days in London.

No reader reasonably well versed in Churchill scholarship will expect to find new information on that speech, but I expected an extensive commentary full of exciting insights and novel visions: why write a book (in fact a lengthy essay, with all the tricks of the trade—double spaces, large font, blank pages—to make it into a marketable book) if you have no new documents or ideas to justify its existence? By contrast the Levenger Press book Their Finest Hour, on the equally famous speech of 18 June 1940, has a foreword on how Churchill wrote it and the events of the day, and a facsimile holograph of the actual speech notes from the Churchill Archives Centre.

This new book’s reason for being only begins to appear in a footnote in the last two pages—in cauda venenum: Lukacs is out to refute David Reynolds’s argument, in his In Command of History, that Churchill had private doubts behind the brave face he put before the public. “This is worse than a mistaken attribution of motive. It is entirely wrong,” Lukacs concludes on the final page and the final words of his book (147). I was somewhat taken aback, because I remembered Reynolds’ discussion as full of nuance and subtlety. I also remembered his impressive examination of the question in his older essay, “Churchill and the British ‘decision’ to fight on in 1940: Right policy, wrong reasons.”

Unfortunately, because of the “popular” format of Lukacs’s essay, there are no references (and no index). So I reached for my copy of In Command of History and after a few false tracks I found the incriminated passage:

Churchill’s public rhetoric [in The Second World War] is not an exact guide to his private policy in 1940. Whatever he said to raise morale, his best hope at this time was an eventual negotiated peace with a non-Nazi German government. His worst fear, despite his innate confidence, was that he would not live to see it. (Lukacs. 147; Reynolds, 173.)

And reading the quotation in context provided the give-away: Lukacs was in fact settling accounts with Reynolds who, in his pages 170-73, tried to distance himself from Lukacs:

Halifax’s biographer, Andrew Roberts, has attacked as “simplistic and unhistorical” the tendency to depict this in “the black and white of the treacherous Halifax versus a heroic Churchill.” On the other side, John Lukacs has dramatized a fundamental clash between the “visionary” Churchill and the “pragmatist” Halifax on which “the fate of Britain” and even “the outcome of the Second World War” largely hinged.

Apparently, Lukacs does not accept any contradiction to the suggestion, which dominates his Five Days in London, that Churchill was the hand of God incarnate. Thus he wrote Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat to confound his critics and reiterate his view of Churchill as a providential hero, somehow enlisting Churchill’s retrospective description of his mood as he went to bed on 10 May (“I felt as if I were walking with Destiny”) in The Second World War. His central thesis is that Churchill’s magnanimity towards Chamberlain after 10 May (e.g., allowing him to stay in Downing Street) brought “providential results”—the most evident one being that a grateful Chamberlain did not then combine with Halifax to sap Churchill’s authority over the conduct of the war and organise opposition to the eventual decision to fight on.

It is never pleasant to have to criticize the work of a senior colleague, but this writer is unfortunately forced to conclude that Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat is a gravely flawed history: Manichaeism and Providentialism do not belong with the toolbox of the historian, but with that of the propagandist and proselyte.

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