“A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable.”
—Thomas Jefferson

In his latest book, John Lukacs returns to some of the same territory that he covered in one of his finest works, The Last European War. Here he has concentrated on the critical period in which the Nazis conquered Western Europe and in which the fortunes of the Allies reached their nadir, but in which Britain’s opposition to Hitler crystallized. In a way, this is a prehistory of the Battle of Britain. Lukacs, with his usual stress on the role of personality, interprets this period as a conflict between Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler: “On that duel in May, June, July depended the Second World War and the fate of the world thereafter.” Even those most strongly opposed to writing history as the story of the deeds of great men will be unable to deny that there is plenty of justification for such an approach in this case. The result is one of Lukacs’ better books; although not free of the erratic and even bizarre judgments that have too often marred his work. The Duel is instructive and enjoyable.

The interpretative framework of The Duel will be familiar to those who have read Lukacs’ earlier books. Lukacs insists upon the primacy of ideas, of individual leaders, and of national characteristics and conflict. The World Wars—not the Russian and Chinese revolutions, decolonization, the division of Europe, or the development of nuclear energy—are, he insists, the crucial events of our century; while nationalism and national conflict, not class conflict, is the crucial motor of modern history. As a broad generalization, Lukacs’ view is undoubtedly correct, although the shades of Nicholas II and Jiang Jieshi, among others, might be inclined to suggest that there have been important exceptions. Hitler, who concocted the deadliest synthesis of nationalism and socialism, was the greatest revolutionary of the century, and a generic “national socialism,” even if not in its most obnoxious form, survived the Second World War and remains a major force.

While Hitler was a nationalist and a radical, Churchill was a patriot and a traditionalist—even, Lukacs says, a “reactionary.” This last description is a bit hard to swallow, for, as Lukacs admits, he was also a democrat; and, early in his career, something of a reformer. But Lukacs writes of Churchill with real understanding and a warm sympathy, as he does of the British and West European milieu in which Churchill worked. He reminds us that Churchill, for much of the 20’s and 30’s, was generally regarded as a has-been and widely distrusted as a maverick, or even a nut. His few admirers and supporters were an equally unpopular fringe element.

After all, it was not merely Churchill’s individual stands, but their combinations, which were strange. He was a free trader in a protectionist party and era, a strong supporter of the Empire in an age of retreat when even many Englishmen were starting to see Gandhi as a saint (an illusion, incidentally, that Lukacs deftly explodes by quoting Gandhi’s very strange view of Hitler). Churchill was a pro-Zionist when almost all other supporters of a strong imperial role were ardent Arabophiles. Above all, of course, he distrusted (he did not hate) the Germans—not just the Nazis—and he correctly read Hitler when most of the British were sunk in regrets over the First World War and self-delusion about Nazi Germany. Just how isolated he was, Lukacs notes, was understood by Churchill himself: “If one were dependent on the people who had been right in the last few years, what a tiny handful one would have to depend on.”

Many Conservatives continued to distrust Churchill’s judgment, and the resulting shenanigans in the Cabinet, most importantly Lord Halifax’s attempt to seek “acceptable” peace terms through Mussolini, are well-chronicled. Lukacs’ account of this and of the congealing of British resistance and the realization of people on the Continent that Hitler had not, after all, been completely victorious are the best parts of the book. Although it seems clear that the minimum demands even Halifax insisted on would never have been granted by Hitler, an approach of this sort might have ruined British morale. But in the black period of Dunkirk, not even Churchill could simply reject it. And Lukacs tends to support suggestions that Churchill used Sir David Kelly, the British minister to Switzerland, in an attempt to lead the Germans to think that Britain might just make peace in the hope of delaying their preparations for an attack on Britain. Churchill himself dangerously invited Lloyd George, a super-appeaser far more extreme than Neville Chamberlain or Lord Halifax, to join the Cabinet, perhaps calculating that, if he were toppled, it would be better if Lloyd George replaced him than Oswald Mosley. Fortunately, the Welsh demagogue did not take up the offer. It was not one of Churchill’s better ideas; somewhat similar miscalculations led the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, to prefer Philippe Petain to Camille Chautemps, with disastrous results.

Lukacs’ analysis of Hitler’s aims and decisions is not up to his treatment of Churchill. He portrays the Nazi tyrant as altogether too normal, too unemotional. “What was frightening in his character was his cold and almost inhuman detachment.” While it is true that the stories of Hitler’s frothing at the mouth and chewing the rug are false—they are transplants from General Ludendorffs behavior in 1918—the Führer was nevertheless a highly emotional man given to memorable rages. More serious is Lukacs’ surprising dismissal of Hitler’s ideological consistency and minimizing of his aims; although he is never entirely clear about what Hitler did want, he goes so far as to allege that, “What Hitler’s ultimate war aims were we do not know,” and elsewhere concedes that Hitler did consistently seek domination over Eastern Europe. At one point, Lukacs says, “Hitler did not want to conquer the world. He knew that he could not achieve that. The world was too large for one nation to control. That—and not only his half-baked respect for British imperialism—was the main reason for the grand design of his offer for a settlement: America for the Americans, Europe dominated by the Third Reich, the British Empire largely untouched.” In any case, Hitler had no aims in the Americas, and in 1940 was solely interested in dealing with Britain’s resistance. However, many historians—notably Gerhard Weinberg, Andreas Hillgruber, and Norman Rich—have shown the untenability of these propositions.

Possibly most exasperating, however, is Lukacs’ treatment of the story on the American side of the Atlantic. By omission, perhaps, he implies that FDR was far colder toward the Allied cause and slower to back Churchill than he really was. Curiously, while understating the legal difficulties and active opposition that delayed the famous Destroyer-for-Bases deal, Lukacs is unable to portray the isolationist opposition with any fairness or even any sense of reality; a failure that is related, I think, to the contempt for American conservatives frequently expressed in his other books. Lukacs remarks that the main element in appeasement, in Europe, was “not cowardice but an insufficiency of vision.” Curiously, this reasonable, albeit over-generous, attitude toward European appeasers is not replicated in his view of American isolationists, though (given their distance from Hitler) their follies would seem to be a bit more defensible. Lukacs’ version of isolationism is as follows: “consistent isolationists were few and far between. Most isolationists, bitter opponents of Roosevelt and his administration, were not opposed to armaments and the military. What they opposed was this war; the war waged by the aged and corrupt British and French empires against Germany and the inclination of Roosevelt and others to side with the former. A very frequent element in this kind of thinking was anti-Communism.” Lukacs notes that Joseph P. Kennedy’s so-called isolationism, in particular, was based on his anticommunism.

There are more errors, here, than can be analyzed properly in a short space. Lukacs’ picture of the isolationists smacks not of the actual record of 1940-41 but of the rationalizations some diehard opponents of American intervention offered after the war. In fact, many isolationists were liberals; and what united isolationists—liberal, conservative and socialist—was not hostility to Britain or sympathy for Germany (which was nearly nonexistent), but the view that with a modicum of investment in defense the United States could hold the Western hemisphere against any attack from the Old World, and could in the last resort afford to ignore what happened in Europe and Asia. It was precisely the fact that few believed this after 1945 that forced diehard anti-interventionists to indulge in fantasies that, if only for Roosevelt, there would have been no Soviet threat. But anticommunism was hardly an issue in 1940-41—the isolationists and the American Communists were on the same side in opposing American intervention. No doubt isolationists, or at least the conservative ones, were subjectively anti-communist; but they shared the common belief that the Soviet Union was a weak state and that it would be quickly overwhelmed by the Nazis. They did not see it as a threat the way people did during the Gold War.

Moreover, many isolationists were quite consistent and remained opposed to any sort of active foreign policy after World War II, although in this case consistency cannot be considered a virtue. Joe Kennedy was a particularly good—or, rather, a particularly awful—example of this: in 1950 that despicable man advocated abandoning Western Europe to Stalin, an odd position for one supposedly motivated by anticommunism. Lukacs’ tirades against American isolationists are particularly strange since he himself does not seem to believe that Hider presented a clear and definite threat to the United States. He is in the uncomfortable position of a man who shares one of the isolationists’ premises but objects to their deductions from it. Fortunately, his thinking on this point does not ruin an otherwise interesting and useful book.


[The Duel, 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, by John Lukacs (New York: Ticknor and Fields) 224 pp., $19.95]