Michael Howard

His finest hour

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning by John Lukacs<br /> <br type="_moz" />

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning by John Lukacs

Nine years ago the American historian, John Lukacs, published an excellent little book, Five Days in London: May 1940. In this he analysed in detail that critical moment in the history of the Second World War — perhaps indeed in the history of Western civilization — when the British people, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, decided to reject Hitler’s peace offers and, against all the odds, to fight on until ultimate victory. Now Lukacs has given us an even smaller book, less than 150 pages, that covers exactly the same ground and says little that he did not tell us before. Only on the very last page is it revealed that this opuscule belongs to a ‘Basic Ideas’ series in which ‘a leading authority offers a concise biography of a text that transformed its world, and ours’. Fair enough, so long as we know what to expect, but it is pretty thin stuff none the less.

The ‘text’ in question consists of the great speeches Churchill made to the House of Commons during that momentous summer, and Lukacs does have some interesting things to say. At first, he reminds us, they did not go down well. The first, given on 13 May — ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ — made surprisingly little impression: the House did not know quite what to make of it, or of him. The next, on 4 June — ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ — certainly galvanised the Commons, but was heard nowhere else. When he attempted to repeat the third — ‘our finest hour’ — as a broadcast, it fell flat. For unlike his predecessor, Lloyd George, or — to give him due credit— his adversary, Adolf Hitler, Churchill was not a great orator.

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