Russell and Duenes

From the Ivory Tower – The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler

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Ever since listening to the audio version of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – Alone, 1932 – 1940, by William Manchester, I have been enthralled with Churchill. And I’ve been particularly captivated by the duel between him and Adolf Hitler over these years and on through the war. I get goose-bumps every time I listen to Churchill say, in one of his more famous wartime speeches,

The people of London would say with one voice to Hitler: “You have committed every crime under the sun. Where you have been the least resisted there you have been the most brutal. It was you who began the indiscriminate bombing. We remember Warsaw in the first few days of the war. We remember Rotterdam. We have been newly reminded of your habit by the hideous massacre in Belgrade. We know too well the bestial assault you’re making upon the Russian people, to whom our hearts go out in their valiant struggle. We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst – and we will do our best.”

So imagine my joy at finding John  Lukacs’ The Duel: The Eighty Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler. Having already read and enjoyed Five Days in London, May 1940, also by Lukacs, I was eager to dive into this one. I was not disappointed.

With all that has been written on Churchill and Hitler, Lukacs takes up the more seldom treated period between May 10 and July 31, 1940. Although he covers the well-known advance of the Germans into France and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, his main object is to convey the visions of Churchill and Hitler and how they played into their strategy. It is this larger vision of each man that animates the book. Hitler was the revolutionary, the most revolutionary man of the 20th century, according to Lukacs. And Hitler’s vision of the marriage between nationalism and socialism (albeit in a perverse form) is the one that carried the future. Churchill was fighting to preserve all that England had been, something that had been slipping away at least since the end of World War I. It’s an interesting thesis, and Lukacs develops it well. He details Churchill’s vigorous efforts to bring the United States in on England’s side, and Hitler’s continued efforts to force England into a peace agreement.

Perhaps the most interesting historical narrative I gained from this book is the understanding of Hitler’s reasons for deciding to invade Russia. Lukacs rejects the notion that Hitler was simply a megalomaniac bent on world conquest. In truth, Hitler understood that “world conquest” was impossible, but in order to gain total domination over Europe, which was possible, England would have to be brought to heel. And if Hitler could knock out Soviet Russia, upon whom Churchill still rested some of his hopes, England would be faced with an overwhelming German force on the continent and would then have to sue for peace. This was Hitler’s calculation, though he was less confident about its realization on the eve of the German invasion of Russia in 1941 than were his generals. Of course we know the end of the story, but it is all too easy to forget that the eventual Russian victory was not inevitable.

Important, too, was Churchill’s ordering of the Royal Navy to sink French ships, lest they fall into the hands of the Germans. This was a very difficult move for Churchill, but showed a courage and resolve that impressed even president Roosevelt, and likely was a crucial, small step in keeping the prospect alive of American involvement on Britain’s side.

Lukacs’ style is engaging and his story-telling superb. He gives the reader important and interesting details, but does not overwhelm with too much data. Lukacs has a sweeping knowledge of his subject, which allows him to consider both Churchill and Hitler from their own writings and memoirs rather than from a psychoanalytical perspective, which has become such a routine practice. Because we get a glimpse into the wider vision of each man and the historical consequences that have followed from it, such a book remains relevant to our lives today. As he concludes,

Fifty years later we in the English-speaking world have not yet been able to come to terms with the historical figure of Hitler, who was not a madman. Eighteen years ago I wrote that to ascribe the evil acts of men to “abnormality” does not only obscure our understanding of Hitler, it also obscures and damages our necessary understanding of human nature itself…He was a desperate man – while at the same time a visionary of a new, heroic, pagan and scientific world. Churchill was the defender of a traditional and now antiquated world, and of its surviving standards – a defender of Western civilization rather than a champion of progress.(224)

It is for the look into “human nature itself” that I recommend this book, and likely why I find Churchill and his duel with Hitler so mesmerizing still.


Written by Michael Duenes

April 22, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Duenes, History, Literature

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