Whether or not you’ve seen Darkest Hour, the new Joe Wright film about Winston Churchill’s first month as British prime minister, which coincided with the Nazi conquest of France and the Low Countries, you should read this review by the inimitable Mark Steyn.
It’s easy to forget that, even as Nazi forces swept across the continent, the British foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, wanted to pursue a negotiated peace settlement. Indeed, there was nothing inevitable about Britain’s decision to continue fighting. In that sense, May 10, 1940, must surely rank as one of the most significant dates in the history of Western civilization.
On May 10th, the day Winston became PM, the Germans invaded Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Ten days later, Hitler’s army reached the Channel, and was within reach of throttling the 300,000-strong British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, and seizing the entire French fleet. In that dreadful month of May, Churchill wanted to fight on; Halifax preferred to use Mussolini’s “good offices” to sue for a “peace” that would leave Britain and its empire more or less “intact” — save for East Africa, Suez, Malta, Gibraltar and sundry other places that would have to be addressed, per the Italian ambassador in London, “as part of a general European settlement”.
In other words, we are at the great hinge moment of the twentieth century: Had Halifax prevailed, there would have been a neutered Berlin-friendly British Empire directly bordering America on the 49th parallel and all but directly the Soviet Union in Central Asia. There would have been no potential allies for Moscow in the event of war with Germany, thus incentivizing a successful conclusion in late 1940 to Molotov’s talks in Berlin to join the Axis; and no allies whatsoever for Washington, assuming Japan still felt the need to bomb Pearl Harbor the following year. Instead, Churchill prevailed — and Britain and its lion cubs fought on, playing for time until first the Soviets and then the Americans joined the war against Germany, Italy and Japan. That year in which the moth-eaten British lion and its distant cubs stood alone is, more than any other single factor, the reason why the world as ordered these last seventy years exists at all.
Thus, despite his myriad personal flaws and professional mistakes, Churchill was, as Steyn writes, “the indispensable man of the century.”