OFF the shelf
Man of words and actions
V.N. Datta

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning
by John Lukacs.
Basic Books, New York. Pages147. $ 25.95.

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire WarningA renowned scholar of European political history, John Lukacs states that the subject of his work "is one particular sentence said by one particular man on the 13th of May 1940, a man who perhaps uniquely and providentially understood Hitler". The man referred to in the foregoing sentence is Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and the sentence spoken by him is "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat", which was a part of his brief speech delivered in Parliament, when Hitler seemed close to winning the war. German forces had captured Belgium and Holland, and were marching in France.

On May 10, 1940, Churchill took over as Prime Minister of England. He was conscious that Britain was ill-prepared to fight Germany. His predecessor Neville Chamberlainís policy of "appeasement" and his proclamation on return from Munich that he had brought "peace with honour" had ended in a fiasco.

After taking over as Prime Minister, Churchill wrote, "I felt as if I were walking with Destiny and that all my past life had been a preparation for this honour and for this trial." About Churchillís competence to lead his country in Britainís hour of trial, his own party members and the Labour opposition had serious reservations. Churchillís image as a war leader was a sullied one in public mindóhe was viewed as an impulsive, rash, and a volatile person, totally incapable of taking a cool and calculating view of political and military affairs. The general view prevailed that Churchill had id`E9es fixes, and was too confident to be prudent.

The authorís purpose in quoting from Churchillís war speeches in 1940 is to emphasise that in most difficult circumstances, when Germany was scoring victories, Churchill rose to the occasion, met the challenge and built up the morale of his countrymen by delivering powerful speeches both in Parliament and outside. John Lukacs thinks that "some of Churchillís speeches altered the course of British, of European, of world history" (p.13).

It is true that the power of words is incalculable and some of Churchillís speeches had a profound impact on the public mind. His speeches charmed, inspired and seduced people to gird up their loins to fight the enemy. Churchill had a marvelous sense of the language. He had read through the prose works of Edward Gibbon and Lord Macaulay. He had cultivated an original sense of making phrases by a skilful art of using imagery. Indeed, his speeches were the work of one of the finest minds of a great literary writer.

As Prime Minister, Churchillís first task was to form his ministry, which he did, and he made no changes in it from the previous one. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, and a few other members of his Cabinet distrusted Churchillís judgement and preferred to negotiate a settlement with Hitler on contentious issues through Mussoliniís meditation, but Churchill refused to listen to them. Lukacs emphasises that Churchill understood Hitler and his soaring ambition to dominate Europe and Eastern Europe. The only way to save European civilisation, Churchill thought, was to fight Nazi Germany. Churchill knew that the task was difficult, especially when Germany was a strong military power.

Reverting to Churchillís Ďblood and toilí speech, the author tells us that it had a little impact on the public mind; nor was it an original composition but was a summary of Garibaldiís speech, which must have rung in Churchillís ears. Addressing his soldiers to fight for the liberation of Italy, Garibaldi had said, "I offer not pay, no lodging, no provision. I offer hunger, marches, battles and deaths".

Another disaster fell in Britain when Dunkirk was lost on May 28, 1940. The evacuation from Germany had begun. Churchill thought that more than 2,20,000 British troops circled in Dunkirk by the Germans could be saved and brought back to Britain. However, the prospects brightened, and in a week about 3,40,000, including 1,10,000 French had been saved. On June 4, 1940, after the German forces took over Dunkirk, Churchill, according to the author, "delivered one of the greatest speeches, for some, the greatest, the first, whose phrases reverberated through England". This speech is too well known, and it need not be reproducedóonly a few lines of it are given. Churchill said, "We shall go to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans `85 we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the streets, we shall fight in hills, we shall never surrender `85 . "

Lukacs cites from Churchillís famous speech, which he had delivered in Parliament on June 18, 1940: "If we fail, the whole world will sink into abyss." By October 1940, his speeches were printed and began to be reverberated beyond the British Isles. Until page 128, the author confines himself to some of Churchillís speeches and their impact on the public mind, but thereafter he gives a synoptic view of the military alliances which Britain entered into, that turned the tide of war.

The Second World War is a familiar story. Hitlerís attack on the Soviet Union, and the US declaration of war against Japan and Germany changed the course of war situation. Acknowledging Churchillís vision, leadership and fortitude, the author thinks that the real credit for the defeat of the axis powers must go to the US and Soviet Union. To Britain, the victory cost the loss of British Empire, reducing her to the position of a vassal of the US.

This insightful and lucid study written in a flowing style offers a new approach to the interpretation of the Second World War.