The Duel:10 May-31 July 1940

On May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler began his swift and devastating attack on Western Europe; the very same day Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain. The story of these events, and those of the following two months, which include the fall of France, Hitler’s peace overtures to Britain, and his planned invasion of England, have been written about over and over. What is original about Lukacs’ book is that he concentrates throughout his riveting, detailed narrative on the character and actions of the two protagonists. His premise is that history is not made inexorably by large, impersonal social and material forces, but is shaped by outstanding individuals. In 1940, Lukacs argues, the destiny of the world lay largely in the hands of two men—Hitler and Churchill. The outcome of the struggle depended largely on their thoughts, ideas, and actions, particularly how they perceived each other’s character and intentions. A recurring theme in the book is that Churchill understood Hitler far better than Hitler understood Churchill.

Lukacs ends his narrative on July 31, 1940, because after that point Hitler and Churchill ceased to be the sole protagonists; President Roosevelt’s decision to abandon U.S. neutrality by selling fifty dilapidated World War I destroyers to Britain, and Hitler’s decision to plan for the invasion of Russia transformed the conflict into a world war, at the same time tipping the scales against Hitler.

What is remarkable about THE DUEL is that although everyone knows the outcome of the struggle, the book reads like a suspense novel. Lukacs has the gift of transporting the reader back to those tumultuous and uncertain days, when myriad dark possibilities lay before the world. One is left with the strong impression of how different the outcome might easily have been, and thankful once more that the free world found its champion in a reactionary English aristocrat who was prepared to fight till the end.