The Duel

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By John Lukacs; Ticknor & Fields; 288 pages; $10.95.

“It is not only historically wrong but dangerous to see Hitler and Hitlerism as no more than a strange parenthesis in the history of the twentieth century,” John Lukacs writes toward the beginning of The Duel, and it is not the least of this fascinating book’s virtues that it manages to re-create a world that viewed Hitlerism as nothing less than the future itself, come to claim its scepter from the played-out Western democracies.

Winston Churchill saw the true nature of that future more clearly than most and warned England against it, and for his pains he was despised as a saber rattler. But at last he came into power, on the same day that Hitler threw his legions into France and Belgium. The duel of the title is the duel between the two men.

With elegance, wit, and restrained passion, Lukacs recaptures the eighty days when the fate of the world depended upon which of two men better understood the other. It’s all here: Churchill gathering together the strands of government in a welter of calamity; the disintegration of France; Hitler triumphant across half of Europe; the mounting British pressure of accommodation; the spookily beautiful summer weather; despair and courage and defiance. The narrative works on every level from psychological thriller to moral parable, and, by rooting tremendous events in the personalities of the men who brought them about, the author reminds us that the tenacity of an individual can change the course of history. Moreover, even though everyone knows how his story ends, Lukacs tells it with such skill that he manages to keep the reader in suspense throughout.