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One Silence in History:

May 9, 1940



By Charles R. Testrake



Exercise 104: What If. Rewrite a moment in history. Don’t revise history too dramatically. Play with subtle but significant departures from historical fact.

I chose to write a short piece about how Nazi Germany could have won the Second World War.

The What If – Thursday, May 9, 1940

"Prime Minister, it would be impossible for the Labour Party to serve in government under you."

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took a deep breath as he leaned back into his chair. He had been expecting this response from the Labour Party Leader Clement Attlee, but it still hurt. What more could have he done? He had done everything he could think of to avoid war and yet it still came. Now he was being made the scapegoat for the failures of that war.

"Who would you serve under?" asked Chamberlain.

"Either Halifax or Churchill," said Attlee.

"Thank you for your honesty Attlee," said Chamberlain. "You can see yourself out."

Attlee stood and nodded to the Prime Minister. He then turned around and made his way to the door.

"Attlee," Chamberlain called out. Attlee turned around.

"Please ask Halifax and Churchill to come in," said Chamberlain.

"Prime Minister," said Attlee. He turned and left the office, closing the door behind him.

A few seconds later the door open again and in walked the Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Halifax, followed by the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. As leader of the Conservative Party, which was still the largest party in the House of Commons, Chamberlain knew the King would appoint whomever of these men he recommended as his successor.

Just seeing Churchill though made Chamberlain angry. It was his disastrous handling of the Norwegian campaign which precipitated this constitutional crisis in the first place, yet somehow Churchill had managed to avoid any of the blame for Norway. Halifax on the other hand had always been a stable ally; never once had he displayed any rash or erratic behavior. He would make the perfect Prime Minister. The only problem was that Halifax was not a member of the House of Commons. There had not been a Prime Minister from the House of Lords in over forty years.

"Gentlemen, please sit down," said Chamberlain. Halifax and Churchill obliged. "As you know our party just barely survived a vote of no confidence in the Commons. It is unlikely that we would survive another. So therefore the only solution, absent a wartime general election, is to form an all party coalition government for the duration of the war."

Chamberlain paused here, hoping for a mild or even symbolic protest from either man. Both Halifax and Churchill reminded silent. Disappointed, Chamberlain continued. He told them of his meeting his Attlee and his decision to resign. Again neither man spoke a word.

"Winston," Chamberlain said. "Can you see any reason why in these days a Peer should not be Prime Minister?"

"Prime Minister," said Churchill. "Lord Halifax is a most capable man, but as member of the House of Lords he would not be permitted to sit in the Commons, where all the important decisions of government are made."

"I agree with you Winston," said Chamberlain. "So that is why I intend to ask the King to suspend Lord Halifax’s peerage. Then we will simple find a safe seat somewhere and have him elected to the House of Commons. Do you have any objections to this scheme Winston?"

"No Sir," said Churchill. "None what so ever."

Three weeks later Great Britain sued for peace with Nazi Germany.

What Actually Happened - Thursday, May 9, 1940

"Winston," Chamberlain said. "Can you see any reason why in these days a Peer should not be Prime Minister?"

Churchill stood up from his chair and walked to the window. He looked out upon the Horse Guards Parade and did not say a word. An awkward silence filled the room for over a minute and then Lord Halifax spoke.

"If I were to become Prime Minister, I would be nothing but a cipher. I could not sit in the House of Commons where the business that is the life blood of this nation takes place. Winston would be the better choice."

Chamberlain sighed. "Very well," he said. "I shall speak to the King tomorrow."

Five years later Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, but that is a story we already know.


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