Mr. Churchill

Isaiah Berlin defends Churchill against the charge that his writings are windy and self-aggrandizing

After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since, they conceived a new idea of themselves which their own prowess and the admiration of the world has since established as a heroic image in the history of mankind, like Thermopylae or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. They went forward into battle transformed by his words. The spirit which they found within them he had created within himself from his inner resources, and poured it into his nation, and took their vivid reaction for an original impulse on their part, which he merely had the honor to clothe in suitable words. He created a heroic mood and turned the fortunes of the Battle of Britain not by catching the mood of his surroundings (which was not indeed at any time one of craven panic or bewilderment or apathy, but was somewhat confused; stouthearted but unorganized) but by being impervious to it as he has been to so many of the passing shades and tones of which the life around him has been composed.

The peculiar quality of heroic pride and sense of the sublimity of the occasion arises in him not, as in Mr. Roosevelt, from delight in being alive and in control at a critical moment of history, in the very change and instability of things, in the infinite possibilities of the future whose very unpredictability offers endless possibilities of spontaneous moment-to-moment improvisation and large imaginative moves in harmony with the restless spirit of the time. On the contrary, it springs from a capacity for sustained introspective brooding, great depth and constancy of feeling—in particular, feeling for and fidelity to the great tradition for which he assumes a personal responsibility, a tradition which he bears upon his shoulders and must deliver, not only sound and undamaged but strengthened and embellished, to successors worthy of accepting the sacred burden.

Bismarck once said something to the effect that there was no such thing as political intuition: political genius coinsisted in the ability to hear the distant hoofbeat of the horse of History—and then by superhuman effort to leap and catch the horseman by the coattails. No man has ever listened for this fateful sound more eagerly than Winston Churchill, and in 1940 he made the heroic leap. "It is impossible," he writes of this time, "to quell the inward excitement which comes from a prolonged balancing of terrible things," and when the crisis finally bursts he is ready because after a lifetime of effort he has reached his goal.

The position of the Prime Minister is unique: "If he trips he must be sustained; if he makes mistakes they must be covered; if he sleeps he must not be wantonly disturbed; if he is no good he must be poleaxed," and this because he is at that moment the guardian of the "life of Britain, her message and her glory." He trusted Roosevelt utterly, "convinced that he would give up life itself, to say nothing about office, for the cause of world freedom now in such awful peril." His prose records the tension which rises and swells to the culminating moment, the Battle of Britain—"a time when it was equally good to live or die." This bright heroic vision of the mortal danger and his will to conquer, born in the hour when defeat seemed not merely possible but probable, is the product of a burning historical imagination, feeding not upon the data of the outer but of the inner eye: the picture has a shape and simplicity which future historians will find it hard to reproduce when they seek to assess and interpret the facts soberly in the gray light of common day.

6

The Prime Minister was able to impose his imagination and his will upon his countrymen, and enjoy a Periclean reign, precisely because he appeared to them larger and nobler than life and lifted them to an abnormal height in a moment of crisis. It was a climate in which men do not usually like living; it demands a violent tension which, if it lasts, destroys all sense of normal perspective, overdramatizes personal relationships, and falsifies normal values to an intolerable extent. But, in the event, it did turn a large number of inhabitants of the British Isles out of their normal selves and, by dramatizing their lives and making them seem to themselves and to each other clad in the fabulous garments appropriate to a great historic moment, transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor.

This is the kind of means by which dictators and demagogues transform peaceful populations into marching armies; it was Mr. Churchill's unique and unforgettable achievement that he created this necessary illusion within the framework of a free system without destroying or even twisting it; that he called forth spirits which did not stay to oppress and enslave the population after the hour of need had passed; that he saved the future by interpreting, the present in terms of a vision of the past which did not distort or inhibit the historical development of the British people by attempting to make them realize some impossible and unattainable splendor in the name of an imaginary tradition or of an infallible, supernatural leader. Mr. Churchill was saved from this frightening nemesis of romanticism by a sufficiency of that libertarian feeling which, if it sometimes fell short of understanding the tragic aspects of modern despotisms, remained sharply perceptive—sometimes too tolerantly, but still perceptive—of what is false, grotesque, contemptible in the great frauds upon the people practiced by totalitarian regimes. Some of the sharpest and most characteristic epithets are reserved for the dictators: Hitler is "this evil man, this monstrous abortion of hatred and defeat." Franco is a "narrow-minded tyrant" of "evil qualities" holding down a "blood-drained people." No quarter is given to the Pétain regime, and its appeal to tradition and the eternal France is treated as a repellent travesty of national feeling. Stalin in 1940-1941 is "at once a callous, a crafty, and an ill-informed giant."

This very genuine hostility to usurpers, which is stronger in him than even his passion for authority and order, springs from a quality which Mr. Churchill conspicuously shares with the late President Roosevelt—uncommon love of life, aversion for the imposition of rigid disciplines upon the teeming variety of human relations, the instinctive sense of what promotes and what retards or distorts growth and vitality. But because the life which Mr. Churchill so loves presents itself to him in an historical guise as part of the pageant of tradition, his method of constructing historical narrative, the distribution of emphasis, the assignment of relative importance to persons and events, the theory of history, the architecture of the narrative, the structure of the sentences, the words themselves, are elements in an historical revival as fresh, as original, and as idiosyncratic as the neoclassicism of the Renaissance or the Regency. To complain that this is not contemporary, and therefore in some way less true, less responsive to modern needs, than the noncommital, neutral glass and plastic of those objective historians who regard facts and only facts as interesting and, worse still, all facts as equally interesting—what is this but craven pedantry and blindness?

7

The differences between the President and the Prime Minister were at least in one respect something more than the obvious differences of national character, education, and even temperament. For all his sense of history, his large, untroubled, easy-going style of life, his unshakable feeling of personal security, his natural assumption of being at home in the great world far beyond the confines of his own country, Mr. Roosevelt was a typical child of the twentieth century and of the New World; while Mr. Churchill, for all his love of the present hour, his unquenchable appetite for new knowledge, his sense of the technological possibilities of our time, and the restless roaming of his fancy in considering how they might be most imaginatively applied, despite his enthusiasm for Basic English, or the siren suit which so upset his hosts in Moscow—despite all this, Mr. Churchill remains a European of the nineteenth century.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In