Books & Critics April 2002

The Medals of His Defeats

Our author takes the Great Man down a peg or two—and still finds that Churchill was a great man

Here one must negotiate the toxic figure of David Irving. If Sir Martin Gilbert's work is the quarry from which the wagons of orthodoxy continue to trundle away, laden with the building blocks for lesser edifices of loyalism, then Irving's projected trilogy Churchill's War is the dynamite that lies still unexploded around the quarry. Two volumes have so far been published, bringing the story up to 1943, with the Battle of Kursk balanced by the impending invasion of Sicily. Since his first volume was published, to some acclaim, in 1987, Irving has been reduced to publishing and marketing his books himself. The reason for this is now well understood. Both in his public life as a fringe speechmaker and in his career as a freelance archivist and historian, Irving has tainted himself with the one thing of which no serious person can even be suspected: a sympathy for the Nazi cause. Much of this taint is the consequence of an unsuccessful libel lawsuit against the Holocaust specialist Deborah Lipstadt.

Anyone who reads his first two Churchill volumes with open eyes will see at once that Irving invites, if not enjoys, his reputation as an untouchable. Whenever he mentions Nazi defectors or mutineers or anti-Hitler plotters (and the frigid reception given to such men by Chamberlain and Lord Halifax was yet another clue to their real sympathy for the Führer), he refers to them as "traitors." He repeatedly describes Churchill as a front man for "the Socialists" and for (variously) "the Zionists" and "the Jews." He has an unconcealed contempt for mongrel America, and for the wiles of Roosevelt as he schemed to poach the wonderful British Empire. Yet in the text Irving often refers to Churchill as "Winston." (Irving, as those who study him will know, has a tendency to mix the oleaginous with the aggressive.) About halfway through Volume One, describing the tit-for-tat raids by which, he maintains, Hitler was first induced by Churchill to bomb London in September of 1940, he summarizes his essential position.

This first attack had killed 306 Londoners. It was the first lurch towards the holocaust. Now Churchill and Portal needed no further justification for what they proposed—to unleash a new kind of war, in which ultimately one million civilians in Germany as well as hundreds of thousands of French, Poles, Czechs and others would die under the trample of the Allied strategic bomber forces.

("Holocaust" literally means a devouring by fire, so the term may be technically allowed, but you see what I mean.) Irving has a great facility for innuendo; its most successful application is the repeated suggestion that Churchill used his foreknowledge of German air raids sheerly for grandstanding purposes. On the nights when he knew that Göring's bombers would overfly London on their way to, say, Coventry, he would make a point of standing on the Air Ministry roof, or of taking a stroll in the Downing Street garden, thus impressing his staff and subordinates with his pluck and daring and sangfroid. On the nights when Enigma gave him private information about a raid on London itself, he would decamp to the country house of a wealthy friend. This accumulation of detail is so subversive of the legend as to make a greater difference in the mind of the reader than many more-serious shortcomings of generalship. The allegation has now been in print for fifteen years, and I have never seen it addressed by the Great Man's defenders, let alone rebutted.

So visceral is his contempt for Churchill that even the later revisionist historians handle Irving with tongs. Clive Ponting's study 1940: Myth and Reality, published in 1991, does not acknowledge Irving's existence except in the bibliography. John Charmley's first book on Churchill, Churchill: The End of Glory, was published in 1993 (while Charmley held the chair at, of all places, Fulton, Missouri), and his second book, Churchill's Grand Alliance, appeared in 1995. The name David Irving is only briefly cited in either text or index. (This method is employed in turn by Lord Jenkins, who awards Charmley a single reference en passant, doesn't even credit Irving in his bibliography, and in general writes as if all "second thoughts" about Churchill are beneath his, and our, notice.) Yet internal evidence strongly suggests that Ponting, Charmley, and Jenkins have read Irving with keen attention, and have used him to enlarge their narratives without appearing to bow to his influence.

I would not consider as qualified in the argument about Churchill anybody who had not read Irving's work. In those pages one may read, without the veil of discretion or constraint that descended like a thick velvet curtain after 1945, what Churchill's colleagues and subordinates really thought about him at the time. What they often thought—ambassadors, private secretaries, generals, air marshals—was that he was a demagogue, a bluffer, an incompetent, and an inebriate. Some of those cited are jealous subordinates, and others are military men with a pre-war sympathy for fascism. But here, for instance, is Lord Hankey, one of the leading professional civil servants during both world wars, writing in May of 1941, when he had the job of coordinating Britain's secret services:

Churchill has great gifts of leadership, and can put his stuff over the people, Parliament, his Cabinet colleagues and even himself. But he is not what he thinks himself, a great master of the art of war. Up to now he has never brought off any great military enterprise. However defensible they may have been, Antwerp, Gallipoli and the expedition to help the White Russians at the end of the last war were all failures. He made some frightful errors of judgment between the two wars in military matters, e.g. obstructing the construction of new ships in 1925 ... his false estimates of the value of French generals & French military methods ... It was he who forced us into the Norwegian affair which failed; the Greek affair which failed; and the Cretan affair which is failing.

All of this, and more, is true. Yet even as the disaster in Crete was becoming evident, and Churchill was wondering how to break the news of another calamity, the Nazi flagship Bismarck was found in the North Sea (with the help of an "unofficial" American spotter plane), disabled by a hastily dropped torpedo, and sunk. Triumph. If Churchill was a Hegelian figure, and if Hegel described Bonaparte as "history on horseback," then Churchill is the most exemplary illustration of one of Bonaparte's maxims about generalship: he was lucky. The Norwegian fiasco—a fiasco of his own making—led to the vote of confidence in Parliament that deposed Neville Chamberlain. The defeat of France, which negated Churchill's dogmatic and dangerous belief in the efficacy of the Maginot Line and the Maginot mentality, allowed him to launch an enormous domestic "unity" campaign that stilled his critics and neutralized his rivals. The sudden frightening indebtedness and impoverishment of Britain gave him room to be sole mediator with Roosevelt, who agreed for a price to be his banker and armorer. At almost every point Churchill was allowed by events to flaunt the medals of his defeats.

There were times when this was not so, but they have been airbrushed from the received record. Not only did Churchill entirely lack foresight (or even ordinary prudence) about the ambitions of Japan, but in the early days of his prime ministership he gave orders for the closure of the Burma Road, the supply route by which Nationalist China had received the means of resistance. This was an overt capitulation to Hirohito's demands—an abject act of "appeasement" and one that was, interestingly enough, opposed as such by none other than the now despised Lord Halifax. Yet when, not long afterward, Singapore was encircled by the Japanese, Churchill raged incoherently about the failure of his generals to warn him of the threat, spoke terrifyingly of the need to uphold "our country and our race," and gave the direct order "There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population ... Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops." Read out of context, this hysterical directive could have been a telegram to either commander in the Battle for Stalingrad. It was discreetly countermanded by Archibald Wavell, who permitted the odious General Percival to capitulate. (The story of this outburst is rendered no prettier by the fact that Churchill was hoping, in his own words, to impress the Americans by a great human sacrifice.) Lord Jenkins, I must confess, surprised me, in only one way: he freely admits Churchill's continual worry that the British soldiers were not as good, or as worthy of his militancy, as the soldiers of the other side. This insecurity about the unworthiness of the rank and file for great deeds or great sacrifices was of course shared by at least two of the other three wartime overlords.

Scouring the increasingly meticulous and assertive and well-sourced revisionist literature, I felt a sensation I had experienced only once before, while reading Josephine Tey's minor masterpiece, The Daughter of Time. As fellow addicts of this book will know, it begins with an acceptance of the standard view of Richard III—"Crookback Dick," the usurper, and the murderer of the Little Princes. Then, by slow forensic degrees, it demonstrates that every aspect of this story is an accumulation of lies and later courtier propaganda. The chronicle of Holinshed, the memoir of Sir Thomas More, the drama of Shakespeare himself—all are pitilessly uncovered as the merest conjury and fraud. Even for a reader who has no stake in Tudor spin-doctoring, the effect is a vertiginous one, with all the cargo in the hold slowly turning over. Is one to be left with no illusions? Is the whole pageant a cruel put-up job?

There is an increasing scholarly understanding that only when Hitler made the mistake of fighting the Soviet Union and the United States simultaneously did he condemn himself to certain defeat. The overall British contribution to that defeat has been diminished by the years and with the unsealing of more and more international archives. Yet the legend of 1940 has persisted, and has survived the opening of even the British archives on the period. A sort of cognitive dissonance is in operation. The records show, for example, that in secret Cabinet discussions that spring and summer Churchill more than once favored limited negotiations with Hitler, while Chamberlain at least once voted against them. Nobody in the government was in favor of surrender; nobody, including Churchill, was in favor of rejecting all negotiation with Hitler on principle. But some, including Churchill, were too much committed to a war to turn back without risking ridicule or obloquy.

For an instance of the tenacity of the traditional view, by which one historian underwrites and reinforces the conventional efforts of another, I cite this excerpt from John Lukacs's November 2001 review of Geoffrey Best's Churchill: A Study in Greatness.

One of the stunning phrases in Churchill's history of World War I is his description of the First Fleet leaving Portsmouth for Scapa Flow on July 28, 1914, through the English Channel: "Scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought." Best ends his book with Churchill's funeral, on January 30, 1965, "the great cranes along the south side of the stretch of the river between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, dipping their masts in tribute as [Churchill's funeral launch] went by, 'like giants bowed in anxious thought.'" This is the mark of a great historian.

It is by no means the mark of a great historian. It is the mark of a recycler of familiar rhetorical themes, and of stale rhetorical expressions ("wending their way") at that. But Lukacs is committed to this style in precisely the way he is committed to its corresponding substance, which admits of no demurral. Just as it's easy to shock someone whose knowledge of World War II comes from the movie Casablanca by mentioning the obstinate fact that the Roosevelt Administration recognized Vichy even while it was at war with Germany, or the equally obstinate fact that it never declared war on Hitler but waited for Hitler to declare war on the United States, so it is easy to upset the Lukacsian world view with a couple of incontrovertible observations: In 1940 the Churchill government did not even surrender the Channel Islands. It evacuated them, beaches and all, and permitted an unopposed Nazi occupation. Churchill himself was quite ready to discuss Hitler's demand for some German colonies in Africa if that would help to buy time, and even contemplated the cession of some British colonies, such as Malta and Gibraltar.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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