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

Some recent work on Hitler, notably by Ian Kershaw, has disclosed a banal but nonetheless awful thought: The Führer always "knew" that he did not have long to live. He embarked on rash or hectic or suicidal enterprises not because he believed that his Reich would last a thousand years but because he sensed that it would not. (Those of his intimates who came to realize this were in possession of one of the most ghastly insights in human history.) Even without this awareness no actuary would have insured Hitler's life for an extra decade, or even five years. In retrospect this terrible knowledge might seem to vindicate the appeasers and those who, like pre-1941 Roosevelt, were ready to wait and see. A holding operation, or a compromise, could have perhaps resulted in Hitlerism's giving way to a successor regime or possibly being overthrown in favor of one. The Final Solution, which did not begin until the night and fog of war obscured it, might have been averted or at least attenuated. Millions of other Europeans and Americans might not have been burned or starved or tortured to death. We might not be living under the minute-by-minute menace of nuclear extinction.

I can think such thoughts, and even adduce evidence for them, and feel all the cargo in my hold slowly turning over until there is no weight or balance left in the once sturdy old vessel. Stephen Jay Gould, reviewing the evidence of the fossil record in the Burgess Shale, offered the dizzying conclusion that if the "tape" of evolution could be rewound and run again, it would not "come out" the same way. I am quite sure that he is correct in this. But history really begins where evolution ends, and where we gain at least a modicum of control over our own narrative. I find that I cannot rerun the tape of 1940, for example, and make it come out, or wish it to come out, any other way. This is for one purely subjective reason: I don't care about the loss of the British Empire, and feel that the United States did Britain—but not itself—a large favor by helping to dispossess the British of their colonies. But alone among his contemporaries, Churchill did not denounce the Nazi empire merely as a threat, actual or potential, to the British one. Nor did he speak of it as a depraved but possibly useful ally. He excoriated it as a wicked and nihilistic thing. That appears facile now, but was exceedingly uncommon then. In what was perhaps his best ever speech, delivered to the Commons five days after the Munich agreement, on October 5, 1938, Churchill gave voice to the idea that even a "peace-loving" coexistence with Hitler had something rotten about it. "What I find unendurable is the sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure." Those who write mournfully today about the loss of the British Empire must perforce admit that the Tory majority of 1938 proposed to preserve that empire on just those terms. Some saving intuition prompted Churchill to recognize, and to name out loud, the pornographic and catastrophically destructive nature of the foe. Only this redeeming x factor justifies all the rest—the paradoxes and inconsistencies, to be sure, and even the hypocrisy. But then his last political initiative, and his final excuse for declining to make way for a successor, was in 1953-1954, when he reversed course and proposed a major summit with Stalin's heirs to try to avert a Cold War. That was, in light of his past, paradoxical and inconsistent and hypocritical also. Yet it hurts to read of the contempt and condescension with which Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles treated this greathearted effort. Even Best and Jenkins are ruefully at one on this episode. For those then in power the Churchill legend was quite satisfactory as it was, with the instrumental metaphors of Munich and Dunkirk and Fulton always at hand.

Earlier I mentioned the stand of the Greeks in 1940. On October 28 of that year, having received an ultimatum from Mussolini to capitulate or face immediate occupation, they responded with the single word "Ochi"—"No!"—and mounted an extraordinary resistance that at first drove the forces of Italian fascism well back into Albania. The day is a national holiday in Greece, and "Ochi" can be seen cut into the side of more than one Greek mountain. When the Nazis joined Italy to punish this intransigence, and exerted overwhelming force, a Greek editor wrote an imperishable front-page article saying that Greece, which had once taught men how to live, would now show them how to die. There was much brave mention of Thermopylae and Marathon. It's a good and an inspiring story. However, and in fact, Greece at the time was ruled by a particularly crude homegrown Fascist dictator named Ioannis Metaxas. He almost certainly never uttered the pungent word "Ochi,"—replying, rather, to a demarche from the Italian ambassador by saying "Enfin—c'est la guerre." The relatively brief Greek holdout led eventually to appalling reprisals and a cruel famine, and made very little difference to the outcome of the war. (Though it is an article of belief among many Greeks that the savagely protracted defense of the island of Crete, invaded from the air where once Daedalus and Icarus had soared, delayed the start of Operation Barbarossa and thus contributed to Hitler's fatal collision with the Russian winter.) The story's ending is distinctly inglorious, with Winston Churchill arriving in liberated Athens in 1944 and ordering the British General Scobie to treat the Red-dominated population as if he were in a conquered city (and meanwhile trading Greece itself with Stalin).

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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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