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
In the fateful spring and early summer of 1940 the people of Britain clustered around their wireless sets to hear defiant and uplifting oratory from their new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. On May 13, having just assumed the burden of office from a weak and cowardly Neville Chamberlain, Churchill promised a regime of “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” On June 4, after the evacuation of the defeated British army from Dunkirk, he pledged, “We shall fight on the beaches.” On June 18 he proclaimed that even if the British Empire were to last for a thousand years, this would be remembered as its “finest hour.” Over the course of the ensuing months Britain alone defied the vast conquering appetites of Hitlerism and, though greatly outclassed in the air, repelled the Luftwaffe’s assault with a handful of gallant fighter pilots. This chivalric engagement—“The Battle of Britain”—thwarted Nazi schemes for an invasion of the island fortress and was thus a hinge event in the great global conflict we now call World War II.
The foregoing paragraph could appear without much challenge in almost any English or American newspaper or magazine, and versions of it have recently seen print in the reviews of Churchill: A Biography, by the British Liberal statesman Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. One might, however, call attention to some later adjustments to this familiar picture.
• The three crucial broadcasts were made not by Churchill but by an actor hired to impersonate him. Norman Shelley, who played Winnie-the-Pooh for the BBC’s Children’s Hour, ventriloquized Churchill for history and fooled millions of listeners. Perhaps Churchill was too much incapacitated by drink to deliver the speeches himself.
• Britain stood alone only if the military and economic support of Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, and the rest of a gigantic empire is omitted. As late as October of 1940, furthermore, the Greeks were continuing to resist on mainland Europe and had inflicted a serious military defeat on Mussolini. Moreover, the attitude of the United States, however ostensibly neutral, was at no time neutralist as between a British versus a German victory.
• The Royal Air Force was never seriously inferior, in either men or machines, to Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe, and at times outgunned it. British pilots were mainly fighting over home territory and, unlike their German opponents, could return straight to duty if they parachuted down. The RAF had the advantage of radar and the further advantage of a key to the Nazi codes. The Royal Navy was by any measure the superior of the Kriegsmarine, and Nazi surface vessels never left port without exposing themselves to extreme hazard.
• The German High Command never got beyond the drawing-board stage of any plan for the invasion of Britain, and the Führer himself was the source of the many postponements and the eventual abandonment of the idea.
A close reading of the increasingly voluminous revisionist literature discloses many further examples of events that one thinks cannot really be true, or cannot be true if the quasi-official or consecrated narrative is to remain regnant. Against which nation was the first British naval attack directed? (Against a non-mobilized French fleet, moored in the ports of North Africa, with the loss of hundreds of French lives.) Which air force was the first to bomb civilians, and in whose capital city? (The RAF, striking the suburbs of Berlin.) Which belligerent nation was the first to violate the neutrality of Europe’s noncombatant nations? (The British, by a military occupation of Norway.) But these details, not unlike the navels and genitalia in devotional painting, are figleafed in denial. They cannot exactly be omitted from the broader picture, nor can they be permitted any profane influence on its sanctity. Meanwhile, who made the following broadcast speech to the British people in 1940?
“We are a solid and united nation which would rather go down to ruin than admit the domination of the Nazis … If the enemy does try to invade this country we will fight him in the air and on the sea; we will fight him on the beaches with every weapon we have. He may manage here and there to make a breakthrough: if he does we will fight him on every road, in every village, and in every house, until he or we are utterly destroyed.”
That was Neville Chamberlain, who (albeit in his rather reedy tones) delivered the speech himself. And how many casualties did the RAF suffer during the entire Battle of Britain? A total of 443 pilots, according to official sources cited in Richard Overy’s cool and meticulous revisiting of the story.
I was brought up on the cult of Winston Churchill. My father, a Royal Navy commander, was on board H.M.S. Jamaica when it helped to deal the coup de grâce to the Nazi warship Scharnhorst on December 26, 1943—a more solid day’s work than any I have ever done. In the declining post-imperial Britain of the 1950s and 1960s the Homeric story of 1940, and of its bulldog-visaged protagonist, was at once a consolation for many disappointments and an assurance of Britain’s continued value to the world. Even then it was sometimes difficult to swallow Churchill whole, as it were. A sort of alternate bookkeeping was undertaken, whereby the huge deficits of his grand story (Gallipoli, the calamitous return to the gold standard, his ruling-class thuggery against the labor movement, his diehard imperialism over India, and his pre-war sympathy for fascism) were kept in a separate column that was sharply ruled off from “The Valiant Years.” But even the many defeats and fiascoes and dishonors added in some numinous way to his stature. Here was a man who had taken part in a Victorian cavalry charge at Omdurman, in the Sudan, to avenge the slaying of General Gordon by a messianic mullah, and who had lived to help evolve the design and first use of thermonuclear weaponry. He was not a figure in history so much as a figure of history. (Invited by Adlai Stevenson to contribute something to the English-Speaking Union, he gruffly replied, “I am an English-speaking union.” In anyone else this would have been solipsism, rather than charm commingled with truth.) And because in 1946 he had effectively founded the Anglo-American “special relationship” in its Cold War form, at Fulton, Missouri, his enormous specter seemed to guarantee Britain a continued role as a junior superpower, or at least as a superpower’s preferred junior.
In the early 1970s I was working at The New Statesman, in London, very near the Public Record Office, when a fresh tranche of Churchill’s wartime papers was released. These covered the discussions between Churchill (“Premier,” as the official papers called him) and Stalin about the future of postwar Eastern Europe. It was already known that Churchill had proposed, on the back of an envelope, a deal with Stalin for 90 percent British control of Greece in exchange for an equivalent communization of the Balkans. But it was not quite clear whether he had also deliberately traded Poland into Stalin’s “sphere of influence.” The matter had moral as well as historical importance, since it was in defense of Poland that Britain had finally declared war on Hitler, in September of 1939. A.J.P. Taylor prompted me to examine the documents, but the authorities informed me that the entries for Anglo-Soviet discussion of wartime Polish policy had been unaccountably mislaid. That sort of thing happens a lot in a state with an Official Secrets Act, but this was flagrant; and Poland had recently begun to stir and shift again as an actor for itself in European politics. “They always say that when it’s important,” Taylor told me about the “loss” of the critical records. I briefly considered titling my New Statesman article “The Churchill-Stalin Pact” but swiftly appreciated that this would make me look like a crank. There was no Churchill-Stalin Pact. There could not have been a Churchill-Stalin Pact. The necessary three words could not be brought into apposition. Heroic and improvised pragmatism—yes. Degraded and cynical statecraft? Not yet thinkable.
The Churchill cult in England, however, is mild and reflective in comparison with the Churchill cult in the United States. (I don’t think any British school would be so artless as to emulate the Winston Churchill High School in the upscale D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland, which has a yearbook titled Finest Hours.) The aftermath of September 11 only reinforced a series of tropes that were already familiar to students of ready-made political rhetoric. “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail,” President Bush proclaimed as the bombing of Afghanistan began. “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire,” Churchill said—somewhat more euphoniously—sixty years before. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has outdone even his Churchill-obsessed predecessor Caspar Weinberger, announcing to the staff of the Pentagon on September 12, “At the height of peril to his own nation, Winston Churchill spoke of their finest hour. Yesterday, America and the cause of human freedom came under attack.” Only a week earlier, this time speaking in favor of a missile-defense system, Rumsfeld had informed a Senate committee, “Winston Churchill once said, ‘I hope I shall never see the day when the forces of right are deprived of the right of force.’” On September 25, asked whether the Defense Department would be authorized to deceive the press in prosecuting the war, he unhesitatingly responded, “This conjures up Winston Churchill’s famous phrase when he said … sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, later to be described as an American Churchill, laid the groundwork for his own plaudits by announcing, just after the aggression of September 11 against his city, that he was reading a book about Churchill’s wartime premiership “and nothing is more inspirational than the speeches and reflections of Winston Churchill about how to deal with that.” Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Churchill in the Situation Room of the White House soon after taking power; the first President Bush allowed Jack Kemp to compare him to Churchill during the Gulf War; the second President Bush asked the British embassy in Washington to help furnish him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now holds pride of place in the Oval Office. The legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton can only whimper at the lack of Churchillian analogy to his own tenure, but the rest of us might wish that if the United States is going to stand for something, it (or its overpaid speechwriting class) would try to come up with some mobilizing rhetoric of its own.
This prevailing line, which teeters between grandeur and kitsch, is followed with reasonable fidelity by American historians and commentators. A few weeks before September 11 a fairly banal development earned a front-page story and an editorial in The New York Times. It became known that William Manchester, debilitated by two strokes, would not be completing his trilogy on the life of Churchill. This trilogy, generically titled The Last Lion, had run to two volumes, Visions of Glory and Alone. If these titles are insufficient to convey the flavor, one might cite, as did The New York Times in its editorial, the closing staves of the second and now final book: “And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.”
Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed. Yet The New York Times regarded the lack of a sequel as a cultural event worthy of reverent coverage and a deferential editorial. The latter, unsigned, described the incomplete work as leaving “Churchill somehow suspended, poised in the midst of a great arc whose outcome we know but whose details we would like to savor over again in Mr. Manchester’s words.” Or, to put it another way, there can never be too much reinforcement of a familiar and useful morality tale. In the quite recent past at least two books have been published to general acclaim—Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best, and Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs, which assist in this ramming home of an already near unassailable myth. And these, together with Lord Jenkins’s tome, only continue a process begun by Churchill himself when he annexed the papers of his time in office to write his own version of events. He could emerge as a historic figure—as he put it in one of his many and likeable moments of self-deprecation—by making sure of writing the history himself. The names of his early research assistants and drafters—Alan Bullock, F. W. Deakin—are testimony in themselves to what might fairly be called a conscription of the historians’ professional mainstream. Yet upon reflection one might perhaps decide that the term “conscription” is unfair. “Churchill the historian,” said the late Sir J. H. Plumb, “lies at the very heart of all historiography of the Second World War and will always remain there.” Donald Cameron Watt commented dryly seven years later, in 1976, “For the bulk of the historical profession in America, Sir Winston Churchill’s view of British policy before 1939 has hardly required a moment’s critical examination.” It would be no insult, then, to describe certain authors not as conscripts but as volunteers.
Manchester’s series proposed itself modestly as only the condensed (or large-print) version of the ur-text of approved Churchilliana: the eight-volume official biography, by Sir Martin Gilbert, the doyen of Churchill historians. Unlike the grave and measured work of which it is the flickering Platonic shadow, Manchester’s unfinished labor is overwrought in the sentimental, para-historical Camelot style that its author helped to originate. Once again, action is judged by reputation rather than reputation by action. In an extraordinary gesture Manchester rendered Churchill’s wartime speeches as blank verse, with carefully incised line breaks and verse settings. This was to make explicit what had been latent heretofore, and it was also to pay Churchill the compliment he would probably have most valued and desired. (Remember that he received his 1953 Nobel Prize for literature.) In the English-speaking world, at any rate, his lapidary phrases and rolling flourishes have achieved the familiarity and renown enjoyed by some passages of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the “kingship” plays of William Shakespeare. These excerpts or verses have the peculiar and potent faculty of recurring to our minds in time of trouble or when they seem relevant or poignant (or simply useful). And they are associated above all with fortitude, staunchness, and stoicism, salted with a little gallows humor. Imperishability of that sort descends on human beings very rarely indeed. And the audience does not mind a little exaggeration if the aim is flattering to the groundlings. “After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since,” Isaiah Berlin wrote in this magazine, in one of his many courageous stands for the conventional wisdom, “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.” How true. In bidding a gracious farewell to Neville Chamberlain, Churchill nobly called him “the packhorse in our great affairs.” Accepting the compliment, Chamberlain pointed out that the line comes from Richard III and not, as Churchill had alleged, from Henry VI. But no matter. The thing is not to be right about Shakespeare. The thing is to be Shakespearean. Blood, toil, tears, sweat—and some immodest populism.
In the flush of the “finest hour” in 1944 Laurence Olivier produced and starred in his patriotic movie version of Henry V. This film constituted (and still constitutes) subliminal propaganda of a high order. Shakespeare, Saint George, and the Almighty are yoked together against minatory Continental power. Some deference to contemporaneous Gallic sensibilities resulted in a downplaying of the original quarrel over the Salic law and the French throne, and the scene at Agincourt involving the ruthless massacre of all Prince Hal’s civilian and military prisoners was thoughtfully excised. Indeed, who today cares about the true foundation of Henry’s opportunistic claim, or about the heaps of dead on both sides, or the eventual ruin of his plan for the mainland? What is this when set beside the marvelous evocation of the Feast of Crispin, or the five-to-one numerical odds against the English at Agincourt (“we few, we happy few”), or the splendid words in which the terms of surrender are twice refused by Harry, or the glorious and seductive notion that sacrifice and wounds are to be envied and that “gentlemen in England, now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here”?
These very words were muttered by living (and dying) men on the shores of Dunkirk and Dieppe and Normandy, along with the whispered accompaniment that those absent would “hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.” And for at least a generation after World War II they had a stilling effect on all politicians who had apparently temporized about the last—or, indeed, the next—European conflict. In a secondhand form they exist in our vernacular as taunts about “Munich” or “appeasement,” the Munich analogy having extended itself through the “Iron Curtain” address in Fulton as a reproach to all those who were soft on communism. Manhood was the least of it; the taint of treason lay behind the suggestion of a want of virility.
In his time Churchill was very “soft,” as well as very hard, on both fascism and communism. His protean, volatile character has allowed him to escape most of the moral and political consequences. So it must count as a minor irony of history that his reputation and rhetoric, both of them highly serviceable to conservatives, have come under sustained attack from a determined school of British right-wing historians—for the intelligible reason that the salient grievance of these historians is the loss of the British Empire. Nevertheless, some American circles retain anti-Churchill suspicions, because of Churchill’s lifetime role in embroiling the United States in European wars. And beneath all this is a more utilitarian critique that simply inquires whether World War II could or should—because of its appalling cost—have been averted.
I earlier employed the term “profane,” knowing that I should be in need of it again. The argument about World War II and its worthwhileness is the most apparently settled and decided of all major questions in our culture. There may be an occasional flinch (about the obliteration of Dresden, say, or the incineration of Nagasaki, or the wisdom of demanding unconditional surrender). But the evidence adduced at Nuremberg has the effect of retrospectively annulling all such doubts. Even the standby argument of some anti-Churchill Tories (and others, including George Orwell), about the callous collusion between Churchill and Stalin, seems almost anachronistic in view of the eventual implosion of the Soviet system. Finally, nostalgia for the British Empire is not so strong either in Britain or in its former colonial possessions as to evoke much rancor or regret at the loss of dominion.
Churchill and his right-wing critics, from John Charmley to David Irving, have something in common. They unite around the two propositions that communism was to be opposed and British imperialism was to be upheld. For the first few decades of his political career Churchill was happy to be counted an extremist—if not, indeed, a fanatic—on both these counts. He helped to organize the brutal, abortive invasion of Lenin’s Russia in 1918, and published at least one subsequent article blaming the Jews for Bolshevism. He also wrote and spoke until quite late in the day (though more as an anti-Communist than an anti-Semite) in favor of Mussolini, Franco, and even Hitler. His fundamentalism about India, and the racist language in which he opposed the smallest concession to the Indian independence movement, were among the many reasons for the wide distrust that hampered him in the 1930s, and for his exclusion from the Tory Cabinets of that decade. Thus we face an intriguing question when we ask ourselves how it was that he came to embrace a cause that not only transcended those two elemental commitments but eventually negated them.
The hagiographer and the hatchet man are in unspoken agreement here. William Manchester and David Irving lay considerable stress on the near eclipse that overtook Churchill in the mid-1930s. The consensus politics of the so-called National Government had no appeal for him, and no need for him either. He was popularly (and correctly) regarded as one of those whose calamitous earlier policies had made coalition and compromise so necessary. And he was further distrusted as one who was predisposed toward grand-opera or militaristic solutions. Already in his sixth decade, Churchill was also (as some have a tendency to forget) on the verge of bankruptcy. Locust years indeed, in which Churchill (“so surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane …”) was more Falstaff than Hal. The blunt conclusion, encouraged by a reading of Manchester no less than of Irving, is that the Last Lion needed a last hurrah—a campaign issue that allowed him scope for all his talents and energies.
Confronted by the enemy’s herald, who warns him that he faces annihilation if he brings his sick and shabby force onto the field of battle, King Henry V retorts with pugnacity but without overmuch bravado: “We would not seek a battle as we are / Nor, as we are, we say; we will not shun it.” This was not unlike the wager that Churchill made in his campaign against the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments in the late 1930s. He accused them of being militarily unready while simultaneously urging them to risk battle. The contradiction is forgiven in light of eventual triumph, as it was in the case of Agincourt. But the political underlay was epigrammatically understood by Churchill as early as 1934. Writing about the reactionary press baron Lord Rothermere, who was enthusiastically pro-Nazi and pro-empire, he said, “He wants us to be very strongly armed & frightfully obsequious at the same time.” The left, he added with equal acuity, wanted Britain to remain “disarmed & exceedingly abusive.” The central paradox of the epoch has never been better phrased. We are almost conditioned to forget that many of the anti-Churchill Tories were busily committed to rearmament, but regarded Churchill’s constant drumming on the subject as vulgar and alarmist (as, indeed, it sometimes was).
The historian David Dutton seeks to rehabilitate Chamberlain and to write about Churchill as if he were, at last, approachable as a mere mortal. But in doing so he understates the way in which the Tory establishment of the time was subjectively, as well as objectively, pro-Nazi.
On closer examination the image of Churchill as the resolute and unwavering opponent of the 1930s’ dictators—a reasonable basis from which to launch an assault upon Neville Chamberlain—begins to dissolve. His contemporary criticism of the aggression of totalitarian regimes other than Hitler’s Germany was at best muted. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 Churchill declared that there would be a general unwillingness to fight or to “make any special exertions in defence of the present government of China.” Similarly, his record over Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War failed in reality to place him in a distinctly different camp from Chamberlain and the National Government. Nor did Churchill rush to denounce the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. As late as 1937 he even seemed willing to give Hitler the possible benefit of the doubt. Accepting that history was full of examples of men who had risen to power by “wicked and even frightful methods” but who had gone on to become great figures, enriching the “story of mankind”, he held out the possibility that “so it may be with Hitler” … Before 1938 his most significantly outspoken criticism of government policy related to its failure to uphold Baldwin’s pledge to maintain air parity with Germany. The government, however, had come to admit its failure in this respect and to begin to increase the pace of rearmament. [Italics added.]
This is true enough in the formal sense. But one might as readily have summarized Lincoln’s hesitations and evasions on the matter of slavery and abolition, and his long and tortuous attempts to avoid war, and his preference for the survival of the Union over other questions of principle. Yet when the arrogant exorbitance of “The Slave Power” compelled a confrontation, there was no length to which Lincoln would not go; no abolitionist group, however fanatical, that he would not befriend; and no extremity of pitiless violence to which he would not resort. His gift—better to say his instinct—for unifying and spirited phrasing promoted him well above the sordid battlefields for which those phrases were carpentered. Churchill (who in his writings actually betrayed a sympathy for the Confederacy) strikes me as a politician of that kind—a statesman who could use terms like “destiny” and “the Almighty” without seeming self-conscious; a Hegelian figure capable of entirely fusing himself with what he conceived as a fateful hour. In his contradictions he contained multitudes.
The word “appeasement” obscures some elements of this realization now, as it did then. It was the vague term chosen by the Tories themselves to mask a collaboration with fascism and also their candid hope that the ambitions of Hitler could be directed eastward against Stalin. It is as easy to imagine the RAF helping the Wehrmacht in the Caucasus—had things occurred in a slightly different order—as it was difficult for my gruff, reactionary Royal Navy father to find himself, under Churchill’s orders, running guns to Stalin via Murmansk. In their neglected book In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion (to which I should confess I wrote the introduction), Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel deploy an arsenal of documents to argue that sympathy for the Nazi Party prevailed in the highest British circles even after the declaration of war in September of 1939. It wasn’t at all that the British rightists were vacillating and pacifistic—an absurd notion to begin with. It was that they thought they could save their empire by a tactical alliance with Berlin. One simple proof of this can be adduced: British colonial and naval officials were historically very jealous of their country’s predominance in the Mediterranean, which extended from the Strait of Gibraltar to the shores of Palestine. Mussolini’s maritime challenge to this hegemony was vastly strengthened by Franco’s advance in Spain, and British ships visiting Republican ports were actually sunk by Italian planes and submarines during the Spanish Civil War. Yet the cheers for Franco on the Tory benches never died away. Quite obviously, these people thought they saw in fascism a future ally and not a future rival.
Thus Professor Dutton is ungenerous to Churchill. He partly acknowledges as much, in the small concession above on the threat from Germany, which was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from that posed by Italy or Spain or even—Churchill’s greatest failure of prescience—Japan. But he omits to credit the way in which Churchill broke from his previous sympathy for fascism and the “appeasement” of it, and also the stern, memorable words he employed to make the breach. It was actually the realization about Britain’s position in the Mediterranean, and not any sympathy for Republican Spain, that impelled him to recant his long-standing support for the Franco side. But when he made the switch, he made it wholeheartedly. The British ambassador in Paris did not especially object to Churchill’s inviting Léon Blum to dinner during his unofficial stopovers (the leader of the Front Populaire was also an honored guest at Churchill’s own country house at Chartwell). But he did put his foot down when Churchill asked him to produce some French Communist guests. Writing to a colleague about “The Focus,” that loose-knit group of politicians and journalists and socialites that informally coordinated anti-appeasement information and activity in the late 1930s, Churchill once described it as a coalition seeking support especially from “those of the ‘left.’” As a back-bencher with no official position, he repeatedly invited Stalin’s ambassador, Ivan Maisky, to his home to discuss political strategy.
It is difficult to exaggerate the difference between this and all his previous stances. And so it is indeed strange, given the heavy emphasis placed by chroniclers on Churchill’s sheer magnitude of personality, that the ingredient of pure ambition should be so much ignored or even disallowed. Churchill knew he had but one chance to put himself at the head of affairs. He was more than willing to amend or abandon all his previous allegiances in order to do so. To take only one example, Churchill had rashly enlisted on the side of King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson against Stanley Baldwin. He made such a fool of himself in the process (even Lord Jenkins concedes urbanely that he must have been hopelessly drunk at the crucial moment) as to jeopardize his newfound anti-Nazi connections. Yet only a short while later he jettisoned all his romantic and high-flown nonsense about being “a King’s man” and rejected the absurd former monarch as if he, Churchill, were Hal and the King the cast-off jester. Rereading this record, and surveying the ever multiplying fund of fresh sources, we find ourselves reviewing the career of a vaulting prince of opportunists.
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.
Indeed, it is fascinating to notice how often the colonial “periphery” was deemed the essential theater for avoiding an all-out war between Europeans. Chamberlain had cared far more about India (a much more faraway country) than about Czechoslovakia, whereas Churchill was willing to use imperial outposts as bargaining chips with both Roosevelt and Hitler; and in dealings with Washington the British were forced to mortgage what they actually held—in the Caribbean especially—as a down payment on Lend-Lease. It seems almost unbelievable now that the British should have panicked at the “prospect” of a Nazi invasion of Ireland, but it remains the case that Churchill (who had helped to fix the Partition of Ireland in 1921) offered to hand over Protestant Ulster to Eamon De Valera in exchange for the use of Irish ports. Hoping to preserve good relations with food-producing Argentina, the British considered relinquishing their dubious historical claim to the Falkland Islands.
Nor is this colonial dimension a sidebar to the main event. If anyone were to write a serious book about the moment when Britain and Churchill crossed the Rubicon and convinced those at home and abroad that there was no alternative to a war to the finish, the relevant time would not be the days of equivocation in May of 1940. It would be July 3 of the same year, when the order was given to destroy the French fleet in the port of Mers el-Kébir, or Oran, in Algeria. Having vastly and repeatedly overstated the will and the ability of the French to resist Hitler, and having nearly lost an entire British army on this delusion at Dunkirk, Churchill became his own polar opposite and decided that the surviving French naval force was in imminent danger of being grafted onto the German fleet. As it happened, Franklin Roosevelt and Cordell Hull were expressing precisely the same anxiety, at exactly the same time, about the British fleet. In none too delicate a fashion they suggested that Churchill dispatch the Royal Navy across the Atlantic for safekeeping. As late as June 27 Hull had proposed this very course, before being checked by an indignant reply from Churchill.
It can confidently be asserted, based on numerous records and recollections, that the British bombardment of the French navy put an end to this period of vacillation. In Parliament, Churchill’s earlier and more famous speeches (which he did at least give in the chamber, leaving Norman Shelley to handle the airwaves) had been greeted by the Tory members with sullenness or sarcasm—with what one Minister described at the time as a “sinister” lack of enthusiasm. But the news from Mers el-Kébir precipitated the first real ovation of his stewardship as Prime Minister. It was also employed by him to rub in a very salient point: “I leave the judgment of our action, with confidence, to Parliament. I leave it also to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history.” There was to be no more talk of compromise: “We shall on the contrary prosecute the war with the utmost vigor by all the means that are open to us until the righteous purposes for which we entered upon it have been fulfilled. This is no time for doubts or weakness. It is the supreme hour to which we have been called.”
“Supreme hour” is just as effective as “finest hour,” but this is one speech that has not come down to us by way of the Churchill school of historians. Why not? After all, it rallied opinion, spat defiance, dissolved factional differences, and mightily impressed both Washington and Moscow. It was also an unarguable act of war rather than an act of verbiage. It was a burning of the boats. Ah, but the boats were French. And so were the many hundreds of those who died in them. Moreover, no evidence has ever been produced to suggest that the French would have given over their fleet to the Nazis, and there is much evidence the other way: the ships had been moved to North Africa in the first place to avoid their impressment by Germany, and no surviving Vichy vessel was ever transferred to German control. The British commander who was ordered to open fire on a fleet that lay at anchor—Admiral James Somerville—confessed himself nauseated by the task. The French never forgave the incident. Chroniclers prefer to skate over it or, where possible, elide it altogether.
Yet here, if you will, is the Shakespearean or biblical element at work again. If Churchill would so cheerfully slay and humiliate his recent ally, as an earnest of his ruthlessness and resolution, then what might he not do? This was a much more literally and vividly “Churchillian” moment than most. It’s just not—if I may put it like this—the sort of thing they teach you in school.
At the end of his almost parodically orthodox book Geoffrey Best asks himself why Lyndon Johnson did not attend Churchill’s funeral, in 1965, and decides to leave this wounding question as an open one, almost incapable of rational explanation. Well, Churchill very pointedly did not attend Franklin Roosevelt’s obsequies in 1945, and even Lord Jenkins allows one to speculate—in view of Churchill’s addiction to Atlantic crossings and White House hospitality—that this was determined by pique, including pique at Roosevelt’s repeated refusal to visit Britain during the war. Several years ago I read through the entire Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence and was astonished to find how much the two men had disliked and distrusted each other. Astonished, too, by the clarity and candor of this mutual disaffection, and by the way that official history, most notably Churchill’s own volumes, downplayed the fact. The resentment on Roosevelt’s side was rather petty: he did not forget being snubbed by Churchill at their first meeting, in 1918; did not care for his endless importunacy; and was often appalled by his alcoholism. For Churchill’s part there was the detestation that is often felt by the mendicant; he hated having to be polite to the man he was asking for a loan. And to this was added the humiliation of the terms: Roosevelt always exacted payment, in gold or in bases, in advance, and was once described by his victim as “a sheriff collecting the last assets of a helpless debtor.”
One might feel more sympathy for this complaint if Churchill had not employed precisely the same lofty and arrogant method with his own mendicants. The French and the Poles, much more injured in their pride and in their territory than the British (and this often as a result of listening to British promises), were bluntly and sometimes thuggishly told to know their place and to keep their mouths shut. One does not have to reopen the tattered conspiracy theory about the death of General Sikorski. But it is morally impossible to read Churchill’s brutal injunction to Sikorski—that he drop the subject of the Soviet massacre of the Polish officer corps at Katyn—without reflecting that many more deaths were much more cynically covered up. (No serious British official doubted the truth or the justice of Sikorski’s complaint, though Churchill continued to smokescreen the issue even in his memoirs.)
Roosevelt’s case was slightly different. He was determined not to repeat the Wilsonian mistake of involving America in secret diplomacy; he was fighting the last war. But then, so was Churchill in his way. The issue foremost in Churchill’s mind was the entanglement of the United States in the combat. He and his admirals regularly joked about the happy possibility that the German navy would provoke a confrontation with an American vessel in the North Atlantic. During the hunt for the Bismarck and its consort, Prinz Eugen, Churchill announced that “it would be better for instance that she should be located by a US ship as this might tempt her to fire on that ship, then providing the incident for which the US government would be so grateful.” He may have been too jaunty about the second part of the hypothesis. But the evident reference was to the notorious sinking of the Lusitania, in 1915, which occurred during his first tenure at the British Admiralty. The official historian of British Naval Intelligence, Patrick Beesly, has already written about this as follows:
For my part, unless and until fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill’s express permission and approval.
Those who like to refer to Churchill as an adventurer or a swashbuckler or a buccaneer do not like to hear their words come back to them in this fashion; the Beesly history is invariably omitted from the authorized version. But I venture the prediction that the next wave of Churchill revisionism will focus more and more acutely on this and similar incidents. If he has a titanic place in history, it is largely because he was instrumental in engaging the United States in two world wars, and thus acted as (inadvertent) midwife to the successor role of America as an imperial power. The disagreeable and surreptitious element of this story cannot indefinitely remain unexamined. (There is more than a hint in some recent work that the paranoid American right may be mistaken in its ancient belief that “FDR knew” about the imminence of Pearl Harbor. FDR probably did not know. But Churchill quite possibly did.) At any rate, Churchill got his wish, for a wholehearted American commitment to the war. But in exchange he had to sign a virtual British “Declaration of Dependence,” on everything from currency to colonies.
Churchill's role in advancing the career and power of Joseph Stalin is the second guarantee of his enduring historical importance. In many of his communications and confidences one gets the distinct sense that he admired the great despot not in spite of his cruelty and absolutism but because of it. (He told Ivan Maisky of his admiration for Stalin’s annihilation of the Trotskyists. And that was before the outbreak of war.) Thus, when he mounted the podium at Fulton and spoke of an “Iron Curtain” extending from the Baltic to the Adriatic, Churchill at least possessed the authority of someone who had done much to bring that curtain down. In his other character, as Anglo-American imperialist, he had also helped to determine Washington’s role as guarantor of the other side of the curtain. Finally, he had helped to share the atomic secret as partial payment for a permanent seat for Britain at all superpower negotiations. A colossus by any measurement, if not the part avuncular and part growling figure depicted by those who trade in reassurance.
It is truth, in the old saying, that is “the daughter of time,” and the lapse of half a century has not left us many of our illusions. Churchill tried and failed to preserve one empire. He failed to preserve his own empire, but succeeded in aggrandizing two much larger ones. He seems to have used crisis after crisis as an excuse to extend his own power. His petulant refusal to relinquish the leadership was the despair of postwar British Conservatives; in my opinion this refusal had to do with his yearning to accomplish something that “history” had so far denied him—the winning of a democratic election. His declining years in retirement were a protracted, distended humiliation of celebrity-seeking and gross overindulgence.
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).