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Churchill and His Myths


At the end of 1936, Winston Churchill’s fortunes had sunk as low as he would ever know. His career had long resembled Snakes and Ladders, the nursery board game where a shake of the dice leads to either a brisk ascent or a downward slither. Already famous in 1900 when he entered Parliament at the age of twenty-five, he was home secretary at thirty-four (having nimbly deserted the Conservatives before the Liberals won their landslide in 1906), and went on climbing the ladder until the outbreak of the Great War. Then in 1915 he stepped on a nasty snake. He was saddled with the blame for the Dardanelles debacle and left government to command an infantry battalion on the Western Front. After easing his way back into office, he stealthily returned to the Conservative fold, but in 1931, while the Tories were in opposition, he resigned from the party leadership because of his bitter opposition to Gandhi’s release from prison, and to any measure of Indian self-government.

A heroic account of his “wilderness years” in the 1930s, which Churchill promoted and which is current today among his huge American claque, has him as the noble lone voice crying out while his countrymen willfully ignored his warnings about the need to rearm against a resurgent Germany. It’s true that most British people understandably had little enthusiasm for another war only twenty years after one in which they had lost three quarters of a million dead (equivalent to nearly six million Americans today). But Churchill’s woes were largely self-inflicted, from India to what John Lukacs calls “his impetuous (and, in retrospect, unnecessary) championing of Edward VIII” in December 1936. In the most disastrous parliamentary performance of his life, incoherent and seemingly the worse for drink, Churchill pleaded on behalf of the King until he was shouted down. London bookmakers take bets on anything from sport to the weather to politics; what odds would they have given that December that, within less than four years, he would be prime minister, at the supreme crisis in his country’s history?

This will always remain an extraordinary drama; but there is another story, of the degree to which Churchill divided opinion, in his lifetime and—as these books show—to this day. John Lukacs is preeminent among intellectually respectable Churchillians, and he returns yet again to the beginning of Churchill’s premiership in May 1940. Lynne Olson complements this with an admiring account of how a number of dissident Conservative MPs helped get him there. But for both Nicholson Baker and Patrick Buchanan—writing from utterly different perspectives—Churchill is the villain of the piece, a warmonger or an incompetent blunderer. Paul Addison has said that in 1945 Churchill won two great victories, one military and the other in the “battle over his reputation that had been going on ever since the turn of the century.” That other battle continues beyond the turn of one more century.

And it is intertwined with another argument, about the war in which he led his country. Lukacs takes as his text, and as his title, Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, the first speech Churchill gave as prime minister on May 13, 1940—three days after the German invasion of France—with its bleak warning of sufferings to come, telling Parliament and people “that immediately ahead of them loomed the prospect not of a Good War,” as Lukacs puts it, “of triumphs near or faraway, but the prospect of plight and suffering in the face of disasters.” But there was no more haunting passage in that speech than the promise “to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime.” With those words Churchill marked out for the future the essential narrative of a noble war fought with a unique moral purpose: the narrative of a Good War that Baker and Buchanan want to challenge.

Despite occasional equivocations, Churchill had recognized the nature of the Third Reich from the beginning; and in the autumn of 1938, still in the political doldrums, he staked all his political chips on opposing the Munich Agreement signed at the end of September. The man who rescued his career and his reputation was Hitler. Although Neville Chamberlain was welcomed home by cheering crowds, many Englishmen felt at heart like Léon Blum, the French Socialist leader, when he greeted Munich “with a mixture of shame and relief,” and shame soon predominated. When Czechoslovakia disintegrated in March 1939 and Hitler arrived triumphant in Prague, he stood exposed for perfidy as well as brutality. Chamberlain’s entire policy was discredited, and Churchill was vindicated. The London press called for his return to government, which came about when war was declared in September 1939; he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty eight months before the high drama of the following spring.

Anything John Lukacs writes is worth reading, even if he has now stretched his material to its limit. Evelyn Waugh said (through his alter ego Gilbert Pinfold) that he “had no wish to obliterate anything he had written, but he would dearly have liked to revise it, envying painters who are allowed to return to the same theme time and time again, clarifying and enriching it until they have done all they can with it.” Lukacs has done just that, and on an ever-smaller canvas: from The Last European War: September 1939–December 1941 to The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler to Five Days in London: May 1940 and now this absorbing long essay devoted to a single short speech, longer than the Gettysburg Address (and books have been written about that, after all) though still less than one thousand words. Miniaturism can scarcely go further.

Apart from the famous words “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” (deftly filched from Garibaldi in 1849: “Non offro nè paga, nè quartiere, nè provvigioni. Offro fame, sete, marce forzate, battaglie e morte“), that speech proposed Churchill’s succinct and forthright war aims: “It is victory, victory at all costs, victory, however long and hard the road may be.” And it distilled both Churchill’s insight into the nature of Hitlerism and his honesty in not promising easy answers. Lukacs has argued that the Third Reich was in many ways characterized by its “modernity”; and it was, in his view, Churchill’s sense of history and his high conception of Christian civilization—in a cultural sense rather than from the viewpoint of a believing Christian, which he was not—that gave him his intuition about that heart of darkness, or what, in his “finest hour” speech of June 18, he called the threat “of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science.”

What had brought Churchill to power was the military disaster following Hitler’s invasion of Norway on April 8, an irony he wryly recognized, since he bore no little responsibility for that calamity. On May 7–8 the House of Commons debated the failure in Norway, more vigorously than Parliament has recently been allowed to debate the failure in Iraq; although Chamberlain won the vote at its end, his majority fell so heavily that within two days he was replaced by Churchill. The heroes of Olson’s Troublesome Young Men (the phrase was Harold Macmillan’s) are the forty-two Tory rebels who voted against the government, along with more than forty who abstained.

Some of these MPs had been chafing against party discipline for years, at peril to their careers under Chamberlain, who was notoriously unable to accept criticism, and his imperious chief whip, Captain David Margesson. Some were new boys like John Profumo, aged twenty-five, fresh from winning a by-election, and in uniform like a number of his young colleagues. On the morning after he had courageously joined the vote against Chamberlain he received a glorious dressing-down from Margesson that should be in any dictionary of political quotations:

And I can tell you this, you utterly contemptible little shit. On every morning that you wake up for the rest of your life you will be ashamed of what you did last night.

They don’t make chief whips like that anymore; but history would endorse Profumo and not Margesson.

While readable and well researched, Olson’s book would have been better with less superfluous color (“Children floated toy boats on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, while young lovers lay on deck chairs nearby”), and fewer slips. Churchill entered Parliament in 1900, not 1901, and the lawyer and politician Sir John Simon went to Fettes (Tony Blair’s old school), not Eton. Olson writes in knowing tones that Harold Macmillan was commissioned in 1914 into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps but that his mother managed to have him transferred “to the much more prestigious Grenadier Guards, many of whose officers were aristocrats.”

For what it’s worth, and whatever Mrs. Macmillan (herself American by birth) may have supposed, the KRRC or 60th Rifles was one of the most elegant and patrician regiments in the British army. Lord Randolph Churchill had originally wanted his son Winston to join the 60th, and it was the regiment in which Sir Anthony Eden served with distinction during the Great War. Nicholson Baker has his own regimental difficulties, writing that in May 1940 Churchill “ordered the small British force left at Calais—rifle brigades [sic] and tanks—to fight to the death.” He means the Rifle Brigade, sister regiment of the 60th, which served as the forlorn hope at Calais.

Such minor errors serve as a reminder that all of the writers under review are American (Hungarian by birth in Lukacs’s case), and are sometimes deaf to the overtones of English life, including political life. Lukacs should know better than to dismiss Stanley Baldwin as “bumbling and provincially British.” Playing the simple country squire was Baldwin’s shtick, but he was in truth a clever, well-read man (see the address he gave as president of the Classical Association); more to the point, he was prime minister three times, easy victor of two general elections, and altogether “the most formidable antagonist whom I ever encountered,” in Lloyd George’s rueful words.

To write of Churchill’s “exceptional knowledge and comprehension of Europe,” as Lukacs does, is far-fetched, and to say that “his prime virtue was magnanimity” is even more wrong. Churchill might visit the south of France for pleasure or Spain to play polo, but showed little interest in local culture, and knew no other language than English, if one excepts his idiosyncratic version of French (by comparison for example with Eden, who spoke excellent German as well as French). When Lukacs quotes the diplomat Alex Cadogan writing “I’m afraid that Winston will build up a ‘Garden City’ at No. 10, with the most awful people,” the footnote explains “A cheap modern suburb.” But Cadogan was alluding to the nickname for the collection of temporary buildings in the garden at Downing Street put up to house Lloyd George’s temporary offices in the previous war and thus, by extension, to any kitchen cabinet.

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