When Sir Winston Churchill died at the age of ninety in January 1965, he was accorded the most magnificent state funeral that a grateful and grieving Britain could give him. In life he had received, or refused, every available honor, and his death occasioned a final display of national thanksgiving and global homage, unique in its intensity and unrivaled in its scope. Setting aside both precedent and precedence, Queen Elizabeth II attended in person to mourn the passing of her greatest commoner and most illustrious subject. Never before, not even for the funeral of President Kennedy, had so many kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, assembled to do honor to one dead man. In Britain itself, and around the world, millions watched and wept before their television sets. At the end of the same year, the final volume of the Oxford History of England set down its authoritative verdict on Churchill’s life and achievements. It was written by A.J.P. Taylor, a historian known for his dissenting opinions and provocative irreverence. But in his eulogistic description of Churchill as “the saviour of his country,” there was not the faintest suggestion of irony or mockery.
Throughout the last decade of his life, Churchill was almost universally esteemed as “the greatest Englishman of his time.” As a soldier, journalist, biographer, historian, painter, orator, politician, parliamentarian, and statesman, he seemed prodigiously endowed with gifts of mind and spirit. Whether predicting history, making history, or writing history, he dwarfed the pygmy ploddings of ordinary mortals. As a young Liberal minister, he was responsible for social reforms that helped to lay the foundations for the modern welfare state. As first lord of the Admiralty, he had devised the scheme to force the Dardanelles, the only original strategic initiative of World War I. In the 1920s, and again in the late 1940s, he had been the first Western statesman to understand the nature of the Communist threat. During the 1930s, he had fought an almost single-handed campaign to alert the Western democracies to the evils of Hitler. In 1940, his “finest hour,” he expressed in unforgettable phrases Britain’s resolve never to surrender to Nazi tyranny. And thereafter, his many-sided genius led a united people, a united government, and also—in a harmonious collaboration with Roosevelt—the United States, onward to victory. In Isaiah Berlin’s famous words, this Churchill was “a gigantic historical figure…, superhumanly bold, strong and imaginative,… the largest human being of our time.”
Yet in fact, it took Churchill almost the whole of his astonishingly long and controversial life to persuade his contemporaries to accept him at his own magniloquent self-evaluation. During the 1900s, he was hated by the Tories as a turncoat who put personal advancement before party loyalty, and by the Liberals as an unprincipled adventurer whose commitment to social reform was never more than skin-deep. During World War I, his career almost collapsed when he was forced to leave the government in the aftermath of the Dardanelles fiasco. During the 1920s, he was, on his own admission, a singularly unsuccessful Chancellor of the Exchequer, who took the controversial decision to restore Britain to the gold standard. During the 1930s, he forfeited public confidence by his sustained and belligerent intransigence over Indian constitutional reform. In 1945, his hour of supreme triumph, he was abruptly dismissed by the British electorate. During his second prime ministership of 1951–1955, which was widely felt to have been a mistake, there were constant murmurings in the press and in the Tory party that he was no longer up to the job. And even during the apotheosis of his last years, the publication of the Alanbrooke diaries suggested that his wartime relations with the military had been much more acrimonious than he had revealed in his memoirs.
So it was hardly surprising that immediately after Churchill’s death, his career and achievements were once again looked at in a more critical and less flattering light. Robert Rhodes James’s “study in failure,” published in 1970, examined Churchill’s fluctuating reputation and questionable achievements between 1900 and 1939, and convincingly demonstrated why he was so widely distrusted by so many people for so much of his career. In the same vein, Brian Gardner’s study of his wartime premiership noticed that from 1941 onward, Churchill was constantly subjected to criticism and attack inside Parliament, was on far from cordial terms with certain sections of the press, and was no longer in close touch with the people as a whole. More sensationally—and quite without evidence—Rolf Hochhuth suggested, in his play Soldiers, that Churchill had actually connived at the death of the wartime Polish leader, General Sikorski, in 1943. And the diaries of Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, vividly depicted his patient as aging and infirm, burnt out by 1945, and struggling for survival thereafter.
With varying degrees of plausibility, these works began the essential process of demythologizing Churchill, by treating him seriously as a complex historical person, rather than as the legendary and Olympian hero he had in fact become only in retirement. As historians have begun to work through the mass of twentieth-century government papers that have become available during the last two decades, Churchillian revisionism has inevitably intensified. And, very often, the result has been to show that things were not quite as Churchill or his apologists later claimed, that his part in events was less significant or less prescient or more mundane or more controversial, and that those who disagreed with him were not necessarily wicked or stupid, but on occasion had a serious point of view.
This is especially so in the case of Churchill’s record as an opponent of appeasement. We now know that when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his insistence on economy in military expenditure during the Twenties cast its dark and baleful shadow into the next decade. During the Thirties, he was an admirer of Mussolini and he supported Franco in Spain. He was allowed access to government intelligence with the consent of MacDonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain. His estimates of relative superiority of the German air forces over the British were sometimes wildly exaggerated. Above all, there was a serious case for appeasement: ever since the 1880s, the British had been making concessions to one great power or another. By the 1930s, Britain’s empire was overextended while the economy was in deep depression. There were compelling reasons for trying to placate Hitler, which are seldom considered in the celebrations of Churchill’s career.
In the same way, Churchill’s wartime record was more fallible than it became fashionable to suppose in the aftermath of victory. When Chamberlain appointed him first lord of the Admiralty after war broke out in September 1939, his performance was more vigorous than welljudged, and his handling of the disastrous Norway campaign of 1940 was disquietingly reminiscent of the Dardanelles fiasco. Churchill’s friendship with Roosevelt was far less cordial than he himself often claimed it to be, and his clumsy effort to arrange a partition of Eastern Europe with Stalin showed he was not as clearsighted about the growing Soviet menace as he later implied. His relations with the military were often strained to the point of incoherence, and many of his own pet ventures—in Greece, Crete, Dakar—were impetuous. At home, life during the Blitz was monotonous or terrifying rather than heroic or sublime, and politically the country took a decided shift to the left. In the Cabinet, the Labour ministers virtually monopolized all of the domestic appointments, Churchill and Eden did not always see eye to eye, and Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister, became extremely critical of Churchill’s imperious conduct during 1941.
Yet while Churchill’s own account of his deeds has been substantially modified in many cases, there are other phases of his career in which research has vindicated his record and enhanced his reputation. It is now clear that as colonial undersecretary, president of the Board of Trade, and home secretary before World War I, he took a major part in the imperial and domestic reform programs of the Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. The contemporary criticism that was heaped upon him in the aftermath of the Dardanelles disaster was excessive. According to David Moggridge, Churchill’s performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1920s was less inept than has often been supposed: the overwhelming weight of official opinion in 1925 was in favor of the return to the gold standard.1 Despite his notorious speech in which he accused Labour of acting like the Gestapo Churchill was not—according to Henry Pelling—personally responsible for the defeat of the Conservatives at the general election of 1945: the reasons were much more deeply rooted than that. 2 And it has recently been argued by Anthony Seldon that his peacetime government was not the flop it is generally supposed to have been, but was actually the most successful postwar Tory administration—until Mrs. Thatcher’s.3
One result of all this revisionism has been altogether salutary. For by scraping off the veneer of mythology, one can begin to appreciate Churchill’s complexity as a full historical personality; instead of being a two-dimensional man of destiny, he becomes a three-dimensional man of flesh and blood. But in other ways, the extended analysis of Churchill’s life has been less successful, partly because these details of revisionism are often devoid of a broader context and have not yet been brought together to produce a fundamental reinterpretation of the man and his career. Moreover, they have made absolutely no impact on Churchill’s popular image. In Britain—especially Thatcher’s Britain—he remains the essential hero. Hundreds of thousands of people each year visit Blenheim Palace, Chartwell Manor, the Cabinet war rooms, and Bladon Churchyard. Ships in the Royal Navy, cigarettes, and public houses are named after him. And—as these three vast volumes under review weightily but disappointingly demonstrate—he remains irresistible material for the biographer.
William Manchester’s book is the second installment of what promises to be a three-volume life. Although not uncritical, its essentially admiring attitude may be guessed from the acknowledgments, where Manchester writes that he has been “honored” and “moved” by the friendship and support of Churchill’s relatives and entourage, especially Lady Soames (Churchill’s daughter, now the presiding matriarch of the family), Martin Gilbert (Churchill’s official biographer, whose monumental work has just been completed), and the late Sir John Colville (Churchill’s former private secretary and greatest champion). He has spoken to almost all of the “surviving Churchillians”: politicians like Lord Boothby, civil servants like Sir David Pitblado, and five of Churchill’s secretaries. And he describes another authority as the “International Churchill Society’s keeper of the flame.” In addition, Manchester has consulted over one hundred private archival collections, as well as the official papers of the British, French, German, and US governments. And out of this mass of material, he has fashioned an epic drama in messianic prose, of which even Churchill the writer might generally—though not fully—have approved.
His concern is to retell (and to reburnish) the familiar story of Churchill’s wilderness years during the 1930s, which were, Manchester insists, undoubtedly the greatest and noblest of his career. For most of this period, Churchill was out of office, out of favor, and out of luck. He was derided and rejected by the lesser men in government; he was regarded as an outcast by the Tory party managers; and he was banned from speaking on the BBC. He was harried by creditors, and at one point was even obliged to put Chartwell up for sale. Truly, Churchill was a prophet without honor in his own country. But undismayed, he put together a vast, underground intelligence network of his own, and this meant he was better informed about German rearmament and territorial ambitions than the Foreign Office. Manchester portrays him as making brilliant, unanswerable speeches, in Parliament and throughout the country, damning appeasement as cowardly folly, and struggling to alert the Western democracies to the growing menace of Hitler. And so, at the eleventh hour, when all the grievous events that Churchill had so valiantly and vainly foretold had come to pass, the people turned to him, and the rejected prophet became the national savior, and gave his country its “finest hour.”
While Manchester’s evocation of Churchill is eulogistic, he shows no mercy to the men who were the “betrayers of England’s greatness.” His three principal culprits are prime ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain. Without exception, Manchester insists, they were irresolute, provincial mediocrities, who vainly believed that Hitler could be trusted. And they were supported in their ignoble endeavors by such unimaginative and hypocritical politicians as Sir Samuel Hoare (who publicly denounced the invasion of Ethiopia but secretly conspired with Pierre Laval to return much of the country to Mussolini’s control), by Lord Halifax (who was Chamberlain’s foreign secretary and an ardent exponent of appeasement), and by such mistaken, foolish, time-serving officials as Sir Nevile Henderson (British ambassador to Berlin) and Sir Horace Wilson (Chamberlain’s chief diplomatic adviser). These “guilty men” believed in peace at virtually any price. Nor, Manchester insists, was this the full extent of their duplicity. For it was not just that they did not want to offend the Führer. Obsessed as they were with the fear of Communist subversion, they wanted to strengthen Nazi Germany as the most effective European counterpoise to what they saw as the much greater threat of Soviet Russia. And in order to do so, they deliberately misled the British public about the true nature and intentions of the Nazi regime.
As such, Manchester’s account adheres very closely to the familiar, majestic interpretation which Churchill himself originally set out in The Gathering Storm, the first installment of his war memoirs, and on which Martin Gilbert elaborated in the fifth volume of his biography. It was understandable that Churchill should see himself as a “man of destiny,” and take his revenge on the men who had kept him out of power for so long. And Gilbert, as the official biographer, could hardly fail to adopt a similar view. But in Manchester’s hands, this now thrice-told tale seems increasingly threadbare. This is partly because of his uncontrollably hackneyed, coarse, and hyperbolic prose. Hitler is “freedom’s archenemy,” Neville Chamberlain is “the archpriest of appeasement.” Churchill’s performances in a hostile House of Commons are likened to that of “a bull confronting a matador.” On the other hand, Blenheim Palace is “splendrous,” Chartwell is Churchill’s “great keep,” and the chapters of the book are successively entitled “Shoals,” “Reef,” “Undertow,” “Vortex,” “Surge,” “Cataclysm,” etc.
To make matters worse, these excesses are accompanied by a disconcerting lack of historical understanding. What does it mean to say that “the remarkable stability of British society was rooted in a social contract whose origins lay in the medieval relations between lord and serf”? It is wholly unsatisfactory to describe the political elite of interwar Britain as “the patriciate” or “the gentry.” It does not inspire confidence to be told that, during the mid 1930s, Stanley Baldwin “possessed more prestige and political power than any prime minister since the death of Queen Victoria.” It is banal to describe Roosevelt in these words: “After overcoming his appalling paralysis to become the greatest figure in American political history, he felt he could do anything.” It may be that Churchill reposed “absolute faith in democracy.” But during the early 1930s, he publicly affirmed his belief that unfettered universal suffrage was illadvised. Even more disturbing, the author does not seem to have absorbed any of the recent, revisionist scholarship on appeasement by such scholars as Paul Kennedy, G. C. Peden, and C.A. MacDonald.4 It may overstate the case, but it certainly needs to be considered. And the documentary evidence Manchester cites in support of the Germanophilia and Russophobia of the Cabinet is decidedly thin.
The result is that his book fails completely to set Churchill in the historical perspective that is essential if both his reverses and his triumphs during the Thirties are to be understood. Manchester gives us a vivid account of Churchill’s personality and way of life, including a masterly opening section describing a typical Chartwell day. But evocation is no substitute for analysis. And this Manchester does not provide. He tells us that for much of the Thirties, Churchill was “distrusted, disliked—even hated.” True. There is no attempt to discuss his long record of mistakes, misfortunes, miscalculations, and misjudgments that would plausibly explain why this was so. He tells us that Churchill made some of his greatest speeches against appeasement to a half-empty House of Commons. Also true. But again, what was it about Churchill’s record and rhetoric that emptied, rather than filled, the chamber at this time? To suppose that all people who opposed Churchill were either knaves or fools is to ignore the many good reasons why Churchill was disapproved of at that time.
This is all the more regrettable because, despite his generally (indeed, excessively) well-intentioned tone, Manchester has some surprisingly candid and unexpectedly critical things to say about his hero. Most of Churchill’s children turned out unhappily; his marriage to Clementine seems to have been especially strained during the late Thirties; and although Manchester discounts rumors of Churchill’s drunkenness, he concedes that he possessed a strong “hedonistic streak.” He was habitually rude to servants, not always loyal to friends, and did not protect his intelligence sources as responsibly as he should have. His attitude to Mussolini and Franco, to the invasion of Manchuria and the plunder of Abyssinia, was decidedly equivocal. He behaved foolishly at the time of the abdication, publicly supporting the forlorn cause of King Edward VIII with a loyalty which did more credit to his heart than his head. He underestimated the importance of the submarine and of air power, and habitually overestimated the might and morale of the French army. As first lord of the Admiralty, he was too easily captivated by dramatic but unsound schemes, deliberately exaggerated the German U-boat losses, and undoubtedly bore the chief responsibility for the follies and failures of the Norwegian campaign in which, following the German invasion of April 1940, British ships landed troops that were soon defeated.
In short, as Manchester admits, while Churchill could sometimes be “terrifically right,” he could also be “spectacularly wrong.” It is a pity he does not pursue this important, by now commonplace, point, or explore its political implications. But he does offer one startling insight, almost as a casual aside, when he suggests that Churchill and Hitler “had more in common than either would have acknowledged,” particularly charisma, demagogic skills, megalomania, an overwhelming sense of their personal destiny, their belief in the innate superiority of their own race, and misplaced confidence in their grasp of strategy and military insight. Once again, this is not new: the comparison was made in 1942 by some of Churchill’s parliamentary critics. But it seems odd that a remark which tends to subvert the well-disposed tone of this book should be made so offhandedly, and then be left undeveloped.
To turn from Manchester’s book to David Irving’s is to move from an impassioned case for the defense to no less determined advocacy for the prosecution. In his previous books, Irving has already sought to unsettle received notions about the aims and conduct of the British and the Germans during World War II. In part, he has done this by seeking out archival material that other historians did not use, did not wish to use, or did not know about (something he does again in this book, drawing extensively on the private papers of many second-ranking wartime figures, and on the government archives in Ottawa, Washington, Canberra, and elsewhere). And in part, he has done this by consistently applying a double standard on evidence, demanding absolute documentary proof to convict the Germans (as when he sought to show that Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust), while relying on circumstantial evidence to condemn the British (as in his account of the Allied bombing of Dresden). Coincidentally, he also describes himself as a “mild fascist”: he has spent much more time and money than historians usually do defending himself in libel suits, and has been accused of being anti-Semitic, a charge he has always vehemently denied.
His latest book—the first of a projected two-volume study of Churchill as Britain’s warlord—is written from an extremely antagonistic viewpoint. While Manchester made the suggestion, in passing, that Churchill and Hitler were not wholly dissimilar, Irving has been quoted in the London Sunday Times as saying that “Churchill is frying in Hell with Truman and Stalin and Hitler.” Every Churchillian fault and failure mentioned (or ignored) by Manchester is magnified a thousandfold, while every virtue and victory is dismissed, disparaged, or only grudgingly admitted. Indeed, so great is Irving’s animosity toward Churchill throughout this book that no reputable British publisher would accept it. Instead it has been produced, shoddily, by an Australian publishing house called “Veritas,” while Irving has been obliged to make his own arrangements for the distribution of the book in Britain, and it has received almost no attention from historians or reviewers. It is easy to see why.
Between 1936 and 1940, Irving insists, Churchill was not the noble prophet celebrated by Manchester, but a drunken, insolvent, embittered failure, a “busted flush,” conducting spiteful, irresponsible, personal vendettas against the men who correctly kept him out of power. His finances were so precarious that he was effectively the slave of a corrupt syndicate of (mainly Jewish) financiers, to whom he had “sold his soul,” and who essentially dictated his political opinions. His underground intelligence network was peopled by renegades, cranks, and fanatics, who lived in a world of “cloak and dagger fantasies,” and produced absurdly exaggerated figures about Nazi rearmament. And he never understood that Chamberlain and Halifax were not guilty men, but wise men, seeking to safeguard Britain’s greatness by coming to an accommodation with Hitler—an accommodation that the Führer also most ardently wished. Not surprisingly, when Churchill reentered government as first lord of the Admiralty, bent on personal advancement and glory, decent men were dismayed. He was excessively belligerent, regularly “half-tight,” invariably wrong about military strategy, and he constantly sought to undermine Neville Chamberlain, “despising no covert methods of destroying both the man and his reputation.”
Churchill’s record as prime minister, Irving insists, was even more lamentable. He knew that his survival in power and hopes for immortality depended on the continuation of the war, so he willfully refused to countenance peace negotiations with Germany in the summer of 1940, even though the terms would have been “generous.” Later in the same year, he “deliberately provoked” Hitler into blitzing London (something the Führer had never intended to do), by cynically sending planes to bomb Berlin. But while Londoners huddled (and died) in their squalid air raid shelters, Churchill scuttled away to the countryside, thanks to his secret information from the code breakers at Bletchley Park, which told him when an air raid on London was imminent. And by begging Roosevelt for aid, and accepting the draconian terms of Lend-Lease, he effectively handed over the British Empire to the hostile and predatory Americans. In short, Churchill’s “finest hour” was nothing of the kind: he was not the architect of Britain’s victory, but the harbinger of Britain’s ruin. By his obsessive, self-aggrandizing determination to thwart Hitler, to win “victory at all costs,” he condemned millions to death, brought about the end of the British Empire, and destroyed Britain as a great power.
Clearly, this is revisionism with a vengeance. But much of it is based on ignorance, overstatement, and inadequate evidence. We are portentously informed that Churchill’s understandable unpopularity in the Thirties is “an area about which we have hitherto had little information,” while this has been a historical commonplace for twenty years. The author’s picture of a Churchill enslaved by moneylenders, wirepullers, and Jewish financiers reads like the more lurid pages of a John Buchan novel, and even Irving himself notes that the evidence for this fantasy is “sparse.” He coyly admits that some of Churchill’s figures about German military production were accurate after all, that Chamberlain wanted “peace at any price,” and was callously indifferent to the fate of Czechoslovakia. His hostile account of Churchill at the Admiralty is largely based on material that, on his own admission, “should be treated with the reserve that all clandestine writings merit.” But reserve is the last quality on display here. And despite his claims that Churchill was a disloyal colleague of Chamberlain’s, he produces no firm evidence that he actively intrigued to bring Chamberlain down in 1940.
The same excesses, inconsistencies, and omissions pervade Irving’s treatment of Churchill’s prime ministership. He may sometimes have left London when there were heavy air raids, but he was also in the capital on many occasions when the bombs fell, and even Irving concedes that “it was not unreasonable for Winston to wish to preserve himself in the nation’s interest.” He quotes extensively from the defeatist diaries of Joseph P. Kennedy, the American ambassador in London, but admits that they are “scurrilous.” In describing the controversial decision to fight on in 1940, he seems completely unaware of recent work done on the subject by David Reynolds.5 He is also unable to grasp the essential point that Hitler had never kept his word before, and that there was no reason to think he would have done so if there had been a “compromise” peace in 1940. Churchill did not send bombers to Berlin to provoke an attack on London, but to show the world (and especially America) that Britain’s will to fight was undiminished. And Irving’s argument that Churchill was the villain who destroyed the British Empire is historically naive. Hitler or no Hitler, Churchill or no Churchill, the British Empire was going to be one of the casualties of the twentieth century. The Second World War may have accelerated its demise by perhaps five years, but to most people (although not, it seems, to Irving) that was surely a price well worth paying for the destruction of Hitler.
But it is not merely that the arguments in Irving’s book are so perversely tendentious and sensationalist. It is also that it is at best casually journalistic and at worst unusually offensive. The text is littered with errors from beginning to end. Churchill is given the wrong government office in 1922, Lord Willingdon is given the wrong rank in the British peerage as viceroy of India, and names like Montgomery-Massingberd, Lord Cranborne, and Lord Cork and Orrery are consistently misspelled. De Gaulle is described as “power hungry” and “amoral,” Roosevelt as “sly” and “cynical,” Archibald Sinclair as “weak and loathsome,” Hugh Dalton as “distasteful,” and Brendan Bracken as Winston’s “carrot-topped retainer.” Churchill himself is depicted as a “pudgy politician,” with “soft rolls of flesh,” who “leers,” “gobbles,” “loafs,” and “sponges.” And when we are told that an official followed Churchill after he had visited Paris, “like a street cleaner after a cavalry parade,” with “bucket and shovel in hand, cleaning up,” we have reached, literally, the gutter.
For Irving to claim that “this is not a hostile biography” is to demonstrate remarkable powers of self-deception. His hostility is the more unfortunate because he has some useful things to say. Unlike Manchester or Gilbert, he has looked at the archives of Churchill’s defeatist and disappointed critics. Seen through the eyes of Joseph P. Kennedy, the Daily Mirror editor Cecil King, the BBC’s Sir John Reith, or Lord Halifax, the great man’s encounter with destiny takes on a very different appearance from the one we are accustomed to. For Churchill was working from a very weak base of political support in 1940. In the Commons, it was Chamberlain not Churchill who received most of the applause. In the Cabinet, the appeasers were still a formidable force. That Anglo-American relations were officially in the hands of Kennedy in London and Lord Lothian in Washington was hardly encouraging. At this time, Churchill was fighting at home as much as he was fighting abroad. And it was only because, as Irving himself grudgingly admits, of his courage, energy, stamina, and determination, that he was able to accomplish what he did. Ironically but appropriately, Churchill emerges from these labored pages as an even greater man than before.
To move to Gilbert’s book is to leave a project in progress—whether of the school of Manchester or of Irving—and to encounter a great work at the very end of the road. Here, after eight volumes and nine million words, is the final installment of Churchill’s official life, which was begun by his son, Randolph, in 1961, and taken over by Martin Gilbert seven years later. These pages deal with Churchill’s decisive defeat at the general election of 1945, his years as leader of the opposition, the writing of his war memoirs, his final term as prime minister, and his long, sad decline into enfeebled old age. As such, they bring to a conclusion the most extensive biographical enterprise ever undertaken in Britain. In the United States, it is still relatively common to entomb past presidents in works of many volumes, Dumas Malone’s life of Jefferson and Arthur Link’s biography of Woodrow Wilson being obvious examples. But among English statesmen of the first rank, not even the lives of Disraeli (six volumes by Monypenny and Buckle) and Gladstone (a mere three by John Morley) remotely approach the colossal dimensions of this particular enterprise—a Churchillian monument on an appropriately Churchillian scale.
As a study in power, politics, and statesmanship, Gilbert’s final book may best be said to have the theme “Triumph and Tragedy,” the subtitle Churchill himself gave to his last volume of war memoirs. He was deeply distressed at being hurled from office so ungratefully, and, despite the disapproval of his wife, was determined to stay on in active politics to “avenge” his defeat. His performance as leader of the opposition was uneven, his attendance in Parliament erratic, and his interest in the rethinking of the Conservative program minimal. But his position in the party was by now unassailable, and his return to Downing Street in 1951 almost atoned for the defeat of 1945. He left R.A. Butler to manage the economy, Walter Monckton to keep the trades unions quiet, and Harold Macmillan, as minister of housing, to build homes “fit for heroes.” Predictably, his own concerns were in foreign affairs, where he sought to consolidate the “special relationship” with the United States, and bring about a summit meeting with the Russians. But Eisenhower was even less amenable to Churchill’s fading charms than Roosevelt had been, and both the United States and the British Cabinet were hostile to his hankerings for top-level meetings. He was thwarted in his ambitions, and increasingly at odds with his colleagues, and there was nothing left for him to do except retire, which he eventually did in April 1955.
But this volume is also a portrait of Churchill’s fame and fortune. For the last twenty years of his life, Churchill was, beyond any doubt, the greatest celebrity in the world. He traveled through Europe and the United States, to widespread acclaim and adulation, and was loaded with honors. His speeches at Fulton and at Zurich were those of a private citizen but reverberated around the world. His war memoirs sold by the million, brought him financial security, and provided the definitive account of that conflict for more than a generation. The parliamentary tribute paid him on his eightieth birthday was without precedent in the annals of British public life. He was made an honorary citizen of the United States. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. He refused a dukedom. And during his last decade, when controversy was all but stilled, and when the stories and anecdotes gathered around his name in such affectionate abundance, it could truly be said of him (and frequently was) that he had become a legend in his own lifetime.
Inevitably, this book is much concerned with old age and infirmity. It is impossible not to be moved by the courage and the élan with which Churchill attacked this last and ultimately invincible enemy. As in all his campaigns, he took on his adversary with high spirits, expert advice, ample helpings of brandy and champagne, and the loving and long-suffering support of his wife. But he had already had a mild heart attack in 1941, and was an understandably tired man in 1945, and an astonishingly busy one in the years that followed. In 1953 he suffered a stroke, and was not expected to live. In a manner that would be quite impossible today, his condition was kept secret. Eventually he recovered, and carried on for two more years as prime minister. But his powers were by then visibly fading, and by the time he grudgingly retired, he was generally regarded as being no longer up to the job. These last ten years of his life make truly painful reading, as Churchill became, in words that he himself had used of Lord Rosebery, the “chief mourner at his own protracted funeral.” The greatest tragedy for him personally was that his long-sought and hard-won apotheosis came too late for him to appreciate or even fully understand it.
Given both the subject and the sources (which are mainly Churchill’s own papers and the appropriate government files), these pages contain much fascinating material. There are unforgettable vignettes of Churchill on holiday in Madeira and Marrakesh. The complex and lucrative financial arrangements concerning his war memoirs are expertly described. Even at the very end of his career, his versatility, his vision, his sense of history, his verbal gifts, were astonishing. But as with the previous volumes of this biography, the reader has to do all the work. Once again, Gilbert presents an elementary narrative—a day by day (sometimes hour by hour) catalog of Churchill’s doings, without analysis or comment. Much of it reads like a briefing document for Manchester’s third volume—which is no doubt what it will eventually become. Private family affairs are indiscriminately interleaved with public business. There is far too much extended quotation from Hansard and from the diaries of Lord Moran and Sir John Colville. The last 250 pages contain almost nothing of real importance. In short, Gilbert brings to the volume no interpretation, no judgment, no insight, no artistry.
Even worse, there is no attempt to evaluate the final stages of Churchill’s career in the light of recent scholarly discussion. In every previous volume, Gilbert’s self-denying refusal to engage with the proliferating secondary literature has been a glaring omission, and once again, it seems inexcusable. We now know much about the record of the Labour governments of 1945–1951: How does Churchill’s spell as leader of the opposition look in the light of this? We are not told. Much research has recently been done on the changes in American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union in the aftermath of 1945, but Gilbert’s discussion of Churchill’s Fulton speech completely ignores this. It is becoming increasingly clear that Churchill’s war memoirs need a comprehensive analysis as a work of politics no less than as a work of history, but no such attempt is undertaken here. Important studies have been made of the foreign and domestic policies of Churchill’s last administration, but they are not even alluded to in these pages. Nor does Gilbert make any effort to discuss the growth of the Churchill legend in the last years of his life. And the conclusion to the entire work—a mere two pages reminding us that Churchill was a noble spirit and the champion of liberty—is not just banal, it is infuriating. Is this all that the author has learned about his subject after so much work over so many years?
There is a further problem. Although Gilbert clearly—and understandably—thinks well of Churchill, his hero does not emerge from this account with his reputation entirely intact. The unappealing figure who walks through the dark side of Manchester’s book, and the power-crazed ogre who is at the very center of Irving’s, is also recognizable here. His ill-judged election broadcast likening the Labour party to “some form of Gestapo” and the fierce attack he made on Stafford Cripps in the aftermath of devaluation, rightly diminished his reputation for generosity and magnanimity. His treatment of Anthony Eden was sometimes calculatedly cruel, and he continued to bully colleagues and servants with indiscriminate rudeness. His love of the good things of life, and his delight in the hospitality of the rich, remained unabated. His troubled relations with his children did not improve with age. Some of the letters that passed between Winston and Sarah and Winston and Randolph are truly extraordinary in their rage, bitterness, hurt feelings, and mutual incomprehension. At the end of it all, we are still left wondering: What was Churchill really like? The harshest indictment of Gilbert’s vast enterprise is that it makes no pretense at answering that crucial question.
For all their differences of approach and methodology, it should by now be clear that these three books have a great deal in common. Taken together, they add up to nearly three thousand pages of text, and make use of an enormous range of archival sources. In each case, the labor of the research has been prodigious, and the effort of writing immense. As such, each bears abundant—indeed suffocating—witness to the vitality of the Churchill industry. But the Churchill who emerges from their pages is recognizably the same Janus-faced giant that most of his contemporaries knew him to be. In one guise, he was (these are Manchester’s words) “brilliant,” “intuitive,” “generous,” “visionary,” and “heroic.” But in another, he was (Manchester’s adjectives again) “domineering,” “inconsiderate,” “self-centered,” “emotional,” “ruthless,” “megalomanical.” The one Churchillian persona is immortalized in the famous “angry lion” photograph taken by Karsh of Ottawa in 1942. The other is (or was: the painting was destroyed on Clementine Churchill’s instructions) commemorated in Graham Sutherland’s fierce and much less flattering eightieth-birthday portrait.
But it is difficult to suppress feelings of wearied disappointment that so many writers have taken so much space to say so little. It is easy to see why. For all their archival richness, none of these books makes any pretense at weighing or interpreting their sources. Manchester writes from the standpoint of Churchill’s admirers, Irving from the perspective of his detractors, and Gilbert from the papers of Churchill himself. But in each case, the evidence is biased and incomplete, and needs sensitive, scholarly, and sophisticated handling—something that it does not get in any of these books. Moreover, archival richness is no cure for conceptual poverty. There are hardly any ideas in these books: Manchester’s are naive and out-of-date, Irving’s are malevolent, and Gilbert’s are simply nonexistent. But the greatest weakness of these three writers is that they are overwhelmed by the great man himself. Whether Churchillophile or Churchillophobe, they are all incorrigibly Churchillocentric.
Beyond any question, Churchill was a towering figure. But these writers are too preoccupied by the monumental edifice to get it in the historical perspective without which it cannot be properly understood. What did it mean to be an impoverished aristocratic adventurer in the century of the common man? How does the undulating trajectory of Churchill’s public life appear when set against the background of twentieth-century British politics as a whole? How did Britain’s position as a world and imperial power alter between 1874 and 1965, the years of Churchill’s birth and death? And how should we understand World War II, not just from the British standpoint, but against the background of international politics? Questions such as these must be posed if Churchill’s life and work, his triumphs and failures, virtues and limitations, are to be understood. They are neither asked nor answered by the three writers under review. Churchill’s place in history may be secure, but their books make no attempt to tell us precisely what that place is.
As A.J.P. Taylor remarked, Churchill may well have been the savior of his country during World War II. But it is no longer sufficient to write about the whole of his career in deference to or (in Irving’s case) in denial of that extraordinary fact. Instead of asking what the rest of his life looks like in the setting of 1940, we need to know what 1940 looks like in relation to the rest of his life. And as the twentieth century moves toward its final decade, a clear answer is beginning to emerge: Churchill spent his career in a vain but magnificent attempt to defy the fact that Britain was ceasing to be a great power. He could not conceal this from himself, but he was remarkably successful at concealing it from most of the British people. As long as Churchill lived, Britain still seemed to be a world force. But after he died, the illusion could no longer be sustained. It was not just a man who was mourned in January 1965; it was a nation’s sense of its past and its purpose. Like the Count-Duke of Olivares in seventeenth-century Spain, Churchill’s true historical identity was that he was a statesman in an age of decline. Until we understand that, we shall never fully understand him.
June 15, 1989
D.E. Moggridge, British Monetary Policy, 1924–1931 (Cambridge University Press, 1972). ↩
Henry Pelling, “The 1945 General Election Reconsidered,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1980), pp. 399–414. ↩
Anthony Seldon, Churchill’s Indian Summer: The Conservative Government, 1951–55 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981). ↩
Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1988); G.C. Peden, British Rearmament and the Treasury, 1932–1939 (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1979); C.A. MacDonald, The United States, Britain and Appeasement, 1936–1939 (St. Martin’s Press, 1981). ↩
See “Churchill and the British Decision to Fight on in 1940: Right Policy, Wrong Reason,” in Richard Langhorne, ed., Diplomacy and Intelligence During the Second World War: Essays in Honour of F.H. Hinsley (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 147–167. ↩