Churchill and His Myths

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

1.

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…


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