Contemplating Churchill | History | Smithsonian

Contemplating Churchill

On the 40th anniversary of the wartime leader's death, historians are reassessing the complex figure who carried Britain through its darkest hour

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Chartwell must have been a heady place to be in exile. Standing on the manor’s back lawn on a misty autumn day, buffeted by brisk, sweet winds, it is easy to imagine the appeal these panoramic views of the Weald of Kent must have had for Winston Churchill, luring him away from London’s political battlegrounds. During much of the 1930s, Churchill, who had been denied cabinet position and governmental power by his own Conservative Party, was stubbornly locking horns with both sides of Parliament’s aisle. Chartwell was his refuge. And he cultivated the landscape with the same meticulous obsession he gave to his speeches, his hands restlessly probing, meddling, tinkering. There is a photograph of Churchill, wrapped in a muffler and overcoat, some 70 years ago, tiling a cottage roof on his estate. Similar Churchillian handiwork still remains evident in the garden wall of brick he painstakingly laid, and in the artificial lakes he designed and excavated. One of his own paintings (he was a talented amateur) hangs in the dining room of the rambling, oddly cramped house—now a museum run by the National Trust; it shows a gathering for afternoon tea, the seated figures pausing in mid-sentence. Except that Churchill is turned away from the others—justly confident that the conversation will wait until he is prepared to turn back.

Chartwell was also, at times, a burden—its repairs and staff devoured Churchill’s income as fast as his epic writing projects and fecund journalism could replenish it—but the estate grounded him in the English past, perhaps even reminding him of the legacies his parents had so cavalierly squandered. He even established a kind of informal government in exile at Chartwell. It became a place where his devoted friends and counselors shared information and assessed prospects, his country seat, particularly during those “wilderness years” (as they have been called), when there seemed little chance of his ever wielding power again and little reason to hope for it. After all, by the mid-1930s Churchill was entering his 60s. He had served in Parliament for nearly 30 years, had switched party allegiances twice, had been chancellor of the exchequer, and first lord of the admiralty, and had held ministerial posts ranging from home secretary to colonial secretary. But he was beginning to seem out of step even with the conservatives in his party, opposing, for example, any hints of independence for India, saying he was nauseated by the “fakir” Gandhi. One of his biographers, Robert Rhodes James, writes: “By the end of 1933 Churchill was widely regarded as a failed politician, in whom no real trust could be reasonably placed; by June 1935, these opinions had been fortified further.” If he had ended his career here—puttering around Chartwell and making an occasional appearance in Parliament—few would have missed or mourned him.

But what also isolated Churchill during those years was his sharp, unrelenting focus on the growing Nazi German threat. And as it turned out, that preoccupation—considered to be “scaremongering,” militaristic and dangerous during much of the decade—eventually brought him back to power and helped ensure his enduring reputation. In fact, Churchill’s foresight, his independent stand, his unwavering attention—and later, his wartime leadership—granted him a stature in Britain that no American wartime leader, other than Lincoln, has ever achieved in the United States. Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have guided America through the Depression and led it to the brink of victory in World War II, but his personal triumph was not as mythic or startling as Churchill’s; the risks of wartime defeat were not so great; and the effect of a single man’s talents not so evident. Churchill was voted the greatest Briton who ever lived, in a recent BBC poll. He touched some fundamental nerve that still vibrates. The historian John Lukacs says that Churchill’s reputation may now be at a peak. It is testimony to Churchill’s continued importance that the backlash against him may be at a crest as well. One British historian, David Cannadine, recently asserted that Churchill, at his worst, was a “bombastic and histrionic vulgarian,” while others have attacked “the cult of Churchill” that seeks to recruit him as an ally in the war on terrorism. In recent years, particularly since 9/11, his very reputation can seem up for grabs, as his statements and actions are heatedly invoked in debates about the nature of enmity, the causes of hatred, the dangers of appeasement and the risks of engagement.

So it is a propitious moment for a new ChurchillMuseum to open in London, which it did last month to mark the 40th anniversary of Churchill’s death at age 90, January 24, 1965. World War II lies at the heart of the museum, since it is actually a 9,000-square-foot extension of the Cabinet War Rooms—the reconstructed underground bunker from which a good part of England’s war was directed, and which itself has become something of a shrine honoring Churchill’s wartime leadership. But the museum is the first major British attempt to tell the story of Churchill’s life, surveying its achievements and controversies. Phil Reed, the director of the Cabinet War Rooms, has shepherded the new ChurchillMuseum exhibition through its $11.2 million fundraising campaign and guided design in consultation with scholars.

But the challenge is daunting, even in recounting Churchill’s World War II triumphs. The broad narrative has become familiar and has endured despite challenges and modifications. Reed suggests it will also shape the museum’s account. During the 1930s, most of Britain, along with its leaders, believed that negotiation would be effective in controlling Hitler. After all, it was argued, Germany was still recovering from harsh penalties imposed after World War I, so its restlessness was understandable. Besides, after the horrors of that war, no one could imagine embarking on another. Churchill’s ultimate position—that negotiation and appeasement were doomed to fail and that war postponed would be more bloody than strength displayed—was considered irresponsible; his warnings wild, paranoid, extreme. So he stood, with just a few allies, nearly alone, and spoke out with a foresight that is now difficult to comprehend.

But the details of that foresight, some of which will emerge in the new exhibits, are extraordinary. As early as 1930, Churchill, attending a dinner party at the German Embassy in London, had expressed concern about the dangers latent in a rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler; Churchill’s warning was considered novel enough to be forwarded to Berlin. In 1934, when the Nazis were in power and were stirring the German populace, Churchill told Parliament “there is not an hour to lose” in preparing to build up British armaments (armaments that he had, a decade earlier, helped reduce). Germany, he said, was “arming fast and no one is going to stop her.” That same year, six years before the blitz, he predicted there could come a time when “the crash of bombs exploding in London and cataracts of masonry and fire and smoke will apprise us of any inadequacy which has been permitted in our aerial defenses.” Hitler knew enough to be wary of Churchill, but on native grounds, Churchill’s passion was generally mocked as hysteria. He seemed to have been cursed like Cassandra: to speak the truth but not to be believed. In 1935, before Hitler’s plans had become clear, Churchill, in dismay, saw “Germany arming at breakneck speed, England lost in a pacifist dream, France corrupt and torn by dissension, America remote and indifferent.”

At Chartwell, during his time in exile (while he also produced 11 volumes of history and memoir and more than 400 articles for the world’s newspapers), his judgments became more informed and certainly more astute than those of the government. He would be fed detailed intelligence about German rearmament by trusted visitors and gain support from a small group of like-minded friends. Then he would head to the House of Commons to duel with the successive governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, who saw little to be so exercised about. In March 1938, after Hitler had already fortified his army, built the Luftwaffe, militarized the Rhineland, absorbed Austria and threatened Czechoslovakia, Churchill chastised Parliament: “For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf.” He made one final urgent appeal: “Now is the time at last to rouse the nation.”

But John Maynard Keynes, writing in the New Statesman, was urging the Czechs to negotiate with Hitler. And so, it seems, was everybody else. The newspapers ignored Churchill’s speech, reporting instead Chamberlain’s remark that the situation in Europe had greatly relaxed. And the day after the speech, one of Churchill’s major journalistic contracts, with the Evening Standard, was cancelled because of his “views on foreign affairs.”

When Churchill was finally brought back into the cabinet in 1939 as first lord of the admiralty, and then, in 1940, when he became prime minister in the midst of war, his challenge was not to instill fear but to keep it under control. On June 18, 1940, Churchill said that if England could stand up to Hitler, “all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” In the House of Commons on October 8, 1940, Churchill’s jeremiads turned biblically somber: “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; constancy and valour our only shield.” Six days later, No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence, was damaged by German bombs. Chartwell had already been closed down—it was too obvious a target.

Because of the blitz, the government’s war cabinet regularly met underground, in a low-ceilinged, sandbagged basement in the Office of Works opposite St. James’s Park, where chemical toilets and rudimentary sleeping quarters formed the setting for discussions of England’s strategy (more than 115 war cabinet meetings were held there, a tenth of the war’s total). Those secret corridors—the Cabinet War Rooms— were opened by the ImperialWarMuseum in 1984 and are now a pilgrimage site for 300,000 visitors a year. What was at stake in those rooms is made clear in an entrance-hall exhibit. In Hitler’s bombing of England, 60,595 civilians died, 29,890 in London alone. When invasion seemed imminent and the appearance of German soldiers and officers in Piccadilly Circus likely, the government distributed a leaflet: “Enemy Uniforms at a Glance.” The leaflets turned out to be unnecessary, partly because of what happened in these spare, windowless rooms, their walls hung with maps dotted with pushpins, their tables covered with paper pads and ashtrays, their basement infrastructure offering clanking pipes and poor plumbing.

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