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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.

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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.

That primitive setting makes the museum’s point: so much was done by so few with so little. But visitors will also be able to pass from the War Rooms into the new ChurchillMuseum, where so much is being done by so many to shed light on a single man. It promises the kind of technological flash that original users of the War Rooms could hardly have imagined, including state-of-the-art multimedia displays and a 50-footlong electronic “Lifeline”: a complete timeline of Churchill’s life, with 1,500 documents and 1,000 photographs that appear in response to a visitor’s touch. The exhibition room is less about objects than about ideas and information. But it contains documents and artifacts from Chartwell, the ImperialWarMuseum, the Churchill Archives Centre at ChurchillCollege, Cambridge, and private collections, including Churchill’s baby rattle and a pistol he used in his escape from a prison camp in the Boer War. There is even a red velvet, onepiece zip-up suit Churchill liked to wear (inadvertently demonstrating an area where he showed questionable taste). Because viewers enter the new space directly from the War Rooms, its biographical narrative actually begins in 1940 and then proceeds to Churchill’s death before leading back to Churchill’s birth. By beginning with the war, of course, the new museum exhibit necessarily gives Churchill’s life a heroic cast. But when I toured the new museum with Reed, he emphasized one point: “We wanted to avoid accusations of hagiography.” Of course, he continued, “we have accepted Churchill as a great leader and a great man. But we want to see what greatness meant in his life. Great people are not great all of the time.”

In fact, it is impossible to recount Churchill’s life without incorporating its controversies, failures and falterings. Even when the war’s victory neared, there were reasons for melancholy: Churchill’s increasing awareness of England’s decline, his failure to convince Roosevelt and then Truman of Stalin’s political intentions; and the Conservatives’ resounding defeat in the 1945 election that tossed Churchill out of office just as the war was ending. Then came increasing physical frailties and frustrations when he again became prime minister in 1951 and persistently tried to arrange summit meetings that might temper the growing cold war. Some of the controversies in Churchill’s earlier life, Reed points out, include the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles campaign he advocated as lord of the admiralty in World War I, a campaign that led to his resignation and a lifetime of recriminations and blame (unjustly so, a government report once affirmed and some historians now argue).

Churchill, it must be said, thought too much of himself to bother hiding his flaws. He did not have much interest in other people’s opinions; he was self-indulgent and intolerant; late in World War II, he was often accused of coming to meetings without having read the basic documents. Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff, famously wrote, “Winston had ten ideas every day, only one of which was good, and he did not know which it was.” He could also be intemperate: after nearly winning a war against Nazism and its evils, it could not have helped his election prospects to have argued in a 1945 radio broadcast that the opposition Labor Party’s socialist policies would lead to a “sort of Gestapo.”

But the heroic foundation has remained remarkably sturdy. Churchill’s stature has been shored up not just by popular perception but by the sheer accumulation of detail in eight volumes of the “authorized biography,” begun by his son, Randolph, and brought to a conclusion by Martin Gilbert, along with the splendid, popularly written two volumes of the late William Manchester’s biography The Last Lion (the third volume will be completed by another author). Churchill also once boasted that he would ensure his place in history by writing the history himself, which he did: his six-volume account of World War II helped win him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 but does not pretend to be a scrupulously objective history. Churchill also deliberately cultivated the aura of heroism; he courted its charms, welcomed its dangers. He must have been dismayed at the War Rooms’ bunker; he preferred to climb to rooftops to watch the German bombs fall, just as at the end of the 19th century, when fighting in Sudan, he would casually stand exposed to enemy fire. There is something childish, even foolish in such dares, and Churchill really did have an almost perverse attraction to warfare (while still being sober about its purposes and horrors). But heroism requires some foolishness: it shuns carefully reasoned second-guesses. And sometimes such actions turn out not to be self-indulgence but sacrificial accomplishment; there were hints of both in Churchill’s acts.

There have, however, been important challenges to the main outline of the heroic narrative, some of them far more radical than any the ChurchillMuseum could fully countenance. Robert Rhodes James’ 1970 book on Churchill’s wilderness years, for example, was subtitled A Study in Failure. It argued that given how unreliable Churchill had proved himself before the 1930s, it is no surprise he was discounted when it came to his warnings about Hitler. John Charmley’s 1993 Churchill: The End of the Glorywent even further, pinning on Churchill major responsibility for the disintegration of the British Empire. He and others have also suggested that there might well have been a way to reach an agreement with Hitler without going to war. This was the very subject of cabinet discussions extending over several days in May 1940, soon after Churchill became prime minister. The foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, whom many, including the king, would have preferred to see in Churchill’s place, argued that compromise with Hitler would still be preferable to a war in which many would die and England could lose. These views, of course, also required a more genteel understanding of Hitler’s long-term goals and methods than that which Churchill had gotten from reading Mein Kampf and watching Hitler at work. Other revisionist views of Churchill include skepticism about the very idea of there being such a thing as a “great man,” let alone one who might actually lead a nation in a Tolkienesque battle between good and evil. The historian A.J.P. Taylor, for example, in his Origins of the Second World War, argues that even Hitler had been misunderstood; some of his acts were the result of misinterpretations or misjudgments. “This is a story without heroes,” Taylor wrote of World War II, “and perhaps even without villains.” Adoubtful proposition on one count, which makes it also doubtful on the other.

More recently, though, attempts to dampen Churchill’s heroic stature have cited views now considered beyond the political pale. Churchill had a Victorian, racialist view of the world. He held unattractive views of blacks and, at times, Jews. He even signed onto the premises of the eugenics movement in the early years of the century, worrying over the population growth of the “feeble-minded and insane classes.” He was a believer in the importance of the British Empire (a position that once would not have inspired the automatic recriminations it does now). He was even known to have praised the character of such tyrants as Mussolini —“a really great man”—and Stalin—“a great and good man.” (Was there a bit of job envy in his compliments?)

Yet at every turn in such criticisms, complexities abound and contexts are missing. Churchill may have been inflexibly opposed to ending the Raj and granting India independence, for example, but his predictions about massacres of millions once the British pulled out proved fatefully prophetic. He may have been overly obsequious to Stalin in some wartime meetings, but he also understood, better than Roosevelt, why it might be important to get American troops into Prague sooner rather than later.

But these are not just historical debates about the nature of this particular man or academic disagreements about historical judgments. They are also debates about what sort of an example Churchill provides the 21st century. If he is considered a vulgarian warmonger, then his stance against appeasement is seen as just another one of his militant poses that, like a stopped clock, happens to be right twice a day. If he is a visionary who understood the nature of war and national interest, then his positions take on more resonance. If he held no position that could now be deemed morally justified, he becomes a historical monster, a figure who simply happened to play the right role at the right time. If his positions are understood as more nuanced, affected by his time and place, but transcending narrow preoccupations—if, that is, they were part of a larger vision—then he becomes a figure more deserving of his reputation.

So battles over Churchill’s relevance are battles over his virtue and value. And a wave of such conflicts began soon after 9/11. At a time of danger and imminent conflict, Churchill was invoked as an icon of leadership, foresight and courage. After the attacks, President Bush, predicting a long and difficult war, deliberately echoed Churchill’s rhetoric: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, quoted Churchill. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld invoked him as well. And New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani read the British politician Roy Jenkins’ recent biography. Jenkins returned the compliment; he was quoted in Time: “What Giuliani succeeded in doing is what Churchill succeeded in doing in the dreadful summer of 1940: he managed to create an illusion that we were bound to win.” In a new book about Churchill’s posthumous reputation, Man of the Century, the historian John Ramsden cites a cartoon in a Texas newspaper that ran after 9/11, showing New Yorkers looking at a photograph of Churchill: “They say he was a Giuliani-esque leader,” one says.

Other analogies have been made not just to Churchill’s character but to historical circumstance. Because Islamist terrorism has been a growing problem for well over a decade, the failure to adequately respond to previous, smaller attacks— such as the first bombing of the WorldTrade Center or the bombing of U.S. embassies abroad—has been compared to the failure to adequately respond to Hitler’s first tentative violations of the Versailles Treaty, such as his remilitarization of the Rhineland. And last year, Spain’s decision to remove its troops from Iraq after the terrorist bombing in Madrid was compared to the appeasement of Hitler, an attempt to assuage an enemy or protect oneself by granting what was being threateningly demanded.

Yet when complications in Iraq mounted, such Churchillian invocations, with their implicit praise, were attacked for their naiveté. Churchill was even criticized for being partly responsible for contemporary problems in the Middle East; it was he, after all, who as colonial secretary in 1921 had helped draw the borders of current-day Iraq. And in polemics that attracted widespread attention last spring in The Nation and The Spectator, the American journalist Michael Lind argued that Churchill was being ritualistically invoked by a “neocon cult” that is both unduly supportive of Israel and seeking to extend American war interests; Lind also suggested that worship of Churchill is itself perverse, since it can be accomplished only by sanitizing him, ignoring his racism and ruthlessness.

Even in Britain, contemporary political positions may be chipping away at Churchill’s once regnant reputation. In November, for example, “the first large-scale survey of British academic experts in British politics and/or modern British history” rated Clement Atlee, the Labour prime minister from 1945 to 1951, above Churchill as the most successful 20th-century prime minister. Churchill was considered a unifying figure because of his leadership of an embattled England; now it seems his reputation is becoming associated with political conservativism.

These are questionable judgments, seeming to magnify the unimportant and shrink the essential, but as memories of World War II fade and as current political debates evolve, assessments of Churchill’s stature are bound to shift. The heroic image may start to erode. There are times, of course, when even an admirer of the man might welcome some restraint. The War Rooms can overdo it in their attempts to re-create his time and presence. The museum’s current entrance, for example, is not the one that was used during the war; so sandbags are there not because they were used in 1940, but in order to evoke wartime danger; they are props. The furniture in Churchill’s underground quarters is more authentic—it is meant to resemble the furniture shown in photographs—but neither is most of it original; it came from flea shops and attics. More props. And in one of the small basement rooms, a plaster figure of Churchill, supposedly speaking on a secure phone line to Roosevelt, seems positively cultic.

But that is also part of the point. There are theatrics in such a museum, because it is attempting to dramatize, to bring a particular historical moment back to life, to reconstruct a particular set of experiences and ways of thinking. It is meant to restore something to contemporary awareness, to rescue the past from the pressures of contemporary perspective. And that requires more than just the portrayal of a place. After all, the main cabinet room, in which Churchill and his select group of ministers and officers would hear reports and determine strategy, is little more than a nondescript meeting room with pads and pencils set at every place and maps on the wall. The clock reads 2 minutes before 5, the date is October 15, 1940, and a mannequin of a British officer, papers in hand, is obviously setting things in place before a meeting. It would seem just a Madame Tussaud period piece if one hadn’t already gotten a sense of Britain’s danger at the time and didn’t also know that No. 10 Downing Street had been damaged by shrapnel the night before.

When Reed leads me into the room—which can ordinarily be viewed only through a window—the mundane scale of these objects does indeed make the immense dangers of the outside world more palpable.

Reed also points to the marks on the ends of the arms of Churchill’s wooden chair, from which he ran the meetings through a haze of cigar smoke; near the end of each armrest, the furniture finish is worn away in thin lines. These narrow gashes were created, Reed explains, by the tapping of Churchill’s signet ring and the nervous drumming of his fingernails. Given what was being discussed at these meetings— where the German bombs were falling, what kind of assistance the United States might give, how to deal with ships of French allies suddenly becoming part of Vichy’s navy—the tapping and drumming make perfect sense. In these worn lines there are also signs of heroism, but heroism of the human, traces of a man, not a monument, tapping and scratching with frustration, excitement, anticipation, worry. On a card placed in front of Churchill’s seat is a quotation from Queen Victoria from the Boer War: “Please understand there is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat—they do not exist.” This message now seems obvious, unsubtle. But then, in that setting, when alternatives were not only possible, but actively considered, Churchill’s signal accomplishment becomes clear.

Another thing that makes his heroism seem so extraordinarily human is that he had no illusions, only ideals. The goal was kept intact, even if the reality would fall far short; that meant constant vigilance was required. He recognized this even in his youth. In his 1899 book, The River War, he wrote: “All great movements, every vigorous impulse that a community may feel, become perverted and distorted as time passes, and the atmosphere of the earth seems fatal to the noble aspirations of its peoples. A wide humanitarian sympathy in a nation easily degenerates into hysteria. A military spirit tends towards brutality. Liberty leads to license, restraint to tyranny.”

One of the reasons why Churchill later said that if he had to relive any year of his life it would be 1940 is that at the beginning of that life-or-death struggle, the path was clear, the goals undistorted. He actually became more and more depressed as victory neared, because he saw that the “sunlit uplands” he had promised at the war’s beginning were now clouded by unforeseen events. Nor was he so content with the compromises he had to make in the midst of war—he agonized, for example, over the bombing of German cities. In fact, his triumph coincided with Britain’s decline—and his own.

And no sooner had one cataclysmic conflict ended than others loomed. Before Churchill delivered his famous 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, he had watched as Stalin tightened his grip on Eastern Europe: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” he said. “Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.’’ His speech was, in part, a warning that the war may have ended, but that struggle could not. There would be no pastoral retreat.

“It is necessary,” he argued, “that constancy of mind, persistency of purpose and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war.” Constancy of mind and persistency of purpose—those are familiar Churchillian virtues: they led him out of the wilderness and England out of darkness.

But “the grand simplicity of decision” is something else. It is a recognition that in the midst of a complex world, any act or decision will have a “grand simplicity” about it. Decision necessarily omits, rejects, determines. It could be grand, perhaps magnificent, and possibly necessary. But it may also seem too simple, imperfect and flawed, narrow and restrictive. And it will have consequences that cannot be foreseen. It will be, that is, human. Acting forthrightly with that kind of understanding in the face of Britain’s greatest danger— that may be Churchill’s greatest claim to heroism.

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