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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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.


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