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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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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.

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