Books Churchill: Walk­ing With Des­tiny

Yet an­other study of Winston Churchill fails to move be­yond the leg­end to fo­cus on the darker side of the great wartime hero

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By David Olu­soga

How to as­sess the ca­reer of a world­chang­ing politi­cian who was also a pro­lific jour­nal­ist, writer and in­ces­sant self-pub­li­cist? Aside from his other achieve­ments, Winston Churchill wrote a six-vol­ume, 1.9m-word ac­count of the sec­ond world war and his role in win­ning it. Are we able, more than five decades after his death, to peer over the moun­tain of his rep­u­ta­tion and his writ­ings – more than 40 books and thou­sands of speeches – and find the real man?

As well as the size of Churchill’s out­put, there is the se­duc­tive elo­quence of his words. Like the lines of Blake’s “And did those feet in an­cient time”, some of Churchill’s more lyri­cal pas­sages are so per­fectly con­structed and deftly tar­geted that they can in­duce, even in scep­tics, mo­men­tary lapses of crit­i­cal anal­y­sis. His com­mand of lan­guage was such that he was a re­cip­i­ent of the No­bel prize in lit­er­a­ture. Churchill the war leader has to be dis­en­tan­gled from the pro­pa­ganda im­age cre­ated by him and those around him, and which was it­self a sig­nif­i­cant part of the war ef­fort.

Dur­ing al­most ev­ery for­eign pol­icy cri­sis and con­flict, es­pe­cially if the idea of ap­pease­ment is rel­e­vant, politi­cians and jour­nal­ists ask: what would Churchill have done? Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, who launched his calami­tous war in Iraq with a bust of Churchill by his side in the Oval Of­fice, is said to have mod­elled his style of lead­er­ship on him. And even be­fore the EU ref­er­en­dum, the two sides in the bat­tle of Brexit had be­gun to claim that the mem­ory of Churchill was on their side.

In his ma­jor new bi­og­ra­phy, An­drew Roberts sums up Churchill’s credo: “With enough spirit he be­lieved that we can rise above any­thing, and cre­ate some­thing truly mag­nif­i­cent of our lives.” Given that his rous­ing speeches play on a per­pet­ual loop some­where in the back of the na­tional psy­che, and the bulk of the coun­try is un­shak­able in its view of Churchill as the great­est of Bri­tish heroes, how can the his­to­rian see him with any clar­ity? There are said to be more than a thou­sand bi­ogra­phies; what can Roberts add? He has drawn on some fresh ma­te­rial: the di­aries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet am­bas­sador to Bri­tain, and new ac­counts of the meet­ings of Churchill’s war cabi­net. The reve­la­tion that has aroused most at­ten­tion is how of­ten Churchill was moved to tears – his sen­ti­men­tal­ity was fa­mil­iar to any­one who worked with him closely. Roberts also makes in­ter­est­ing use of the di­aries of Ge­orge VI, avail­able to his­to­ri­ans for the first time in an unedited form. He por­trays an un­likely wartime re­la­tion­ship: be­fore the con­flict be­gan, the king had pri­vately ex­pressed the hope that he would never have to ap­point Churchill to any great of­fice of state, yet the two men grew both close to and sup­port­ive of one an­other.

Roberts takes his sub­ti­tle from Churchill’s own his­tory of the war: on be­ing ap­pointed prime min­is­ter, in May 1940, he felt he was “walk­ing with des­tiny”, that his life up un­til that mo­ment “had been but a prepa­ra­tion for this hour and for this trial”. The au­thor’s ad­mi­ra­tion for his sub­ject is clear, but this does not stop him from dis­cussing Churchill’s ear­lier mis­judg­ments and cat­a­strophic er­rors. There are many: the dis­as­trous Dar­danelles cam­paign of the first world war, or­dered by him when he was first lord of the Ad­mi­ralty; the in­fa­mous and self-de­feat­ing de­ploy­ment of the Black and Tans to post-1918 Ire­land, when he was sec­re­tary of state for war; the siege of Sid­ney Street of 1911 in Lon­don, which he in­eptly di­rected; and the op­po­si­tion to In­dian self-gov­ern­ment. Roberts does de­fend these mis­cal­cu­la­tions but only to some de­gree.

For him, what Churchill got right out­weighs the many things he got wrong. Sum­ming up, he writes: “When it came to all three mor­tal threats to Western civil­i­sa­tion, by the Prus­sian mil­i­tarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s

and Soviet Com­mu­nism after the sec­ond world war, Churchill’s judg­ment stood far above” that of oth­ers. This is not an orig­i­nal ar­gu­ment, but Roberts presents it in more de­tail and with more flair than many pre­vi­ous bi­og­ra­phers.

Yet re­peat­edly in the book the dark episodes of Churchill’s ca­reer, of­ten the con­se­quences of his prej­u­dices, are too eas­ily dis­missed. His re­jec­tion of an of­fer of food aid from Bri­tain’s wartime al­lies, which would have gone some way to al­le­vi­ate the dis­as­trous Ben­gal famine, is cov­ered in just a few pages. And through­out, Churchill’s racism and pa­ter­nal­ism are treated merely as typ­i­cal of his era and gen­er­a­tion – which they were, but only to some ex­tent. In Churchill’s case those prej­u­dices cost lives and had con­se­quences that have lasted un­til to­day.

Churchill’s lead­er­ship skills are un­de­ni­able, and his abil­ity to in­spire and en­er­gise his na­tion ut­terly vi­tal, but there was also a bru­tal­ity to him, a love of war that he oc­ca­sion­ally ad­mit­ted to, and an ob­ses­sion with ter­ror weapons. His pas­sion­ate sup­port for the aerial bom­bard­ment of Iraq in the in­ter­war years, and his de­ploy­ment of sim­i­lar tac­tics on a vaster scale against Ger­man civil­ians dur­ing the sec­ond world war, his strong ad­vo­cacy of the use of chem­i­cal weapons – all have been stud­ied in de­tail by his­to­ri­ans in re­cent years. This grow­ing body of schol­ar­ship re­veals a man ca­pa­ble not just of er­ror but of vin­dic­tive­ness, much of it in­flu­enced by his racial views.

Yet Churchill’s pop­u­lar rep­u­ta­tion is unas­sail­able. His stand­ing in the Bri­tain of 2018 is ar­guably higher than it was in the war-bat­tered na­tion of 1945, when the ma­jor­ity of the elec­torate cast him back into the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness, vot­ing him out of of­fice in favour of Labour and a wel­fare state. To­day the leg­end is near sa­cred and al­most in­vi­o­lable. He has been voted “Per­son of the Cen­tury” and “Man of the Mil­len­nium”. In 2002, a BBC2 au­di­ence voted him the “Great­est Bri­ton” of all time. Fight­ing the sec­ond world war was of course es­sen­tial, but it has come to be seen as a holy cru­sade, and is ex­am­ined less crit­i­cally by 21st-cen­tury Bri­tons than it was by the gen­er­a­tion who fought it.

The war of Churchill’s great speeches, the bat­tle of Bri­tain and the blitz spirit is also the war in which more than 1 mil­lion In­di­ans – sub­jects of the em­pire Churchill so loved – were left to die of star­va­tion. Bri­tain and Churchill fought not solely in the name of lib­erty and democ­racy, but also with the in­ten­tion of main­tain­ing the em­pire, de­fend­ing vi­tal in­ter­ests and re­main­ing a great power. Per­haps no bi­og­ra­pher, of what­ever po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion and no mat­ter how even handed, can get be­yond the Churchill leg­end, so long as our de­vo­tion to a mythic ver­sion of the con­flict that de­fined the man and his cen­tury re­mains so res­o­lute.

DAVID OLU­SOGA IS A HIS­TO­RIAN AND BROAD­CASTER

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Churchill: Walk­ing with Des­tiny by An­drew Roberts

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