The great men of history who shaped Churchill
MIRRORS OF GREATNESS by David Reynolds (William Collins £25, 464pp)
ON HIS 69th birthday, November 30, 1943, Churchill got howling drunk with Joseph Stalin at the Tehran summit. As the night wore on, the Soviet leader slurred: ‘I want to call Mr Churchill my friend.’ ‘Call me Winston.’ ‘No, I want to call you my friend. I want to be allowed to call you my great friend.’ A little later, Churchill announced, raising yet another glass: ‘I drink to the Proletarian masses!’ Clearly, the fact that he had once castigated Communism as ‘the foul baboonery of Bolshevism’ had slipped his mind.
It’s a pricelessly funny scene, almost a parody of a drunken conversation, but carefully recorded by Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, and one of many in David Reynolds’ absolutely brilliant new portrait of the man who is, for many, still the Greatest Briton. Each chapter portrays Churchill’s views of other great contemporaries — de Gaulle, Gandhi, etc — and theirs of him.
But it’s more than that: it’s about how the examples of other leaders and statesmen, these ‘Mirrors of Greatness’, shaped him, starting way back with Alexander the Great. Like that young, restless world conqueror from Macedon, Churchill was obsessed with ‘ greatness’, with the ‘great men of history’, and determined to become one himself.
Regarded as rather dim at school, and never going to university, Churchill learned about politics directly from real-life politicians, as well as from his own lifelong love of history.
It’s wonderfully illuminating. I had no idea Churchill was quite so cosy with Stalin, as in the above anecdote. The closest Churchill ever came to a face-to-face meeting with Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, was over tea. He was staying at the Hotel Regina in Munich in August 1932, researching his monumental biography of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and got chatting with Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, a crony of Hitler. Would Churchill like to meet the leader of the fast-rising Nazi party? Churchill was keen, but
Hitler cried off, annoyed by this English visitor having asked Putzi: ‘Why is your chief so violent about the Jews?’
For a sobering example of political failure, he had his own brilliant but unstable father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who served as both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House, but died when Churchill was in his 20s.
Churchill’s childhood was emotionally deprived. Even after he had got into Sandhurst, his father wrote him a laceratingly critical letter: ‘Slovenly happy-go-lucky harum- scarum . . . idle, useless and unprofitable . . . a shabby unhappy and futile existence . . .’ Even in his 50s, Churchill could still quote parts of that punishing letter from memory.
Only after Lord Randolph died was Churchill liberated from his louring shadow, ascending into sunnier uplands and achieving astonishing things. Between the ages of 20 and 25, ‘he fought in four wars, published five books and wrote more than 200 newspaper articles’. At 25 he became MP for Oldham, and for the rest of his life there was no stopping him.
He did profoundly fear and dislike Germany, or at least a powerful Germany, vowing: ‘I’ll never learn that beastly language.’ Yet Hitler had little intrinsic hatred of England — ‘I like an Englishman a thousand times better than an American’ — admired the British Empire, and said: ‘ England can have peace if it keeps out of Europe and gives us back our colonies and a bit more besides.’
But why trust Hitler? Churchill never did. And by 1942 he was attacking him in his finest thunderous prose, as ‘a monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder’, now carrying his ‘ work of butchery and desolation’ into Russia. Hitler, by the way, thought the invasion of Russia would be child’s play.
Churchill did trust Stalin, oddly, while the Russian leader, with characteristic peasant mistrust for absolutely everyone, once said that Churchill ‘is the kind who, if you don’t watch him, will slip a kopeck out of your pocket’.
But the uneasy alliance produced a friendship of sorts, and a card from Stalin to Churchill in 1941 — ‘Warm wishes on your birthday’. Sweet! Though it can’t have helped when, staying at a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow during yet more talks, Churchill’s staff warned him the place would certainly be bugged. Immediately Churchill, ever the naughty schoolboy, started to lambast the Russians as ‘ lower in the scale of nature than the orang-outang!’
His friendship with President Roosevelt was deep and true, though not untroubled, not least because, to Churchill, World War II was helping preserve the British Empire, while the Americans were aiming very precisely to dismantle it. Above all, we’re reminded that Churchill’s greatness lay in his cheerfulness under unimaginable pressure, his courage in the direst and darkest adversity. In June 1940, for instance, deep in gloom, he predicted to General Ismay, his chief staff officer, ‘You and I will be dead in three months’ time’. And then he would step out on to the London streets, smile confidently, give his V for victory sign, wave to the crowds, and head to Westminster to assure the Commons and the country that all would be well and right would prevail. Somehow.
It was a kind of heroic hypocrisy, you might say, or an act, a performance almost without equal. ‘Far from being an unthinkingly pugnacious bulldog,’ says Reynolds, ‘this was a man who had stared into the abyss and would still look up smiling, to declaim words of inspiration.’
Among many moving scenes, perhaps my favourite is the moment when Churchill was with Roosevelt in Cairo in 1943 and the prime minister went ‘ bounding’ into Roosevelt’s room with a positively boyish enthusiasm, crying: ‘Mr President, you simply must come and see the Sphinx and the pyramids!’
With equally boyish enthusiasm, the U.S. leader tried to rise up from the wheelchair in which he had been bound for over 20 years, only to sink back again exhausted. Churchill turned away tactfully, saying: ‘ We’ll wait for you in the car.’ Once outside, his daughter Sarah saw that his eyes were bright with tears. ‘I love that man,’ he murmured.