By Andrew Roberts
On 12 November, 1940, in praise of the recently deceased Neville Chamberlain, Churchill said: “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”
What he was talking about—the practice of history—is what I would like to talk to you about today: how various writers have tried to affect Churchill’s reputation, including in the massive new medium of cyberspace.
It should be recognised that all history is to a certain extent revisionist: that is not necessarily a negative thing. Revising what has been thought by previous generations is what history is about. Churchill’s reputation has gone through several phases from the 1950s, when it was largely hagiographic, to the 1990s, when a new, aggressive, carping tone appeared.
The British Library lists thousands of books with Churchill’s name in the title, but it is largely the case that his reputation has remained to an astonishing degree unaffected. He has become an international icon, whose reputation no new information or novel historical analysis will alter.
The Chartwell visitor numbers continue to rise; the U.S. Navy has named a warship after him. He has been voted “Person of the Century” and even “Man of the Millennium” in recent polls. What Churchill called the “grievous inquest” of history has sat and found him to be truly “Great.”
Yet Churchill is still attacked: he is certainly still topical, which is astonishing for a man who died forty years ago. For example: his Parliament Square statue was given a Mohican haircut as part of a May Day protest a few years ago, whilst Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, recently said that Churchill was the “primary” reason for the recent problems in Darfur. Whether one agrees or not, it is a sign of the force of Churchill’s reputation that such a comment should have been made at all in the context of current affairs.
There are three aspects of Churchill’s reputation that I would like to focus on. The first is the Mbeki line: using Churchill’s name for the speaker’s own political ends. This is true of historians too: on the left there is Clive Ponting. On the right there is David Irving. For example, Irving argues that Churchill positively knew of the planned Pearl Harbor attack, and stopped only short of saying that he was a full-scale drunk. The problem lies with Irving’s evidence; when one checks the facts, his views break down again and again.
The second viewpoint is what I describe as the American Libertarian analysis. The prime example is the academic Robert Raico, who in a half hour speech accused Churchill of some thirty crimes ranging from being a drug addict, to being Stalin’s lackey, to sinking the Lusitania, to plotting “the destruction of the British and American Empires.” What is amazing, above all, is that there were some thirty accusations in a thirty-minute speech! (See also “Real versus Rubbish,” FH 123: 38-43. —Ed.)
Then there is the huge forum of the Internet, where the accusations are often bizarre: the Lusitania again, Pearl Harbor, and so on. Perhaps the most extraordinary is the charge that Churchill pursued the prospects of peace with Mussolini in 1945 (yes, 1945). Leaving aside the fact that Churchill would not by that stage have needed peace with Mussolini, the charge goes that the relevant documents are in a waterproof bag at the bottom of Lake Como. So, if one takes issue with them, the conspiracy theorists say, “go and look.” If you don’t find anything, they say, “you haven’t looked hard enough.”
Then there are the books, some of which obtain advances I could only dream of. For example, there is “Operation JB,” by Christopher Creighton, claiming that Churchill spirited Martin Bormann (Hitler’s Nazi Party Secretary) away from the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and set him up in a country house in Britain. The advance for that book was a quarter million pounds—for a book that did not produce any evidence at all. It should surely have been enough for the publishers that the “JB” in the title, referred to James Bond.
One pop-psychologist author states that Churchill was a flasher. True, he did let people into his bathroom to talk to him whilst he was in, or emerging from, the bath. However, that author took the view that Churchill actually got a kick out of exposing himself.
All that can be done in the face of these intemperate attacks is to go back to reliable sources (Sir Martin Gilbert primarily, and the original documents), explain the meaning, and above all the historical context, and deny the outlandish accusations. Even respectable sources may get the facts wrong. For example, I was dismayed last month to hear BBC Radio Four’s “Today” programme state without correction that Churchill sent troops against striking miners in Tonypandy, using fixed bayonets.
No one can deny that there are genuine issues to be looked into, and criticisms to be made: Tonypandy and associated strikes, the Suffragettes, changing parties, the Dardanelles, the return to the Gold Standard, the General Strike, India, the Abdication and Norway, to name but a few. These are reasonable debates. Not so are the lurid conspiracy theories, detailing Churchill’s allegedly nefarious activities, which are absurdities. It is crucial for serious historians to be able to differentiate between the two.
As a Tory Nationalist myself, I have in many ways a lot of sympathy with the late Alan Clark and Professor John Charmley, with regard to their nostalgia for the empire Britain lost. Yet I fail to see how anyone can argue that Britain would have been better off if she had made an “arrangement” with Hitler in 1940-41. All Europe would have been under the Nazi sway, and there would have been no reason for the Americans to have entered the war. The Russians only just stayed in the war in 1941-42. If they had been knocked out of the war, and Hitler’s Reich had stretched from Brest to the Urals, Britain would have been in a far worse position in 1945 than she was.
What if Stalin had won? The Russian people made an astonishing sacrifice in the war, and they didn’t crack. Had they survived after that sacrifice, without even Lend-Lease to add some little good-will, the Russians would have dominated Europe, and there would have been no Western Allies in Europe in 1945: it would have been them on the Channel ports, not the Nazis. It is inconceivable that that would have left us stronger.
Of course, the Charmley/Clark thesis depends upon a belief in Hitler’s willingness to keep his word in any treaty signed with Britain. On his 50th birthday, the German Foreign Office gave Adolf Hitler a silver casket with all the treaties signed by him since he had come to power. Hitler asked how many the Nazis had kept. Amidst roars of laughter, Ribbentrop informed him that he didn’t believe they had upheld a single one. That being the case, what kind of trust could one put upon the Germans at all? Britain would have had to maintain a draining state of constant readiness.
We must recognise that by 1935, the Empire’s fate was sealed. India was moving toward independence; peace with Hitler would not have prevented that. It is inconceivable that, by the 1970s and 1980s, Britain would still have had her empire. Moreover, this thesis does not address the moral question, largely ignored by Charmley and Clark, regarding the fate of the Jews. The Nazis managed to kill six million, and had another four to five million in their power. One has to assume that, if peace had been granted to Hitler, they all would have been exterminated.
I’d like to end with a different Churchill quotation from the same speech about Neville Chamberlain, with which I started this talk:
“What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”
Winston Churchill marches there still.
Mr. Roberts is an historian and a member of ICS (UK). His remarks occurred at the Cabinet War Rooms, London, 16 November 2005. Mr. Courts is our deputy editor.
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