Finest Hour 155, Summer 2012
Wit and Wisdom – “Take Refuge in The 18th Century”
By Steve Gertz
Mr. Gertz blogs at www.booktryst.com. Reprinted by courtesy of the author; inscription illustration courtesy of Bonham’s, London.
Churchill’s opponents often complained that he was philosophically rooted in the past, so he must have taken wry amusement to suggest Neville Chamberlain go there—in a book inscribed just before Munich. Steve Gertz offers a cogent account of a priceless set of Churchill’s Marlborough.
In August, 1938, as German aggression against the Sudetenland threatened war, Winston Churchill sent Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain his fourth and final volume of Marlborough, with what would become an acutely apposite inscription.
The significance of these volumes cannot be discounted. Indeed bonham’s, which offered the four-volume set in its Knightsbridge Maps and Manuscripts sale last March 27th, sold them for £45,000. The provenance was impeccable: from the private collection of Mrs. Francis Neville Chamberlain, daughter- in-law of the recipient.
Each volume was inscribed and dated by Churchill at the time of publication, which happened to coincide with crucial events: October 1933 (the year Hitler came to power); 21 October, 1934 (Hindenburg dead, Hitler supreme leader); October 1936 (German-Italian Axis declared); and now, in volume four, August 1938, the brink of Munich, with Churchill’s pointed postscript: “Perhaps you may like to take refuge in the Eighteenth Century.”
The inscription captures Churchill’s sardonic, mordant wit and rings with poignant irony, written as the world stood on the brink of sinking into “the abyss of a new Dark Age,” with Chamberlain des- perately seeking peace at any price and Churchill among the few voices arguing for a confrontation before Hitler became militarily stronger and further emboldened against his neighbors.
A few weeks later Chamberlain would alight in England bearing news of the Munich Agreement which partitioned Czechoslovakia: “…for the second time in our history a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”
Churchill’s reply came on October 5th in the House of Commons: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat” The British people, he insisted, “should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defences; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful mile- stone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup….”