Finest Hour 155, Summer 2012
The Real Churchill
By Richard M. Langworth
“Churchillian Drift” illustrates a growing problem as knowledge turns more and more on the Internet—an electronic Hyde Park Corner to which anyone can contribute without a shred of regard for truth.
“Churchill elicits 37 million hits on Google, although admittedly many are about schools, ships, scholarships and a variety of red sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, that was named after him,” Andrew Roberts wrote. “Then there are the Internet questions, many of which require the answer ‘No’—such as ‘was Churchill Jewish?,’ ‘was Churchill anti- semitic?,’ ‘was Churchill born in a ladies’ loo after a dance?‚’ and ‘did Alexander Fleming or his father save Churchill from drowning?’ Not even put into the interrogative is the statement on one website that: ‘It is a little known fact that Winston Churchill was a Druid.'”
The “Information Revolution” has not revolutionized everyone’s information, John Charmley observed: “A recent survey in the UK revealed that most schoolchildren think Churchill was a mythical figure. After holding our heads in our hands and deciding that the world has indeed gone to the dogs, we might care to reflect that there may be an irony in all of this; after all, Churchill did set out to makehimself a legendary figure; so it may be only just that he seems to have become one, in an unexpected way.”
People simply believe anything. From play producers to authors to politicians to critics, they have put out more pure rubbish about Winston Churchill on the Internet than all the attack-books about him in the last century. Some criticisms are well founded, of course. But which are real, and which are impulses of nuts rattling on keyboards?
For Finest Hour it is not enough to inform you that some exhibit or play or book exists. If you want that, enter “Churchill” into Google Alerts and you’ll get more daily information than you can assimilate.
No. What FH readers expect to know is whether the item in question is any good or not. Does it reflect Churchill’s reality? If not, why not? We take that job seriously. As the historian Paul Addison remarked in 2008: “Since history never repeats itself exactly, the specific policies Churchill adopted in 20th century contexts do not provide ready-made solutions to the problems of the 21st. But Churchill’s writings and speeches are full of maxims and reflections and a political philosophy that offers us much food for thought. [And] it is rare to discover in the archives the reflections of a politician on the nature of man.” Leo Strauss said of Churchill’s Marlborough: “…the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding.”
This is what FH strives to be: a thoughtful reader’s distillation of Churchill’s reflections on humanity, manners, mores, life and death. (If you fear death, read Churchill.)
“People love inspiration,” wrote Warren Kimball. “It is a curse and a blessing. Choose the wrong inspirational, charismatic figure and you slide down the path to perdition. Choose the right one and you move yourself in the right direction. Churchill inspired people….moved by his words, his actions, his indomitable courage.”
Sir Martin Gilbert, asked to summarize Churchill in one sentence, said: “He was a great humanitarian who was himself distressed that the accidents of history gave him his greatest power at a time when everything had to be focused on defending the country from destruction, rather than achieving his goals of a fairer society.” But what is it about him that continues to fascinate? Sir Martin wrote: “Churchill was indeed a noble spirit, sustained in his long life by a faith in the capacity of man to live in peace, to seek prosperity, and to ward off threats and dangers by his own exertions. His love of country, his sense of fair play, his hopes for the human race, were matched by formidable powers of work and thought, vision and foresight. His path had often been dogged by controversy, disappointment and abuse, but these had never deflected him from his sense of duty and his faith in the British people.”
That faith however was tempered by a conviction that “the genus homo” never changes. The same imperfect being is presented by science with increasingly potent and dangerous toys. To illustrate, Churchill quoted Pope:
Placed on this Isthmus of a middle State, A being darkly wise and rudely great… Created half to rise and half to fall; Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled; The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
“Are not modern conditions…hostile to the development of outstanding personalities and to their influence upon events?” Churchill wondered. Yet he was unabashedly proud, in a way that has gone out of fashion, of the exceptionalism of the English-Speaking Peoples.