(30 Nov. 1874 to 25 Jan. 1965)
The 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death prompts us to recall a person the like of which we no longer see. Whilst he was a giant even from early age, Churchill was wildly inconsistent in his politics and his professional allegiances. He failed more often than he succeeded and a case can be made that he was a far better writer (and painter) than politician or military strategist. Yet he completely embodies the heroic myth of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. Hard as it is to believe today, for a great deal of the 1930s, Churchill was in the political wilderness, nudging brandy heavily, heading towards an age when most retire, and railing against a certain German fellow that not nearly enough people took seriously.
In 1935, Churchill wrote: “We have only to read Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, to see that the French are not the only foreign nation against whom the anger of rearmed Germany may be turned…But the internal stresses are even more striking…the Jews of Germany…were…stripped of all power, driven from every position in public and social life, expelled from the professions, silenced in the Press, and declared a foul and odious race…What manner of man is this grim figure who has performed these superb toils and loosed these frightful evils?”.
Winston was sixty-one, on the political margins, virtually the only one to be, so to speak, shouting from the back of the truck about Adolf Hitler. Yet four years later Poland was invaded, the world was at the abyss of the biggest war ever and Churchill was back in cabinet, still one of a minority who knew there could be no treaty with the Führer.
Events at first did not favour him: France fell ignominiously; though England did enough to stave off invasion in the months of the so-called phony war, it suffered bad setbacks in naval battles off Norway and Chamberlain was not thought to be supplying sufficient leadership. There was a key debate in the House of Commons in early May as the knives sharpened and calls were made for a more courageous approach. Attlee quoted Lord Nelson: “the boldest measures are the safest”; Lloyd-George (and others) explicitly called for Chamberlain to resign, reminding the House that “he has met this formidable foe of ours in peace and in war. He has always been worsted”; L.S. Amery, hitherto an ally of the P.M., echoed Oliver Cromwell’s admonition to the Long Parliament: “In the name of God, go.” Although the division after this tense and heated debate resulted in a narrow but adequate win for Chamberlain, he knew that a narrow win in the circumstances, i.e., an existential threat not only to Britain but civilisation itself, was inadequate. On 10 May he resigned and Churchill became Prime Minister.
Within three weeks, the British forces were evacuated from Dunkirk, in what Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance” but as he also cautioned, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” On this darkest day, 4 June 1940, with the Nazis on their way to a clean-sweep of Europe, Churchill gave perhaps the greatest fighting speech in history, one that reflected his eloquence, pugnacity, peerless self-confidence and prescience:
“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail, we shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle,until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might,steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”