Sunday, 3 November 2013

Was Winston Churchill a great man?

The short answer is yes, of course. The quotations and the books show a man comparable to the Pitts, Fox, Disraeli or Dr. Johnson. He was a very great war leader who led the UK to victory, but was it a Pyrrhic victory? What if anything was his lasting achievement?

On his last birthday, Churchill said to his daughters:

I have achieved much to have achieved nothing at all.
I think this might be the judgement of history. I have come to think John Charmley and Maurice Cowling were probably right and we were wrong to go to war with Germany. But that was Halifax's doing, not Churchill's. But nothing we did or did not do would have
saved Poland or Romania, the two countries we guaranteed.

Charmley said:

Churchill stood for the British Empire, for British independence and for an 'anti-Socialist' vision of Britain. By July 1945 the first of these was on the skids, the second was dependent solely upon the United States and the third had just vanished in a Labour election victory.
70 million people died in the Second World War, a war which England declared against one of the two countries which divided up Poland in 1939. The other, Communist Russia, as repellent as Hitler's Germany, ended up with the whole of Poland and Eastern Europe. We lost our great power status and Churchill, who said he had not become His Majesty's Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire lived to see precisely that. Things could scarcely have been worse had we remained neutral. Had we been neutral we would have been in a position of enormous power - as combatants we found ourselves weak and dependent on the U.S.A. and Communist Russia.

Would Germany have won the war had we and the Americans stayed out? No-one can say but I think it probable that Russia would have defeated Germany without Britain's or America's help. In reality Russia did defeat Germany. Britain's and America's contribution was not at all decisive. A Russian victory might have resulted in Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe becoming Communist but there are far too many permutations for anyone to know. What is certain is that the easy presumption that of course we were right to go to war in 1939 is not an intelligent conclusion. Much less well-informed is the idea that Germany would have invaded England, though this was widely expected in 1940. In fact they could not have done so. Churchill sometimes opined that invasion was possible and sometimes admitted that it was not.

I loathe Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader, but I think he was right that keeping the balance of power in continental Europe had always been a mistaken policy. But in 1939 avoiding war with Germany would have been extremely hard, with the memory of the Great War so fresh. Nor did anyone foresee the fall of France. As always the hardest task for anyone who reads history is to remember that events long in the past were once in the future.

I have always rather cherished Churchill for his wish to keep India British forever - Chamberlain thought it would obtain independence in about 1980. But Churchill was I suppose wrong-headed. Alas he encouraged Jinnah and the Muslims in their ambitions which led to those baleful failed states, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In domestic politics he led the Conservative Party, to which he never fully belonged, to two defeats and one very narrow victory caused by the financial collapse of the Liberal Party, which could not afford to fight two elections in less than 18 months.

I wish we had a Churchill nowadays to warn about the huge rise in immigration into the UK that has occurred since 1997, in the way that Churchill warned in the 1930s about Germany. Were Churchill alive and active now immigration would be his theme. 
In January 1955 Churchill, as recorded in Harold Macmillan’s diary, suggested to his cabinet 

'Keep England White.' That would be a good election slogan.


  1. I do not believe that war with Germany could have been avoided for ever - other than by complete submission. Hitler's expressions of friendship for Britain were insincere - the only thing he loved was power, unlimited power, world power. Even before 1914 the German academic and political elite (closer in Germany than in any other country) longed for unlimited world power (as Ludwig Von MIses, not a man with a socialist bias, observed - and he knew many of these people), by the time of Hitler the desire for unlimited world power had become a madness in Germany.

    1. Probably war could not have been avoided forever - because of public opinion in the UK. But going to war led directly to the fall of France. I am told that a German invasion of England was not feasible.

    2. Operation Sealion actually had a good chance of success.

  2. I was fortunate to study under two exceptional 'British' historians Arthur Marder (though American-naval power) and Alfred 'Freddie' Gollin-air power among political interests. Gollin's less than approving biography of 'arch-imperialist Milner confirms that he was no fan of Churchill in this regard, a view he expressed freely in his uniquely rigorous (and fun) seminars. That said, he admired Churchill's tenure at the Admiralty and especially in his visionary attitudes towards and support of air power in modern warfare, and in preparing Britain for that challenge in 1914...and the one to come in 1940.

  3. The best definition that I have ever heard, and the one I generally use, of being 'great' is "a person who had a significant impact on the course of events and life in general both within their own lifetime and afterwards."

    One of the best things about this definition is that it is neutral, it doesn't have any judgement about whether that impact was good or bad

    With that definition in mind, I would say that Winston Churchill, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was a great man. I would say that he wasn't necessarily always a good one, but he definitely was a great man.

    (Winston Churchill has always, to me, brought to mind, the quote of Tacitus in describing Antonius Primus, that he was 'disruptive in times of peace, but in war a good ally")

  4. Paul, Churchill is a favorite for me. I would love to take a course just on the question you posed. He looked forward and made an impact. However, I do not see how you can attribute "British powerlessness" to him. The end of the empire was coming, even if Churchill had never been born, it would have occurred. As to Communism, you could blame him. My father considered Yalta to be one of the great disasters of the century. But neither Britain, nor America was in a mood to invade Russia. Earlier attempts to nip the communists in the bud failed and strangely (or not so) most Americans and Brits were informed that Stalin was our friend. Perhaps FDR and Churchill should have done a better job of negotiating, but there was no question that much of Eastern Europe would be under the thumb of imperialistic Russia.

    1. Of course I love him very much - of course he was a great war leader - but my little piece is about not him but whether we should have gone to war with Germany or later made peace with Hitler. Hoover thought Great Britain made a mistake in going to war and I respect Hoover. This might interest you:

  5. Winston Churchill, Great man? Anyone who thinks otherwise has not stopped to examine the world around them or only does so with preconceptions. He made huge mistakes, he was immune to any suffering he caused (so is any politician), he drank excessively, he was pompous, he was many things but he was magnificent!
    Had WSC not defied the peace party in 1940 the world would be a different and miserable place today. WSC was the Greatest person of the 20th Century, his legacy was indeed “British powerlessness, Communism in half of Europe, the end of the Empire”, but it was and is also freedom and democracy for the Western World, albeit at a huge price that had to be paid for the sake of civilization.
    He stood up and led when everyone else cowered in fear, and he led the free world to victory, we all owe him an inestimable debt despite his faults.

  6. I liken Churchill in WWII to Washington in the American Revolution. Both had great promise early, confidence bordering on arrogance (although Washington hid it better than Churchill), horrible disasters early in their careers, and both were perfectly positioned and uniquely prepared to do the job when their nations needed them.

  7. Had the Second World War not come along (and Chruchill was not universally popular either with the people or the armed services during it) , Churchill would have been a footnote in British history, remembered mainly as a failure overall. Had he been judged on his record after the war - he would have been regarded as ineffective and geriatric. As he said himself, all his life, with its adventures, successes, failures, disappointments, and about turns from one party to another, was simply a rehearshal for that moment. His life was defined by 5 years - not all successful - upon which his greatness rested. Overall, his prior life had put himself into a position in which he was the right man in the right place for the right task. His life after enabled him to mythify those 5 years. And so, I think that he was a great man overall - despite the fact that he left Britain smaller and less powerful and economically weaker - and effcitively an American vassal after 1943 - than when he took power, but in the course of world history, that was a good thing too.

    1. Yes, we were inevitably the ' 51st State' in foreign policy after 1942 -43, and some would argue we still are today - apart from Wilson's smart avoidance of the Vietnam war and some minor disagreements over Israel, Suez, Grenada, the Falklands and Ireland, we have largely done America's bidding in foreign policy and gave over our territories to their missiles and submarines, including the two wasteful wars in Iraq and Afganistan. keynes had to go and beg for extra loans from the US in 1945 to keep the UK going.. and these were not repayed until the 1990s I think.

  8. Big men make Big mistakes,little men make small mistakes,if you do not do anything you make no mistakes,and you might then have been a mistake.Mr Churchill was lucky he kept on and on making mistakes for over 50 years and also outlived his enemies.

  9. Germany was planning for a European war in 1942 or 43. By then Luftwaffe and and submarine forces would have meant that the idea of Britain going to war with Germany would have been very problematical. By then Germany would have been master of Eastern Europe.

    Instead Britain and France gave Germany a final chance - do not invade Poland.

  10. I think Shakespeare's famous line from Twelfth Night is apropos: "...Some achieve greatness, and some are born great and others have greatness thrust upon them." Although from a distinguished family Churchill clearly in my mind falls into the latter two categories. For some men a nexus of circumstance, preparation, opportunity, and character meet existential challenges to produce remarkable achievement. Thus it was for Churchill all of his well known flaws and indulgences notwithstanding. As one commentator noted his life was 'trajectory of events leading to WWII and indeed it is that supreme crisis for Britain that made him great.

    I found a a rather biting assessment of 1920 (Contemporary Portraits) ironically of interest. The writer opines: '...he is an excellent subaltern, capable, industrious, and supremely courageous, but not a pathfinder or great leader of men.' Grey, Haldane and Lloyd George (according to Asquith) feared something 'dangerous' in him. Asquith also cited his 'lack of precision and discrimination,' and absence of praise among his colleagues for 'statesmanship.' But this was in 1928 from the perspective of the Great War and its disillusionment despite British pluck in the face of Imperial decline certainly evident before the Great Depression. But Churchill's moment had not come in the 1930s

    Strategically Churchill's proposal for the Gallipoli campaign could have been a game changer, but he was not involved with its execution and shouldn't be held responsible for the failure of Hamilton, Stopford, Kitchener, et. al)...not to mention the stout defense by the Turks. Dismissed in the 30s (out of power) as a wight wing extremist he was among the first to condemn Chamberlain's 'appeasement ' of Hitler and put Britain on notice for the grave peril the Third Reich represented. His tight relationship with FDR and securing Destroyer for bases and Lend Lease wee master diplomatic strokes when the US was hugely resistant to being sucked into another European war. The Roosevelt-Churchill diplomatic partnership was the 'winning weapon' in forging the 'Blg Three' alliance against the Axis.

  11. It was no part of his plan to lose Eastern Europe to the Communists. He was against the American plan of invading France, he wanted to attack the 'Soft under-belly of Europe', land in the Balkans, strike north and reach the Baltic before the Russians

    At Yalta he tried hard to commit Stalin to free elections in Poland, but without American support he did not have the power to enforce it. The question of Poland was its continued existence. As it was Ukraine got to keep the areas invaded in 1939, and Poland was awarded former German lands in the west.

    When the war ended both sides imposed governments on the conquered territories that were friendly to their 'liberators'. What else were they going to do?

  12. Even without responding to the invasion of Poland with a declaration of war by France and England it would only have been a matter of time before England and Germany clashed. Hitler always intended to bring France to its knees as punishment for its humiliation of Germany in the First World War and once he reached the Atlantic it is hard to believe he would have been satisfied remaining just a land power and not a maritime one. With no one else in Western Europe to help the British, Hitler was sure to have eventually challenged the British navy.

    Greatness, as has been acknowledged here, is very subjective but I believe it can be generally agreed that the title can applied to a particular individual who was so influential as to institute a lasting effect that, overall, was for the good. It would be hard for a Polish, Indian or African observer to see Churchill in a good light but as far was the world is concerned it is a much better place than it would have been without the efforts of Churchill to warn against National Socialism and lead the single handed fight against Germany until America finally became involved.

    In the case of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political and economic policies were an anathema to me personally, I have to concede, however, his steadiness and calmness helped the American people weather the darkest days of the war. Churchill, like Roosevelt, had a dark side but as historian philosopher, Will Durant, once wrote that history is not made by virtuous men. That may be a bit cynical but there is much truth in it.

  13. I have always wondered why the "Winston's back!" signal was sent to the fleet when he seemed to be so unpopular elsewhere at the time. The Gallipoli campaign was part of the British tradition of the indirect approach, maximising its naval power, and was a good idea that was very badly executed and came close to success several times. I think it's fair to say that the fate of eastern Europe can be laid at the feet of FDR and Truman, who didn't stand up to Stalin the way Churchill wanted them to. Churchill was a great man because he listened to his advisors, who had to constantly redirect his energy away from hair-brained schemes (especially the invasion of Norway).

    By the way, Britain missed out on going to war with the USSR by a hairsbreadth - assistance was on its way to Finland when the Winter War ended.

    Hitler offered to let Britain keep its empire if his offer of peace was accepted. At the end of WW2 Britain was bankrupt, was in the process of losing its empire, had no gold reserves, no foreign currency reserves, no intellectual property, this had to be given to the U.S. under lend lease. British scientists made significant contributions to the development of the atom bomb in the USA but got little in return. Rationing continued for years after the war. Britain was Up to its neck in debt to America; the last payment was made in December 2006. Nevertheless defeating Hitler was the single most important act in history and any hardship, financial or otherwise had to be endured. We are lucky that Churchill, not Halifax, was prime minister in July-September 1940. In any case, if Hitler's record on Czechoslovakia is anything to go by, he wasn't to be trusted and if Britain had given in to him, it would have given the green light to nationalist movements around the world to rise up against a defeated Britain - so the empire would have been lost, anyway.

    We should be very grateful to those who stood up against Hitler in Britain’s darkest hour. German plans for the occupation of Britain included:
    The murder of over 300,000 Jews in Britain
    The arrest of nearly 3,000 people thought to be anti-Nazi (listed in the “Black Book”).
    The internment and removal to the continent of all able-bodied males aged between 17 and 45, for use as forced labour.
    The thousands of refugees from the Nazi regime in Britain, mostly confined in internment camps, would have been murdered, enslaved, or incarcerated in concentration camps.
    There would have been the total loss of personal freedoms, not the least of which would have been the loss of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Just playing jazz music would be enough to get you arrested. Any acts of resistance would have resulted in mass executions.
    Himmler expressed the intention to kill about 80% of the populations of England and France after the German victory. There are indications that - to save manpower- only southern England would be occupied, while the rest of the UK (e.g. Scotland) would be split up into puppet states

  14. Had we let the National Socialist have Poland in 1939, we would still have had to go to war with Nazi Germany. Mr Hitler (and the others) did not just want Poland - they wanted the world.

    1. Not necessarily - Germany had no designs on the British Empire. She wanted to regain the lands she lost after 1918 and to conquer and subjugate Russia. As for America Hitler declared war on the USA - had he not would they have entered the war against Germany?

  15. Of course we know Hitler desired "unlimited world power"--Paul Marks tells us so!

    Someone should as him what the Soviets desired.