Interpretations of Winston Churchill

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Evaluate two or more competing interpretations of Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill has become an icon of modern history, and is probably the most celebrated Prime Minister or the twentieth century. It was not until he was 65, however, that Churchill achieved his popularity and fame, and it was almost wholly the result of the end of the Second World War. Without this, the popular impression of Churchill would fall a long way short of what it is today. Churchill is remembered by most, of course, as a great national hero; a war leader who delivered Great Britain, and the rest of the world, from the threat of Nazi Germany advancing inexorably to extend the Third Reich. There were many other aspects to Churchill’s life, however, of which it was the culmination only, in victory, that secured his historical legacy. As is to be expected with someone as successful and popular as Churchill, the man has attracted a great many academics to research into and report on Churchill’s life (between fifty and one hundred in the estimate of Roy Jenkins[1]). These various interpretations are many, and each one must be considered in the context of the time and societal circumstances in which it was written. As with all history, (especially biography,) one must evaluate such works sceptically, trying to discern the biographer’s own views and prejudices, and those of the society which produced the biographer. What each work tells us about Churchill must be cross-referenced with other accounts, and with impartial accounts of events in which Churchill was involved. This essay will focus on four key biographies of Churchill; Addison’s Churchill, the Unexpected Hero, and Jenkins’ recent Churchill primarily, as well as Gilbert’s Churchill, a Life, and Ponting’s Churchill.

When one considers the various biographies of Churchill that the post-War years have yielded, it is fair to say that there are discernable patterns. An increasing scepticism in the historiography is an example of such a trend. It seems accurate to describe the later biographies of Churchill as less laudatory and unquestioningly praising towards Churchill than, say, Jenkins’ recent biography. This, in its stated mission, sets out to reconsider the wholly celebratory nature of some earlier biographies. Jenkins introduces his magisterial work with the assertion that Churchill was ‘many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable…’[2] The work is not, however, hagiographical; indeed from the outset, Jenkins’ esteem and fondness of Churchill (albeit based upon a very brief series of encounters in the early 1940s) is obvious. “I was aware of witnessing something unique, but also remote and unpredictable.”[3] As a whole work, however, Jenkins’ is more thorough than anything that has gone before. It is a dense, academic and politically charged work, obviously written by an insider of the political world from its clear understanding and appreciation of the main passion of Churchill’s life; politics. Churchill was, after all, in the House of Commons for over sixty years.

The other major work which will be considered is somewhat less academic, and more populist in its structure and style. Addison covers the life of Churchill from his birth through his early years as a journalist and soldier, through his early parliamentary career and later premiership and his last years in less than 250 pages. While this remains a convincing and thorough biography, it is by no means as comprehensive as the project undertaken by Jenkins. What of the content of these two books, however? How do their respective authors present Churchill? It has already been mentioned that Jenkins has sought to adopt a holistic approach which is relatively free of unquestioning praise. Addison’s is, perhaps, more preoccupied with the popular appeal of Churchill, and as such, it is less sceptical of certain aspects of Churchill’s life. This is, however, to be expected, as rather than present a fully comprehensive account of the whole of Churchill’s life, this account seeks to assess the reasons for the man’s ascendancy to national hero. The tone of the work is established in the Prologue, which states that Churchill ‘won two great victories in the Second World War. The first was a victory over Nazi Germany. The second was a victory over the many sceptics who, for decades, had derided his judgement, denied his claims to greatness, and excluded him from 10 Downing Street on the grounds that he was sure to be a danger to King and Country.”[4]

The first appropriate period to consider in Churchill’s life covers the years from his birth in 1874 up until 1901. Both begin with a brief account of the birth of Churchill and of his family history; that he was the grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough and his mother was an American named Clara, the daughter of a New York financier. This was the period that saw Churchill attend Harrow School, an adolescence which, according to Addison, was ‘overshadowed by the physical and mental decline of Lord Randolph [Churchill’s aristocratic Tory minister father].’[5] Gilbert offers an early insight into what he later considers to be one of the principal driving forces of Churchill, when he remarks that to the young Winston, the death of his father provided ‘yet further proof that the Churchills died young.’[6] Throughout Gilbert’s work, this driving force features heavily in causing Churchill to pursue his goals first in the journalistic field, and later in politics.

When considering Gilbert’s interpretation of Churchill’s life and achievements, it is also important to consider the esteem with which he held Churchill. It should be remembered that prior to writing his biography of Churchill, Gilberts continued Churchill’s life work (in another field from politics) in completing, in six volumes, an historical work which had been started by Randolph Churchill. This is surely significant, firstly in the level of understanding of Churchill such an undertaking would have afforded Gilbert, but also as a sign of the reverence with which Churchill was held. According to Addison, the ‘official biography’ is ‘sometimes said to perpetuate the Churchill myth and it is true that Randolph Churchill’s volumes were partisan.”[7] It is this very partisanship that one must be aware of and vigilant about in considering biographies generally, and in particular when it comes to one with such an awesome accompanying reputation.

Gilbert’s work, although in places stricken with this identified partisanship, on the whole offers a record of the events of Churchill’s life, in which evidence is collected from a huge variety of sources, including Churchill’s own papers, private correspondence held at the Marlborough seat of Blenheim Palace, and other more official evidence such as parliamentary records and reports and Churchill’s own journalistic offerings and speeches. Gilbert’s biographical work is unique in that it generally forms attachments to the evidential, or chronicled record which he helped to produce. Again, and as Addison points out, from a reading of Gilbert’s work in these volumes, it is clear ‘that his admiration for Churchill is profound’.[8] Gilbert’s sympathy with Churchill, and indeed his contempt for those who sought to sully the name and reputation of Churchill, is obvious from various parts of his writings.

One such person was Field Marshall Alanbrooke, who was one of Churchill’s most successful, and trusted generals (when he was General Alan Brooke). According to Jenkins, Churchill ‘succeeded in angering Alan Brooke at a staff conference on 9 September [1944].’[9] Later, various diarists, foremost amongst whom was Brooke, began complaining about Churchill’s ‘ramblings’. These were characteristic of his ‘long rather than decisive meetings’ that members of the government and the forces became increasingly frustrated about.[10] Although the relationship had been tense and often problematic between the two, Alanbrooke (as he now was) recorded in his diary that during his farewell in 1945, ‘it was a very sad and very moving little meeting at which I found myself unable to say much for fear of breaking down.’[11] The purpose of this is to show that despite their differences, it seems unlikely that Alanbrooke harboured any ill-feeling towards Churchill that would colour his memoirs. According to Gilbert, however, it was the publication of Alanbrooke’s diaries that did much to harm the image of Churchill. ‘No single book’, Gilbert writes, referring to the diaries as edited by Arthur Bryant, ‘gave a more distorted picture of Churchill’s war leadership, or would provide for many years to come so much material for critical, hostile, and ill-informed portrayals of Churchill in the war years.’[12] This is not to disparage Gilbert’s work with the taint of one-sidedness, however, as the work, vast as it is, is generally free of value judgements or even a coherent doctrine as to the character of Churchill.

For this; a more personal and judgemental view of Churchill, one must turn to the works of Jenkins and of Ponting. It is clear from the introduction of Ponting’s unashamedly revisionist work that he seeks to challenge the ‘Churchill myth’, which Gilbert is perhaps more instrumental in moulding, or at least perpetuating. The central thesis in Ponting’s work, as stated in his introduction, is that the Churchill myth was in fact largely the result of Churchill’s own writing; that Churchill managed successfully to shape the way in which he would be seen by the succeeding generation by his own artful and indeed self-promoting work.[13] It is not usually the prerogative of statesmen to shape future generations’ views of themselves; this being left to later historians and scholars. If Ponting’s theory is correct, it would make Churchill one of the few successful statesmen to have achieved this, obviously prior to his death. The two major prongs of Ponting’s attack are firstly that Churchill was not in fact the brilliant wartime leader that popular perception imagines, and secondly that his popularity was not in fact as high as has been assumed. His bases for these revisionist claims are official papers that have been released in recent years.

Although revisionist history is always going to offend and upset those of the old school by its very nature of, in Ponting’s case, sheer iconoclasm, but in this case, one cannot avoid the impression that Ponting is not so much blazing a trail to a more truthful and less fanciful perception of Churchill, as he is simply inaccurate. Ponting reconsiders the pre-War years of Churchill’s political career. He claims that Churchill was opposed to democracy and social progress.[14] This is an unlikely character trait of Churchill, for whom one of the principal motivations for one of his most famous pre-War decisions, the 1925 return to the Gold Standard, was the ‘paradox of unemployment amidst dearth … I would rather see Finance less proud and Industry more content.’[15] As well as this, it was Churchill who pioneered the system of national insurance during his time at the Treasury (something which he and Lloyd George had started prior to the First World War). This was a policy which, although not redistributive as certain forms of taxation might have been, certainly improved the lot of many of the more unfortunate elements in inter-war British society.

Ponting goes on to suggest that Churchill harboured racial prejudices.[16] This may well be accurate, but it is presented by Ponting in a misleading way; a way which neglects the wider contemporary social attitudes of the early twentieth century. While it is never forgivable to view any race or creed as in any way inferior, Churchill was not guilty of this in the way that Ponting suggests. It was more an opinion of racial differences and idiosyncrasies than any judgement as to the relative merit of different races. As Addison remarks, such views were characteristic of the time without any attendant racism, amongst the foremost social reformers.[17] Indeed there is supportive argument for Ponting’s assessment to be found in other biographies of Churchill. One such example is John Charmley’s revisionist work which suggests that Churchill’s treatment of the Poles in the last months of the war revealed racial prejudices. He accuses Churchill of both weakness in this respect, and of hypocrisy, for his earlier criticism of Chamberlain’s similar treatment of the Czechs.[18]

The most striking evidence that Ponting is erroneous in this assessment of Churchill is to be found in Churchill’s view of the European Jews who were increasingly under threat during his early parliamentary career. Indeed it was Churchill’s perceived sympathy for the Jews in the wake of such atrocities as Kristallnacht in November 1938 that strengthened Churchill’s position as against Neville Chamberlain.[19] Earlier in Churchill’s career, he had fought vehemently to defeat the restrictive Aliens Bill of 1904, which was unfavourable to the Jews. Jenkins suggests, however, that although this was a brave and commendable battle to be undertaken by Churchill, his motivation was less that of a sense of equality and concern for the well-being of the Jewish population, than the political expedient of appeasing a large and powerful political lobby in his constituency. ‘…It could be cynically alleged that the vigour with which Churchill opposed (and helped to kill) a restrictive Aliens Bill in the session of 1904 was not unconnected with the fact that this was exactly when he alighted on Manchester North-West [where the Jewish lobby was so strong].’[20] While this may well be so, it does not make it the case that Churchill harboured anything other than deep resentment of the Nazi views as to the inferiority of the Jewish race and non-white populations.

Ponting’s criticisms of Churchill are obvious, and pervade much of his work. Gilbert, on the other hand, is generally more praising and less critical throughout his work; he is not, after all, seeking to debunk the so-called Churchill myth. Gilbert’s work, however, is not free from criticism. The most striking is, perhaps, his assessment that Churchill had a great and significant character weakness that he allowed to control him at vital stages throughout his career. This weakness was an almost-obsessive desire to be at the centre of affairs, and to be seen to be there in the public perception. He was, then, a courtier of public opinion (which is of course to be expected from a politician) but Gilbert seems to suggest that it led to an inefficient and sometimes disastrous management style that may have been avoided had Churchill been more willing, for example, to delegate.[21]

A significant advantage which biographers such as Gilbert and Jenkins have over those such as Ponting is that they actually met, and in the case of Gilbert at least, knew considerably, their subject. Gilbert was in fact something of an insider in the life of Churchill which affords him an insight which Ponting and other later biographers could not emulate. Examples of this intimate contact abound throughout Gilbert’s work, such as the conversations which he had with Churchill’s wife Clementine. One such conversation is occurred when Clementine told Gilbert of how in the immediate aftermath of Churchill’s downfall in 1915, ‘I thought he would die of grief’.[22] Gilbert’s is an insight which comes from first-hand interviews with those who knew and were close with Churchill (although not always on good terms). A further example is the interview which Gilbert conducts with General Sir Edward Spears, who accompanied Churchill on many journeys and who recalled on one occasion during the First World War when Churchill was at the Admiralty, how the French commanders had not taken Churchill’s suggestions about the development of the tank seriously, remarking ‘Wouldn’t it be simpler to flood Artois and get your fleet here?’[23] It is this first-hand knowledge and experience which puts Gilbert’s work (as well as, to a lesser extent, Jenkins’) above the likes of Ponting’s.

Gilbert’s work is not, however, free from potentially controversial statements. Surely fully aware of the impact on the historical debate of such assertions, he states, for example, that on the eve of the Munich agreement, which saw Neville Chamberlain (then Prime Minister and of whom Churchill was a stern critic) announced that he was seeking agreement from the third Reich leadership that no further advances would be made, in the words of Jenkins, ‘the whole House … rose to its feet and sent Chamberlain off in a splurge of goodwill.’[24] Jenkins suggests that it was the ‘almost solitary exception of Harold Nicolson’, the House supported Chamberlain. Gilbert states that neither Churchill, nor his fellow Members Eden or Amery stood to applaud Chamberlain as he set off on his mission.[25] It is, of course no secret that Churchill opposed Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Hitler, but small facts like this are potentially controversial when one considers the general atmosphere in England on the eve of the War; an attitude that everything possible should be done to avoid another conflict so soon after the devastation and destruction of the Great War.

With the notable exception of Ponting’s iconoclastic work, the overwhelming thesis in the various biographies of Churchill is one of praise and respect for Churchill. This is not wholly the product of his achievements at the head of the Government during the War, but also due to his achievements before the Second World War. The formative years in the making of the Churchill myth were undoubtedly the war years, as is evidenced by the fact that their presence in any biography is disproportionately large compared to any other period of his life. The chapter covering the war years in Addison’s book is titled ‘The Making of a Hero’.[26] The overwhelming sense from all of the biographies is that once the authors have been exposed to their subject, the result is an almost awe-like reverence for him. The concluding pages of Jenkins perhaps best summarise this pervasive attitude: ‘I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.’[27]

BIOGRAPHY

Addison, P., Churchill, the Unexpected Hero (Oxford, 2005)

Danchev and Todman (Eds), War Diaries, 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke

Gilbert, M., Churchill: a Life (Pimlico, 2000)

Jenkins, R., Churchill (MacMillan, 2001)

Ponting, C., Winston Churchill (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994)


Footnotes

[1] Jenkins, R., Churchill (MacMillan, 2001), pxiii

[2] Jenkins, p3

[3] Jenkins, pxiii

[4] Addison, P., Churchill, the Unexpected Hero (Oxford, 2005), p1

[5] Addison, p13

[6] Gilbert, C., Churchill: a Life (Pimlico, 2000), p49

[7] Addison, p251

[8] Addison, p252

[9] Jenkins, p754

[10] Ibid, p774

[11] Danchev and Todman (Eds), War Diaries, 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, p712

[12] Gilbert, p1232

[13] Ponting, C., Winston Churchill (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), pp10-15

[14] Ponting, pp300-325

[15] Quoted in Addison, p114

[16] See, for example, Ponting, p375

[17] Addison, p252

[18] Quoted in Jenkins, p779

[19] See Jenkins, p537

[20] Jenkins, p108

[21] See, for example, Gilbert, p30

[22] Gilbert, vol III, p457

[23] Gilbert, vol III. p625

[24] Jenkins, p525

[25] Gilbert, vol V, pp986-987

[26] Addison, chapter 6

[27] Jenkins, p912

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