Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historianby John Lukacs
John Lukacs has spent a lifetime considering the complex personality and statesmanship of Winston Churchill. In previous books Lukacs told the story of Churchill's titanic struggle with Adolf Hitler in the early days of World War II. Now, in Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian., he turns his attention to Churchill the man and visionary statesman. Each chapter… See more details below
John Lukacs has spent a lifetime considering the complex personality and statesmanship of Winston Churchill. In previous books Lukacs told the story of Churchill's titanic struggle with Adolf Hitler in the early days of World War II. Now, in Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian., he turns his attention to Churchill the man and visionary statesman. Each chapter of this book provides an essential portrait of Churchill at the height of his powers. In addition to vividly depicting his relationships with Stalin, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and other world leaders, Lukacs reflects on Churchill's ability to foresee the coming of World War II and the Cold War; he weighs Churchill's stature as a historian looking backward at the conflicts of which he was so much a part; and he examines the often contradictory ways Churchill has been perceived by critics and admirers alike. The last chapter is a powerful and deeply moving evocation of the three days Lukacs spent in London attending Churchill's funeral in 1965, and it offers a final assessment of Churchill's place in history through the prism of the varied individuals who came to honor him after his death. In Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian., Lukacs sets forth the essence of this towering figure with consummate mastery.
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ChurchillVisionary. Statesman. Historian.
By John Lukacs
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 John Lukacs
All right reserved.
Churchill the visionary
It is one of the oddities of the English language-and of the sensitivities of the English mind-that while the word vision is commendatory, suggesting a positive quality, visionary may have, indeed often does have, a dubious sense. There are of course varieties of the meanings of these words in the Oxford English Dictionary, but here are at least the principal ones. Vision: "Something which is apparently seen otherwise than by ordinary sight," or "A mental concept of a distinct and vivid kind: a highly imaginative scheme or anticipation." On the other hand, Visionary: "Given to fanciful and unpractical views; speculative, dreamy," or "Existing in imagination only; not actual or real," or "One who indulges in fantastic ideas or schemes; an unpractical enthusiast." This last pejorative meaning, according to the OED, appears in English in 1702. Two and a quarter centuries later this was how Winston Churchill's English opponents-and many others, too-saw him. But it is not with opponents and critics of Churchill that I am here concerned. My purpose in this chapter is different. It is to assert that visionary may be properly and, I hope, convincingly, applicable to Churchill in a positive sense.
He was extraordinary -well and good; but there is more to that. There was no one else who could have done what he did in 1940. This is a matter that, after more than sixty years, we ought to see somewhat differently from how we saw it for a long time. In 1940 Churchill, alone, stood across the path of Hitler's victory. Not only Americans - who, justifiably, associate the start of their Second World War with December 1941 - but many other people, including serious historians and biographers of Hitler, tend to see Hitler as having been doomed by a war that he started and in which he and his Reich would be overwhelmed by the associated might of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But what few people understand is how close Hitler had come to winning his war in the early summer of 1940, and well before the air Battle of Britain. He would have won his war if he had sent a small German army to land in England in June or July - that much has been recognized by a few, mostly British, military historians. But that is a speculation. What is not a speculation is what Churchill, on the twenty-seventh of May in 1940, in the secret sessions of the War Cabinet, called "the slippery-slope." If at that time a British government had signaled as much as a cautious inclination to explore a negotiation with Hitler, amounting to a willingness to ascertain his possible terms, that would have been the first step onto a Slippery Slope from which there could be no retreat. There were people who did not see eye to eye with Churchill about that: beyond the secrecy of the War Cabinet room there were many of the Conservative Party; and perhaps there was the majority of the elected representatives of the British people, of the Conservative Party; and there was at least the potentiality that, under different circumstances, the manhood and the womanhood of Britain may have consented to such an, at least seemingly, reasonable and prudent course. But Churchill did not let go; and he had his way. That was the greatest turning point - a turning point, more than a milestone - in his career. It may have been the greatest turning point in the history of the Second World War. During the succeeding months Churchill and Britain defied Hitler's Third Reich almost alone. Later he was no longer alone. He and his Britain could not conquer Hitler by themselves; but as long as Churchill governed Britain, Hitler could not win his war. Probably this was the reason why Hitler's hatred for Churchill burned so fiercely till the very end. Hitler respected and even admired Stalin; he spoke contemptuously of Roosevelt; but his hatred for Churchill flared in his mind above the others.
But the bravery and the resolution that Churchill demonstrated at that time were inseparable from certain elements of his vision. Visionary elements may be recognizable also at other times of his career. Some of these elements may be more obvious than are others. As early as 1901 he said in Parliament: "Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings." (Note that he said this at a time when predictions about the impracticability of great future wars were current among many political thinkers.) Even more stunning - and daunting - is what this, very young Churchill wrote in the twenty-fifth year of his life, in The River War: "I hope that if evil days should come upon our country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader was dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some - even in these modern days - who would not care to accustom themselves to the new order of things and tamely survive the disaster." Now one last glance at the meaning of the word visionary. In every sense - whether good or bad - the word suggests foresight. Now foresight may be bad as well as good, excessive as well as inadequate - note that characteristically British proverb: "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." That admonition invokes the pragmatism of common sense; but it may also lead to an unwillingness to think too much, or too fast. Only a few years before 1940 Churchill's predecessor Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was supposed to have said: "The man who says he can see far ahead is a charlatan." (He did not mean Churchill.) As Robert Rhodes James wrote: "Foresight in politics is rare, and it is usually a matter of fortune rather than genius." Perhaps; but, at any rate, Churchill's foresights were historical rather than political. Impetuosity, impatience, willfulness, fancifulness were Churchill's faults, often. Shortsightedness? No. An unwillingness to think? Seldom: perhaps never. He had an extraordinarily quick mind, and these traits of his were not only inseparable from his temperament and character but inseparable, too, from the visionary capacity of his mind.
One example of this was his visionary assessment of Hitler and of his Third Reich. That during the crucial summer months of 1940 Churchill understood Hitler better than Hitler understood him was a great asset. (Note, too, that this kind of intelligent human understanding at that time had almost nothing to do with the later so-celebrated British intelligence interception and reading of German signals and codes.) The struggle between Churchill and Hitler during those months was a veritable duel - the title that I chose for my book dealing with those eighty days, describing the two leaders' reciprocal moves, among other things. But there was more involved here than the fact of one strategist besting the other. A chess master is a superb calculator, perhaps even a strategist: but a visionary he is not. Yet Churchill's understanding of his great opponent contained insights that could be properly recognized as visionary ones.
He - better than the French, whose post-1918 view of Germany was a combination of myopia and fear: and fear will not a clear vision make - foresaw the rise of a revengeful Germany as early as 1924: "The enormous contingents of German youth growing to military manhood year by year are inspired by the fiercest sentiments, and the soul of Germany smoulders with dreams of a war of liberation or revenge." He looked well beyond the fevers of cosmopolitan Berlin or those of the parliament of the Weimar Republic; he espied another fever, that of the then still small bands of storm troopers, marching through German towns or banging their beer mugs in Bavarian halls. In October 1930 Churchill dined at the German embassy in London. He said at the table that he was anxious about Hitler. The Counselor of the Embassy, a descendant of Bismarck, considered Churchill's words significant enough to report them to Berlin. They may be found in the collection of German diplomatic documents. Note that this happened in 1930, at a time when no one - certainly no one in England, but also no one in Germany, perhaps with the exception of Hitler himself - thought that Hitler could ever become the Chancellor and leader of the German nation. In July 1932 Churchill wrote that Hitler was "the moving impulse below the German government and may be more than that soon." So he was to be.
But even more visionary was what Churchill wrote about Hitler and Germany in early 1935. When Germany had been defeated, collapsed, in the throes of revolution, disarmed, "then [in 1919] it was that one corporal, a former Austrian house-painter, set out to regain all."
In the fifteen years that have followed this resolve he has succeeded in restoring Germany to the most powerful position in Europe, and not only has he restored the position of his country, but he has even, to a very large extent, reversed the results of the Great War.... [Now] the vanquished are in process of becoming the victors, and the victors the vanquished. When Hitler began, Germany lay prostrate at the feet of the Allies. He may yet see the day when what is left of Europe will be prostrate at the feet of Germany. Whatever else may be thought about these exploits, they are certainly among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world.
Whatever else may be thought about these words, they are certainly among the most remarkable - and accurate - forecasts in the history of the origins of the Second World War. And in early 1935, when Churchill was all alone. No one else saw such a prospect then, not even the most pessimistic adversaries of Hitler. But then Churchill never underestimated Hitler.
Thereafter, during the late Thirties, we have a long series of Churchill's comments about Hitler, some of which are well-known. Some of them are more pertinent than are others, but they are always interesting and telling. But let me now jump ahead and bring up another instance that has fascinated me for a long time. This is a brief sketch of Hitler's character that Churchill dictated in 1948 when he composed the first volume of his War Memoirs. There he said that the crystallization of Hitler's view of the world occurred not before the First World War but in 1919; and not in Vienna but in Munich. Yet Hitler in Mein Kampf had insisted - and most historians have accepted the thesis - that while his life took a turn in 1918-1919 in Munich, his political ideology had crystallized in Vienna about eight or nine years earlier. Well, about fifty years after 1948 a few historians (including myself but especially the excellent Brigitte Hamann, in Vienna) have been revising the Vienna thesis, fortified by evidence which includes Hitler's conscious misstating the sequence of the evolution of his ideas. Yet fifty years earlier, in those rapidly dictated pages, Churchill's insight into the young Hitler was phenomenal.
Churchill's view - and sometimes, indeed, his vision - of the destiny of the German people was not simple. Many people, especially in Germany, have seen (and still see) Churchill as a representation of an atavistic Germanophobe Britisher, an old-fashioned John Bull, obsessed with the spectre of German power and obsessed with a single-minded desire to destroy it. Yet - all of those famous bulldoglike Karsh photographs notwithstanding - Churchill was not a reincarnation of John Bull, not in his personality, in his character, or in his wide interest and knowledge of the world beyond England. What I must mention here are the many evidences of Churchill's respect for Germany and its people. They are there, forcefully expressed in the last passages of World Crisis, his history of the First World War; they may be found in the last volume of his Second World War memoirs when, visiting a ruined Berlin in the summer of 1945, he writes about himself that now he had nothing but sympathy for the ragged and hungry people he saw; and there is his i946 address in Zurich, nearly equal in importance to his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, in that year, in which he exhorted France and Germany to form a new kind of alliance, in order to begin a new chapter in the evolving history of Western Europe. Less evident but more latent there was his increasing recognition during the war of what the Germans were able to accomplish, of how formidable their armies were. There are reasons to believe, and some evidence, that after El Alamein he kept impressing Field Marshal Montgomery with that. This brings me to another example of his visionary quality that I have often cited. He saw that Hitler had forged a formidable unity of a people; that German National Socialism was a terrific wave of a possible future; and it was against this that his Britain had to stand fast. Consider, in this respect, the difference between Churchill's vision and that of the French premier, Paul Reynaud. In June 1940, a few days before Paris fell, Reynaud broadcast to the French people: If Hitler wins this war, "it would be the Middle Ages again, but not illuminated by the mercy of Christ." A few days later, on 18 June, in his "Finest Hour" speech Churchill saw a very different prospect - not a return to the Middle Ages but a lurch into a New Dark Age. If Hitler wins and we fall, he said, "then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and care for, will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." Note the word "protracted." He, better than Reynaud, and perhaps better than anyone else, knew what he had to stand against.
I am coming now to another instance: to Churchill's view of Europe - which, again, shows him as someone different from the type of John Bull. John Bull was single-minded. Winston Churchill was not. There are dualities in the inclinations of most human beings. One of Churchill's dualities in his vision of the world and of its history involved England's relationship to the United States (and to the English-speaking peoples) on the one hand, and to Europe on the other. His sense of the Anglo-European relationship is a rich and complex theme. It involves, among other things, his great appreciation for the civilization and culture of Europe, together with his respect for its ancient constituents, such as the constitutional monarchies that were still the principal forms of state in his lifetime. (Note that as late as in the thirty-sixth year of his life there were only two republics in all of Europe: France and Switzerland.) But it would be wrong to attribute Churchill's view of Europe to the attraction of Victorian or even Edwardian memories in his mind. Nor was his Francophilia the logical consequence of the Germanophobia of which he has been often accused.
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