The death of Sir Winston Churchill, 50 years ago last week, reminds The Scrapbook that, while a half-century is a very long time, Churchill’s lifetime is closer to us than we suspect. Indeed, in the words William Faulkner gave to Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
Consider, for example, Churchill himself. There must be some irony in the fact that, during this week, he seems to be treated with greater deference in the American media than in the British press. This should not be a surprise. To Americans, Winston Churchill is largely remembered as the gallant wartime hero who led Great Britain as it stood alone, after the fall of France and before the invasion of Russia, against Hitler’s Germany. To his fellow Britons, Churchill is a more complicated political figure than we would recognize: A Tory-turned-Liberal-turned-Tory, a stalwart defender of Empire, an early architect of the British welfare state, he combined genius with the usual human weaknesses and contradictions.
But since we’re regarding him, this week, from across the Atlantic, The Scrapbook chooses to honor the Churchill whose wisdom, bravery, and complex mind made him indispensable, in his lifetime, to the survival of freedom. It was Churchill who, in the aftermath of the Great War, first grappled with the deadly challenge of a Communist state, as well as the tribal politics of the Arab Middle East, and with militant Islam, while steadily championing the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
A decade later, it was Churchill, almost alone among Western statesmen, who clearly saw Fascism and National Socialism for what they were, and warned a battle-weary Britain—indeed, warned anyone who would listen—of the dangers of complacency and wishful thinking in the face of peril.
We are fortunate that, in the long run and at the eleventh hour, Churchill prevailed and Nazi Germany was defeated. It seems improbable, in retrospect, that someone like Adolf Hitler should ever have been regarded as anything other than a menace to civilization. But that was not so obvious when Hitler was alive and in power and Churchill was exhorting his reluctant countrymen to wake up to reality.
In a lifetime of supreme accomplishment, Winston Churchill’s greatest achievement was to see what was in front of him, to describe precisely what he saw—and in memorable words and actions, to mobilize humanity against inhumanity. The lesson for us is that, as Churchill knew in his lifetime, that struggle is never finished—and 50 years after his death, it goes on.