The Magazine

Winston in Focus

A great man gets a second look.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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"Oh, Winston, why?” Field Marshal Jan Smuts is said to have remonstrated with Churchill over his war memoirs, which Smuts considered too self-serving. “Why did you have to do that? You, more than anyone in the world, could have written as no one else could have written the true history of the war.” Churchill’s retort about his six volumes is characteristic, but also perfectly reasonable: “These are my story. If someone else likes to write his story, let him.” 

Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Yalta, February 1945

Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Yalta, February 1945

popperfoto/getty images

Churchill must have guessed that, with Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini dead—and Stalin not a natural author—his only possible front-rank rival in the war memoir stakes would be Charles de Gaulle, who did indeed write excellent reminiscences but not ones that could touch Churchill’s for massive, international bestsellerdom. More important, though, Churchill wanted to dominate the historiography of the conflict, to construct the intellectual prism through which subsequent historians viewed the events of 1939-45, and, in large part, he succeeded. For all Smuts’s lamentations, we still tend to see the Second World War through the eyes of the author of The Second World War

A scholar who has tried to break free of this Churchill-based narrative is Professor David Dilks, one of Britain’s most distinguished historians. “Writing of Churchill with admiration,” he states, “I have also tried to apply the critical scrutiny which he would have expected.” There are few writers better qualified to do this: Dilks was research assistant to Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan and is the author of a two-volume account of Lord Curzon in India, as well as the first volume of an as-yet-unfinished life of Neville Chamberlain. He has thus been steeped in Churchill studies at one remove for almost all of his intellectual life. 

Churchill and Company comprises several unpublished papers delivered to conferences in addition to three lectures that have been recast due to the change of style “between the sobriety of the written word and the flourishes of the spoken.” Overall, Dilks does indeed treat Churchill with admiration, while accepting that “he was neither by nature a good listener nor always sensitive to the thoughts of those around him.” The only time, it seems, that Churchill fell silent was when he was behind an easel. 

For those who savor British understatement and irony, this book will present a cornucopia of delight, as Churchill’s own wit is reflected through the author’s famously dry humor. “In old age,” Dilks writes of Churchill, for example, “he did not feel called upon to deny with vigor the story that he had once described de Gaulle as resembling a female llama surprised in her bath.” The first 16 words of that 31-word sentence might seem at first sight extraneous; but, in fact—along with the llama’s gender—it renders it all the funnier. This book is studded with such lines of Churchill’s, several of which I have not heard before, despite having written about him for a quarter of a century. 

This book covers Churchill’s love affair with France, the contribution of the British Commonwealth to the war effort, British-Polish relations from 1941 to 1945, “Operation Unthinkable” (i.e., war planning against Russia in 1945), Churchill’s “solitary pilgrimage” towards a Cold War settlement with the Russians during his peacetime ministry, the relations between Churchill and Eden, and between him and Stalin, and much else besides. It puts up an argument with which some readers will be unfamiliar: that in dealing with Germany before the First World War, and with the Russians at Yalta and in the 1950s, Churchill used much the same appeasing language that has forever destroyed Chamberlain’s reputation for having employed it towards Hitler. 

The book concentrates on Churchill’s relationships with rivals and allies, particularly Roosevelt, de Gaulle, and Stalin, but also Chamberlain, Eden, Attlee, Eisenhower, the chiefs of staff, his private secretaries, Poles such as Sikorski and Stanisław Mikołajczyk, Russians like Molotov and Malenkov and Khrushchev, and the commonwealth premiers Curtin, Menzies, Mackenzie King, Fraser, and Smuts.

However much some of them might have disliked and distrusted Churchill at different periods of their careers, Dilks noted how “almost all regarded him with awe.” Those who didn’t—such as Stalin—tended to have the kind of personalities that were deliberately calibrated never to regard other living beings with anything approaching awe. One who certainly didn’t treat Churchill with awe—at least in the economics sphere—was John Maynard Keynes, who is put down by Dilks in this delightful formulation: 

Keynes’ own remark that practical men of affairs are often the slaves of some defunct economist has not lost its piquancy now that the defunct economist is Keynes himself.

Dilks presents Churchill as a late-developer who didn’t discover a love of learning until he was 22, possibly the result of his never having attended university. Nonetheless, Churchill “radiated a coiled energy” that, once unleashed, was impressive. He might have inherited some of it from his maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, whose wife once remarked to his mistress, “My dear, I understand what you feel. He is so irresistible.” 

Throughout his life, Churchill collected people at the head of their fields—“Nature’s princes,” in Dilks’s words—such as the special forces warriors T. E. Lawrence and Orde Wingate, the painters Sir John Lavery and Paul Maze, the strategists Charles Portal and Harold Alexander, the orators John Morley and Joseph Chamberlain, the statesmen Arthur Balfour and Lord Rosebery, and the premiers Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. Having known all the true greats of his day, the wilderness years of the thirties, when the midgets took over, were presumably less painful for him than they otherwise might have been. 

Dilks posits a number of intriguing possibilities that are worthy of investigation: that Churchill’s life was probably saved at the Battle of Omdurman because of a longstanding injury to his shoulder, which forced him to carry a pistol instead of a sword; that, in the words of his friend Desmond Morton, “physical danger .  .  . gave him a thrill almost of a sexual nature”; that Churchill did not, in fact, suffer from the depression so often attributed to him with minimal actual proof; and even that “there was no gulf of ideology between [Chamberlain] and Churchill in the realm of international affairs.” Few will concur with every one of the author’s conclusions, of course—not least that Britain nearly went to war with France in May 1945. 

This book will certainly dispel forever the lazy assertion that Great Britain somehow “stood alone” in the year and five days between the fall of France in June 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. In perhaps his best essay, Dilks shows how the British Empire and Commonwealth “consistently had more divisions in fighting contact with the enemy than the U.S. until the summer of 1944, not only in Africa and Europe but also in Asia.” Not until 1944 did the U.S. Army Air Forces drop more bombs on the enemy than did the empire and commonwealth forces. 

The description of the contributions to victory made by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, and India—which all fought from the start of the war in September 1939 to its finish in September 1945—is at times deeply moving. “On Churchill’s own admission,” records Dilks, “it was not until late in the war that he realized fully what a small country Britain is.” The reason being that, all his life hitherto, the empire and commonwealth had allowed him to ignore that blatant geographical fact.

“Never in the field of human argument,” states Dilks, “can the name of a single thinker have been prayed in aid by so many politicians .  .  . or advanced in support of so many propositions quite incompatible.” It is true, and Churchill would undoubtedly react with contempt at the way in which modern politicians attempt to squeeze his words into their ideologies, regardless of context. A classic case today is the way that Churchill is presented as having supported a European superstate in his great postwar speeches at Zurich and the Hague, which, when read carefully, clearly state that he wanted Britain to be “associated with” but certainly not part of such an endeavor. (Churchill had his own view of how contempt should be employed, saying in 1954, “As you know, contempt is not contempt if you have to take any trouble expressing it. It has got to be quite involuntary, and if possible unconscious.”)

Apart from its dry wit, the best thing about Churchill and Company is the way it uses history to provoke renegade thoughts. “We have had nothing else but wars since Democracy took charge,” wrote Churchill in November 1947. He had a point: Are democrats more inherently violent than the aristocrats—many of them Churchill’s relations—who ran the British Empire in the 19th century (in which Churchill spent the first 25 years of his life) and who avoided all major wars for a full 60 years after the Crimea? I suspect so. Aristocrats had more to lose from global conflagration, after all. Another thought the book provokes is: For all that Churchill was denounced as a warmonger for wanting to intervene in the Russian civil war in 1919—“to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle,” as he characteristically phrased it—imagine the traumas mankind would have been saved if his counsel had prevailed over the supposedly wiser heads around the cabinet table. Ditto if the Dardanelles campaign had been better executed. Or if Britain had aggressively taken on Hitler as soon as he came to power in 1933. 

It is extraordinary how often Churchill’s career was damaged by the things about which he was ultimately proved right—and yet, paradoxically, how it was enhanced by other things (such as the Norwegian expedition of 1940) about which he was wrong. By making us reflect on the preternatural unfairness of politics, in a way that has a happy ending, Professor Dilks has scored a palpable hit. 

Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War