The Magazine

Winston in Focus

A great man gets a second look.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"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Churchill and Company comprises several unpublished papers delivered to conferences in addition to three lectures that have been recast due to the change of style “between the sobriety of the written word and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: