Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945
Max Hastings, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 576 pp., $35.00
Sixty-five years after the last guns ceased firing on the last Pacific atoll, Britons of all political persuasions are still wallowing in tepid World War II nostalgia.
For Atlanticists, neoconservatives, and classical liberals, the war was a great Anglo- sphere achievement, a landmark en route to social mobility plus mercantilism. For nationalists and romantics, there is a lump- in-the-throat quality about the hyperclear image of the sceptered isle, standing alone against an armoured upstart, asserting individuality against conformity, “the Few” against the militant many. For nostalgists, the war represents the last gasp of the British Empire, compelled to destroy itself in order to save itself. For modern leftists, in all other circumstances bitterly hostile to national pride, the war was an inevitable confrontation with racism and antisemitism (la lotta continua, for them).
The result of this unusual unanimity is that we are all daily bombarded with images, anecdotes, and evocations of the period. So my immediate reaction, as I lifted yet another book about 1939-45—even one written by Max Hastings—was to sigh. Hastings, foreseeing this likely reaction, disarmingly cites Boswell:
[Johnson] had once conceived the thought of writing The Life of Oliver Cromwell . . . He at length laid aside his scheme, on discovering that all that can be told of him is already in print, and that it is impracticable to procure any authentick information in addition to what the world is already possessed of.
As Cromwell, now Churchill; Hastings acknowledges,
We have been told more about Winston Churchill than any other human being.
He nevertheless feels constrained to augment this biographic Gondwanaland, because “much remains opaque.” He is be- sides fascinated by the “sustained magnificence” of “the largest human being ever to occupy his office.” Hastings has a happy knack for marrying strategic and tactical insights with apposite anecdotes—such as the touching fact that among British officers’ luggage landed at Norway in 1940 were fishing rods and sporting guns, or that the ever practical New Statesman, at the height of the British Expeditionary Force’s May 1940 debacle, was insisting that
…the government should at once grapple with the minor, but important problem of Anglo-Mexican relations.
Churchill was an aristocrat and an imperialist, an anachronism even in the 1930s and one, furthermore, with a deserved reputation for being impulsive, excitable, sentimental, vain, bombastic, and unreliable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1915 he had made the disastrous decision to seize Gallipoli. He was an intemperate anti-Bolshevik long after the Whites had been vanquished. He was an opponent of self-government for Indians (the “stinking babus,” he called them) and a fanatical supporter of Edward VIII. He crossed the floor of the House of Commons not once but twice, and appeared to have an obsession with Germany. He was, besides, half-American, and drank and smoked too much. He cried in public, and had disreputable friends like Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook. Had the war not come, he would now be scarcely remembered. But of course it did, as he had predicted, and suddenly his colour and charisma—as well as the fact that he had been right all along—marked him out as the “obvious” war supremo.
Churchill’s chief leadership qualification was that he was supremely focused. Hastings observes,
He governed on the basis that all other interests and considerations must be subordinated to the overarching objective of defeating the Axis.
In this, he differed utterly from Hitler, who spent more time dreaming about a “Greater Germany” than thinking about how to win the war.
Churchill fizzed with energy, symbolized by his famous “Action This Day” rubber stamp, and once told his private secretary that at night
I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day.
Isaiah Berlin noted perceptively that
Churchill sees history – and life – as a great Renaissance pageant.
This boyish trait led to the extraordinary speeches, among the finest ever delivered in the English language; his crowd-pleasing stunts — the V-sign, the cigars, the tommy guns, and his infatuation with special forces and “setting Europe ablaze.” Hastings is dismissive of the achievements of Churchill’s cherished commandos, but such escapades aided morale when the “Second Front” was still unfeasible.
Churchill predicted, incorrectly, that the Nazis would not invade Norway and that U-boats would pose no major threat to the Atlantic supply routes; demanded the Allies invade the Balkans; and sought to siphon off D-Day forces for ill-advised Italian incursions. But such errors were amply outweighed by his central strategic insight that the war could not be won without the United States, and by his achievement in dragging in that reluctant country against majority public and political opinion. It was in Greece alone that Churchill’s interventions eventually proved successful, but that was only after the killing of almost 200 British troops by the communist partisans they had just liberated. Later, Churchill was outraged not to have been consulted about Germany’s unconditional surrender, which he knew would prolong the war and cause unnecessary suffering (including to Germans).
Winston’s War provides a salutary reminder of just how unspecial the ‘special relationship’ can be. Wall Street made a killing out of Lend-Lease and the short-selling of British companies, encouraged by an administration so distrustful that it insisted on all British assets being audited. Churchill grumbled,
As far as I can make out we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone.
In 1942, Felix Frankfurter wrote to Stafford Cripps, deploring
…a lack of continuing consciousness of comradeship between the two peoples.
And as late as 1944, the American journalist John Gunther repined that
Lots of Americans and British have an atavistic dislike of one another.
Many Britons regarded America superciliously; wartime ambassador Lord Halifax, according to Hastings, found it “too much” to have to sit through a Chicago White Sox game or eat a hot dog.
For his part, Roosevelt actively sought to subvert the empire. This intrigue included attempts to hold secret meetings with the Soviets, through intermediaries like pre-war ambassador to Moscow Joseph E. Davies, a man who saw nothing wrong in amassing an art collection looted from murdered dissidents, and explained to his wife that the incessant noise she heard from their Moscow hotel was the sound of jackhammers, when he knew it was firing squads.
Roosevelt routinely undermined Churchill’s attempts to provide postwar guarantees to Eastern European countries, once referring in front of a smirking Stalin to Poland (for whose independence Britain’s war was ostensibly being fought) as “a source of trouble for 500 years.”
In one notorious episode at Tehran in 1943, Stalin talked about shooting 50,000 German officers out of hand after the war. Roosevelt rejoined jovially that 49,000 would suffice, after which his son Elliott said he agreed with Stalin’s proposal and was certain the United States would endorse it. Churchill walked out in disgust. If Roosevelt hoped he was forging a progressive partnership with Stalin, he was mistaken. In an anecdote that sheds light equally on Roosevelt and the Soviets, Molotov recalled what a colleague had said of Roosevelt:
What a crook that man must be, to have wormed his way to three terms as president while being paralyzed!
While Washington and London desisted from espionage activities in the Soviet Union during the war (Stalin was amazed they could be so naive), the Soviets spied enthusiastically on both allies. Stalin would sometimes brag to advisors “We f–ked this England!” – but this “joke” was also on America. In 1945, exasperated by the failure of his hopes for Eastern Europe, Churchill had plans drawn up for “Operation Unthinkable”—what now seems like a fantastical scheme for American and British forces, plus reactivated Wehrmacht formations, to attack the Soviet Union and cast down the “iron curtain,” a phrase he was using as early as May 1945.
Winston’s War reminds the mistier-eyed reader how insecure Churchill’s political position could be, how tenuous his grip on occasion—not just on Parliament but even on the public affections. The Britain over which he presided was a place of profound class tensions that, pace the propaganda, were not magically resolved by a spasm of self-sacrifice. For example, in 1940, the year of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, 163,000 working days were lost through strikes, a figure that worsened as the war wore on. Churchill had critics on the right and the left—the latter encouraged by Stalin—and endured continual carping from the press, which paradoxically became noisier as military fortunes improved. In such circumstances, a lesser man would have abused the dictatorial powers available to him, but, as Churchill once remarked to Sikorski, he regarded himself as
…a privileged domestic, a valet de chambre, the servant of the House of Commons.
Hastings notes that
Many misunderstandings of Churchill’s conduct of government…derived from the promiscuity of his conversation. Every day…he gave vent to impulsive and intemperate judgements.
The widespread notion that Churchill was a Germanophobe is undercut by his revulsion at the Tehran proposal, his disapprobation of unconditional surrender and the Morgenthau Plan, and gentlemanly statements such as
Germany should remain in the European family. Germany existed before the Gestapo!
The firebombing of Dresden (and other cities) is more difficult to excuse, and Hastings acknowledges that it was Churchill’s fault that bombings of civilians continued into 1945. But he insists it was by oversight that Churchill had not countermanded orders he had made in the heat of 1940 and 1941, in the context of the Blitz, “Coventration,” and the “Baedeker raids” by the Luftwaffe on non-strategic sites like Exeter and Canterbury.
Hastings also defends Churchill against accusations that he was indifferent to the plight of the Jews, pointing out that London was unaware of the death camps until late in the war, and that even when stories started to emerge, they had to be viewed as part of the wider horror — while, in any case, even the RAF could have accomplished nothing toward saving the inmates. Hastings has harsh words for those who think that Britain could have avoided entanglement in the war by allowing Germany and Russia to destroy each other. Such critics, he feels,
…ignore the practical difficulty of reaching a sustainable deal with the Nazi regime, and also adopt a supremely cynical insouciance towards its turpitude.
A lasting deal would not have been possible with a man who clearly could not be trusted, whatever friendly Berchtesgaden table talk may sometimes have occurred about the British and their empire. Had Hitler beaten the Soviets, he would have had vast new energy resources available to him and would have formed an alliance with Japan. Nothing could then have stopped the Axis from dominating Eurasia, and a deadly struggle with both Britain and the United States would inevitably have ensued. Perhaps Britain should not have guaranteed Poland’s frontiers; having done so, however, she had no choice but to fight, regardless of the consequences.
The many bad things that happened in Britain after her Pyrrhic victory were undoubtedly avoidable, and some of it occurred on Churchill’s watch, but by then he was too old and too tired to comprehend the full extent of Attlee’s fecklessness. As a peacetime prime minister, Churchill was like the Fighting Temeraire — an impressive but antiquated hulk, powerless to prevent his rudderless country from being towed to the breaker’s yard of history. Younger Conservatives ought to have stepped up to the mark, but they were smaller men, myopic and humdrum heirs to a bankrupt heritage, prisoners of choices made years before and increasingly representative of an angst-filled, levelling culture that made conservative values seem indefensible. Life, for the Macmillans, Lennox- Boyds, Maxwell-Fyfes, and Heaths, was less Renaissance pageant than refinancing packages; to these men, Churchill was Colonel Blimp, worthy of admiration but not of emulation.
Winston’s War covers overtrodden ground. Nonetheless, Max Hastings succeeds in reminding us, as the war generation’s flags are finally furled and put away, how things were, and how they seemed then to a uniquely engrossing and perfectly placed patriot, and how much we all still subsist in his debt and shadow.
This review appeared in Chronicles in September 2010, and is reproduced with kind permission