History and memory: Address to the Churchill Society of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Sir Winston’s 144th birthday, 30 November 2018 (Part 2). We were kindly hosted at Earnscliffe by the British High Commissioner, Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque.
Churchill and the Perspective of History 144 Years On
Continued from Part 1…. Do you want the good news or the bad news on Churchill today? The bad news is the high level of ignorance, as measured by that electronic Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, the Internet.
Churchill’s name elicits 100 million Google hits, a colleague says, “Some are questions, many of which simply require the answer ‘No’—such as: ‘Was Churchill anti-Semitic?’ ‘Did Churchill hate Indians?’ ‘Was he bipolar?’ ‘Was he born in a ladies’ loo?’ ‘Did he have an affair with Lady Castlerosse?’ ‘Did Alexander Fleming save him from drowning?’” Of course, this was going on long before the worldwide web. Churchill wrote in 1938:
It is astonishing to me, looking back…how many different kinds of people—Suffragettes, Sinn Feiners, Communists, Egyptians, and the usual percentage of ordinary lunatics—have from time to time shown a very great want of appreciation of my public work. To be guarded and shadowed day and night…is only rendered tolerable…by the extraordinary tact, courtesy and skill of those entrusted with the duty of watching over public persons, who, at particular times, are thought to be worthy of powder and shot.
* * *
He’s still worthy today—although the powder and shot of history is digital not literal. Let’s face it: the web is where people GO. So much of it warps reality. A recent survey revealed that most British schoolchildren think Churchill was a mythical figure and that Sherlock Holmes was a real person in history.
Professor John Charmley said: “After holding our heads in our hands and deciding that the world has indeed gone to the dogs, we might care to reflect that there may be an irony in this. Churchill did set out to make himself a mythical figure; so it may be only just….that he seems to have become one.”
Surviving the Internet
But here’s the good news. Churchill has defied this mother load of ignorance. His social media critics don’t go unanswered anymore. Sometimes the answers are from people we’ve never heard of, who take the trouble to learn the truth. Last month a former U.S. astronaut, who said something nice about him, cravenly apologized when dunned by Tweets claiming Churchill was a racist who starved the Bengalis in 1943. He was greeted with a cacophony of digital guffaws, referring to a dozen different websites that disprove such nonsense. As a writer I have to be glad for all this calumny. After all, it furnished me with enough material for a book, Winston Churchill: Myth and Reality, which Ron and I will be happy to sell you tonight. Alas it’s already out of date, because new charges are constantly invented.
My website recently listed all the false claims of 2018 along with links to the best rebuttals. The defenders range from Toronto’s Terry Reardon, a Mackenzie King historian, on who was really to blame for the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid—to Zareer Masani, an Indian scholar, on what really caused the Bengal Famine. One of us posted a quotation you won’t find among the attacks: “The old idea that the Indian was in any way inferior to the white man must go….We must all be pals together. I want to see a great shining India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Canada.” (Churchill said that in the War Council in 1943.)
I think we should be encouraged and heartened by such defenses. We didn’t have nearly as many allies five or ten years ago. We owe thanks to diligent efforts of Churchillians like yourselves. Which brings me to the many societies like this one.
…like the one I founded fifty years ago, are increasingly creaky—like me. People just don’t join clubs the way they used to. The exchange of information and opinion they offer is freely accessible with a gadget you hold in your hand. Yet local societies, like this one, are going strong. What past political figure can you think of, besides perhaps Lincoln, who engenders such enthusiasm? The more advanced Churchill societies, like this one and Vancouver’s, welcome speakers on current events—not necessarily about Churchill, but keeping Churchill firmly in mind. It’s a remarkable credit to a man who realized the value of encouraging informal discussion by all shades of political opinion when he founded his own club for that purpose 107 years ago. In Wisconsin they named theirs after it. They call it the Other Other Club.
In print media…
…his reputation stands. Critics arose soon after the war. In 1957 Lord Alanbrooke published his frustrated, late night harangues with Churchill—and then apologized to him for leaking those private diaries. Brooke’s fuming is often used to show Churchill’s feet of clay—and Lord knows he had them.
But lately we’ve seen another side of Brooke—as when the PM arrives in France after D-Day. “I knew that he longed to get into the most exposed position possible,” Brooke wrote. “I honestly believe that he would really have liked to be killed on the front at this moment of success. He [often said that] the way to die is to pass out fighting when your blood is up and you feel nothing.” I think that little aside, by a frequently cited critic, captures a key aspect of Churchill.
Books about him keep piling up. At Hillsdale we’ve reviewed 100 since 2014, twenty per year. Yes, a few dwell in muddy byways, half-baked history. Some are pretty grim. To paraphrase Sir Winston, in war you can only be killed once—but by writers, many times. And yet, 144 years on, his reputation survives.
Ten Great Books in the Space of a Year
Think of all the really good books we’ve had just this year. Lewis Lehrman’s Churchill and Lincoln, a scholarly comparison of two dominant statesmen. Antoine Capet’s exhaustive encyclopedia, Dictionnaire Churchill. David Lough’s My Darling Winston, the insightful letters between WSC and his mother. Brough Scott on his life with horses, Churchill at the Gallop. Jill Rose’s Nursing Churchill on his health in wartime. Larry Kryske’s Churchill without Blood Sweat and Tears applied his leadership principles to modern living. Leslie Hossack’s Charting Churchill is a beautiful photo documentary of Churchill’s London. Piers Brendon’s Churchill’s Bestiary is a scholarly account of his relations with and allusions to animals. Hillsdale College’s The Churchill Documents offer massive new primary source material from D-Day through 1945. All these books are reviewed, with ordering links, on Hillsdale’s Churchill website.
The crowning achievement is Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Full disclosure: I was one of Andrew’s readers and kibitzers. Together with the tenacious Paul Courtenay, we exchanged a thousand emails. We ran down facts and factoids, from the Royal Library to gossip columns, arguing out every conclusion. With Hillsdale’s help, we checked even the unpublished parts of Sir Martin Gilbert’s “wodges”: documents, clippings and diaries covering almost every day of Churchill’s life. We didn’t agree about everything, but the average isn’t too bad.
* * *
This was the first biography I’d proofread since William Manchester’s The Last Lion, so I am perhaps qualified to compare. No one will ever reach the lyrical heights of “Horatius at the Gate,” as Manchester did. Andrew is however far more insightful, accurate, up to date, and critical where he needs to be. Walking with Destiny is I think the best single volume life of Churchill you can read.
Right now Andrew is on book tours. He’ll be here in Ottawa on May 27th. “Where are you now?” I just asked him. “New York en route to Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison,” he said—“just like Churchill in 1901. And guess what—I don’t even have to pay the crooked major.” He was referring to Major Pond, Churchill’s 1901 lecture agent, whom WSC called “a vulgar yankee impresario.”
Here’s what matters: these books have again brought Churchill to the forefront of history. Andrew writes: “There’s an explosion of love for him among ordinary people that would make you very happy. It’s like 1940 in terms of his popularity, whenever you get away from the smug elites. Big audiences. We sell out constantly. They ask good questions. No questions about firebombing Dresden, Iraqi gassings or the Bengal Famine. Sometimes one can feel down over the Twitter eruptions and statue smearings. But out in the real world, he’s as much loved as ever. Our life’s work has borne fruit.”
…are a third part of his stature. The Hillsdale College Churchill Project has become the Center for Churchill Studies Ron and I used to dream about. It began in 2006, when Hillsdale President Larry Arnn declared he would finish the Official Biography. Oddly, this reminded me of what Churchill said when Japan declared war on the United States, the British Empire and the Dutch East Indies. “They have certainly embarked upon a very considerable undertaking.”
Considerable? It seemed impossible. The great history had stalled after the 1941 document volume. Undaunted, Dr. Arnn reprinted all twenty-four previous volumes, most of them out of print. Since then, helped by the Churchill Fellows, our dedicated student researchers, Hillsdale has published five more, taking the documents through 1945—seven volumes in all on World War II. In June, the 31st and final volume completes the job Randolph Churchill began fifty-six years ago. We celebrate with a cruise around Britain and a London banquet. But this is not the end, or even the beginning of the end….
The Churchill Project’s endowment finances an array of activity: seminars, online courses, conferences, tours and publications. We are building the largest Churchill archive in North America, housed in a new purpose-built Archives building. It includes the Martin Gilbert Papers—all of them, on 20th century and Jewish history as well as Churchill. My own library and papers are in trust for it. We are 2/3rds of the way to a $9 million endowment. Hillsdale maintains a Canadian link through its recognition by your CRA. So your support too is tax-deductible.
* * *
My first surprise when I joined Hillsdale in 2014 was to find so many young people with a keen interest in the great man. They have varied opinions and questing minds. My second surprise was the events. There is no registration charge. They’re free, whether online, on campus, at the Kirby Center in Washington, or elsewhere. We even provide lunches and dinners. You just have to get there. The secret is owning most of the necessary real estate and pre-financing expenses.
With the Official Bio behind us, the Churchill Project will turn to events, online education, and new publications. The work is something great and lasting, to “keep the memory green and the record accurate,” as Lady Soames charged us to do. And all of it is financed and set in stone to continue long after we are gone. This is the only way, in the long run, to assure that Churchill’s statesmanship will be recognized and studied forever.
Concluded in Part 3…