Churchill Now: A Life Worth Contemplating in the Digital Age

Churchill Now: A Life Worth Contemplating in the Digital Age

“Churchill Now” is excerpt­ed from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. To sub­scribe to posts from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

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“The lead­er­ship of the priv­i­leged has passed away, but it has not been suc­ceed­ed by that of the emi­nent. We have entered the region of mass effects. The pedestals which had for some years been vacant have now been demol­ished. Nev­er­the­less, the world is mov­ing on, and mov­ing so fast that few have time to ask, ‘Whith­er?’ And to these few only a babel responds.” —Win­ston S. Churchill, “John Mor­ley,” in Great Con­tem­po­raries (1937)

The challenge now

Almost half a cen­tu­ry since his death, those who actu­al­ly knew Churchill have dwin­dled to a hand­ful. Yet his name is all over the news. When the last per­son who knew him dies, Churchill will live on—like Wash­ing­ton, Lin­coln, the Roo­sevelts and, on the dark­er side, Hitler, Mao and Stal­in. There will be plen­ty of detrac­tors to cat­a­log his faults. There always have been.

Now for some young peo­ple, his times must seem like the blue dis­tance of the Mid­dle Ages. But any­one who thinks Churchill belongs to his­to­ry doesn’t fol­low the news. We who know some­thing about him there­fore have an oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s called the Inter­net. In this bub­bling, dig­i­tal soup, Churchill can say any­thing, or do any­thing, from desert­ing a sink­ing ship to fire-bomb­ing Dresden—quoted, or mis­quot­ed, by anony­mous authors.

But the truth mat­ters, or it should. Who was the real Churchill? What did he stand for? We’ll not get the answers from obscure zealots with wi-fi connections.

The digital warp

His name elic­its 40 to 50 mil­lion brows­er hits, which may often con­fuse truth with fic­tion. A recent sur­vey of British school­child­ren revealed that near­ly half thought Churchill was a myth­i­cal fig­ure, like Sher­lock Holmes. This says some­thing about pub­lic edu­ca­tion, which too often sim­ply omits Churchill.

Those who know he exist­ed fre­quent­ly mis­con­strue him. Take for exam­ple his injec­tions of humor into seri­ous sit­u­a­tions. After Hitler invad­ed Rus­sia and was con­front­ed by the Russ­ian win­ter, Churchill cracked: “He must have been very loose­ly edu­cat­ed.” Such remarks caused offense back then. Now, some still do.

Web-crawlers now are some­times per­plexed at Churchill’s unex­pect­ed out­bursts of magnanimity—because it is now so rare a qual­i­ty. There was his remark about Erwin Rom­mel, com­man­der of the Ger­man Afri­ka Korps, in the heat of bat­tle in 1942: “We have a very dar­ing and skill­ful oppo­nent against us, and, may I say across the hav­oc of war, a great gen­er­al.” That still earns the out­raged com­plaint that he praised a Nazi. Igno­rance again: The real Rom­mel “came to hate Hitler and all his works,” con­spired in an assas­si­na­tion plot, and paid for it with his life. The real Churchill nev­er hid his admi­ra­tion for per­sons of qual­i­ty, even among his opponents.

Quips and wisecracks

Churchill’s offhand­ed asides often give peo­ple entire­ly the wrong impres­sion, caus­ing them to draw false con­clu­sions. Main­ly this is because they are quot­ed out of con­text, the cir­cum­stances unex­plained. The late William F. Buck­ley, Jr. offered an example:

Work­ing his way through dis­pu­ta­tious bureau­cra­cy from sep­a­ratists in Del­hi, Churchill exclaimed, “I hate Indi­ans. They are a beast­ly peo­ple with a beast­ly reli­gion.” I don’t doubt that the famous gleam came to his eyes when he said this, with mis­chie­vous glee—an offense, in mod­ern con­ven­tion, of geno­ci­dal magnitude.

Mr. Buck­ley had no idea how pre­scient he was. Years lat­er, a book appeared accus­ing Churchill of will­ful­ly exac­er­bat­ing the 1943 Ben­gal famine—which he actu­al­ly tried to alle­vi­ate. And that pri­vate wise­crack of his has been used to prove he hat­ed Indi­ans. It was record­ed, inci­den­tal­ly, by Leo Amery in his diary, which makes it hearsay. We do know that Churchill loved to tweak the excitable Amery with an occa­sion­al out­ra­geous poke.

Understanding the man

The real Churchill is a com­pli­cat­ed sub­ject, with a 50-year career and mass­es of doc­u­men­ta­tion. Under­stand­ing him takes deter­mi­na­tion. Alas, a num­ber of peo­ple now are deter­mined to believe any­thing. They can prob­a­bly find more pure rub­bish about Churchill on the Inter­net than in all crit­i­cal books of the last cen­tu­ry. Of course, some of the crit­i­cisms are well-found­ed. Churchill’s faults like his virtues were on a grand scale. But the lat­ter far out­weigh the former.

Through the work of the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project and oth­er insti­tu­tions, the truth is hav­ing some effect. Pub­lic fig­ures are more cagey when they quote Churchill nowa­days. Some­times they even ask for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Hills­dale devotes a whole cat­e­go­ry on its Churchill site to “Truths and Here­sies.” A lead­ing British his­to­ri­an writes, “May I say these pages are very good? Real­ly foren­sic & unanswerable.”

It is good to seek out the real Churchill. After all, he is fun to study. He pro­vokes thought. He rep­re­sents many sides on many ques­tions. Churchill’s spe­cif­ic poli­cies may not apply today. But as Paul Addi­son wrote, his writ­ings and speech­es are full of reflec­tions and phi­los­o­phy: “It is rare to dis­cov­er in the archives the reflec­tions of a politi­cian on the nature of man.”

Just get it right

Here’s a mod­est rule: Crit­i­cize and ana­lyze him by all means, but be sure of your sources. Churchill him­self liked to quote a pro­fes­sor who told his stu­dents: “Ver­i­fy your quo­ta­tions.” One can only wish Twit­ter and Facebook users would actu­al­ly do that.

One of the least appre­ci­at­ed peri­ods of his life, was as Leader of the Oppo­si­tion in 1945-51. On issue after issue, he exco­ri­at­ed Labour Prime Min­is­ter Clement Attlee, of whom Churchill was very fond per­son­al­ly. Attlee had been his devot­ed deputy prime min­is­ter dur­ing the war.

It is not true, there­fore, that Churchill once said, “an emp­ty car drew up and Clement Attlee got out.” When con­front­ed with this alleged crack he replied that Attlee was a gal­lant and devot­ed ser­vant of the Crown, and he would nev­er say that about him. It is impor­tant to under­stand this now-rare qual­i­ty of col­le­gial­i­ty. What­ev­er the polit­i­cal quar­rels, Churchill nev­er indulged in per­son­al attacks, and regard­ed his oppo­nents as ser­vants of the nation. That is some­thing we have lost, at least in the present.

Optimistic realist

Churchill was unabashed­ly proud of his coun­try, and of all the good Britain, Amer­i­ca and the Com­mon­wealth, includ­ing India, had accom­plished. But he was not sure about the future. A fair descrip­tion of him would be “opti­mistic realist”—especially about mankind, the same imper­fect being, he declared, pre­sent­ed by sci­ence with increas­ing­ly potent and dan­ger­ous toys. It is hard to believe he spoke these words over 70 years ago:

…the spate of events with which we attempt to cope, and which we strive to con­trol, have far exceed­ed, in this mod­ern age, the old bounds, that they have been swollen up to giant pro­por­tions, while, all the time, the stature and intel­lect of man remain unchanged. It is there­fore above all things impor­tant that the moral phi­los­o­phy and spir­i­tu­al con­cep­tions of men and nations should hold their own amid these for­mi­da­ble sci­en­tif­ic evolutions.

Still he saw hope: “the genus homo is a tough crea­ture who has trav­elled here by a very long road. [Man’s] spir­it has, from the ear­li­est dawn of his­to­ry, shown itself upon occa­sion capa­ble of mount­ing to the sub­lime, far above mate­r­i­al con­di­tions or mor­tal terrors.” 

“Churchill’s trial is also our trial”

Review­ing a book of Churchill calum­nies, most of them false or dis­tort­ed, Peter Bak­er pow­er­ful­ly argued that Churchill deserves his mon­u­ments: “None of our his­tor­i­cal idols were as unvar­nished as the memo­ri­als we build to them. The ques­tion is: What are they being hon­ored for?”

Churchill’s stat­ues hon­or a leader who strove, as he said of Neville Cham­ber­lain, “to save the world from awful, dev­as­tat­ing strug­gle.” When the strug­gle came despite his efforts, he did not win it—that was not in his pow­er. What he did in his finest hour, Charles Krautham­mer wrote, was not lose it: “With­out him, in 1940, the world now would be unrecognizable—dark, impov­er­ished, tortured.”

Yet Churchill’s mer­it does not rest on 1940 alone. As Lar­ry P. Arnn wrote in Churchill’s Tri­al, his entire life is an object les­son in the art of states­man­ship: “Pru­dence, involv­ing ‘cal­cu­lat­ing and order­ing many things that shift and change,’ has from ancient times been held to be the defin­ing virtue and art of the states­man.” His chal­lenges were those of human nature and gov­er­nance, rel­e­vant to his world and ours, Dr. Arnn wrote: “Churchill’s tri­al is also our trial.”

“A little nearer to our own times”

Of the sub­ject of those stat­ues Sir Mar­tin Gilbert wrote:

Churchill was indeed a noble spir­it, sus­tained in his long life by a faith in the capac­i­ty of man to live in peace, to seek pros­per­i­ty, and to ward off threats and dan­gers by his own exer­tions. His love of coun­try, his sense of fair play, his hopes for the human race, were matched by for­mi­da­ble pow­ers of work and thought, vision and fore­sight. His path had often been dogged by con­tro­ver­sy, dis­ap­point­ment and abuse, but these had nev­er deflect­ed him from his sense of duty and his faith in the British people.

“How strange it is that the past is so lit­tle under­stood and so quick­ly for­got­ten,” WSC wrote a friend in 1929. “I have tried to drag his­to­ry up a lit­tle near­er to our own times in case it should be help­ful as a guide in present difficulties.”

How do we do that? To para­phrase the words of a famous Amer­i­can admir­er: Ask not what Churchill would do now. Ask what we should do, bear­ing Churchill firm­ly in mind.

Further reading

“Churchill’s Undent­ed Lega­cy,” 2021

“Churchill: Not Much to Say Today?,” 2015

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