Churchill in Oslo, 1948: Stray Gems from a Distant Past

Churchill in Oslo, 1948: Stray Gems from a Distant Past

On 11-13 May 1948, Win­ston Churchill was in Nor­way to accept an hon­orary degree from Oslo Uni­ver­si­ty. He gave five speeches—University, City Hall, Stort­ing (Nor­we­gian Par­lia­ment) and two din­ners. All five can be found in Churchill’s speech vol­ume Europe Uniteor Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963. They offer six gems of Churchillian wis­dom. I plan to add them to the upcom­ing new edi­tion of Churchill by Him­selfmy book of quotations.

Oslo Variations

OsloA read­er reminds us of these obscure ora­tions by send­ing one: Churchill’s din­ner speech on May 12th. His source is Churchill’s Vis­it to Nor­way (Oslo: Cap­pe­lens, 1949). Curi­ous­ly, we found wide vari­a­tion and two omis­sions from Churchill’s Europe Unite. One omis­sion involves Admi­ral François Dar­lan, who dis­graced him­self by refus­ing to safe­guard the French fleet from a like­ly Ger­man takeover in 1940.

This rais­es a ques­tion famil­iar to quo­ta­tions edi­tors. Which is the author­i­ta­tive text? My usu­al rule is to go by the final revised edi­tion of Churchill’s own works, if pos­si­ble. For Oslo 1948, that is Europe Unite, which had no lat­er edi­tion.  (The Com­plete Speech­es usu­al­ly dupli­cates, more or less, his speech volumes.)

What about the pas­sages report­ed by Cap­pe­lens but not in Europe Unite? Were the Nor­we­gians edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing? Not like­ly. Trans­la­tion anom­alies are one expla­na­tion. But the omit­ted sec­tions do sound like Churchill. So it’s more like­ly that Ran­dolph Churchill, edit­ing Europe Unite, delet­ed them.

Dar­lan (and the sub­se­quent British destruc­tion of the French Fleet) are sore sub­jects among French­men. While Ran­dolph Churchill was edit­ing Europe Unite, Churchill’s sec­ond vol­ume of war mem­oirs, L’heure Trag­ique, was caus­ing con­tro­ver­sy in France over his account of France’s fall, includ­ing Darlan’s behav­ior. Ran­dolph, or his father, may have judged it unnec­es­sary to fan more flames.

Churchill by Himself: Maxims

Start­ing with “Max­ims,” here are the new entries from Churchill’s 12 May 1948 Oslo din­ner speech, arranged by sub­ject and ref­er­enced by title and page number.

Kind­ness and Humil­i­ty: “The more kind­ness I receive, the more hum­ble I become.” —Europe Unite, 329. Churchill con­tin­ued: “I know very well how vain it is for indi­vid­u­als to try to gath­er to them­selves all the cred­it which real­ly belongs to the great coun­tries and the great nations whose virtues have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty of cred­it­ing to them­selves in world history.”

Right and Wrong: “The prob­lem of life is not pre­sent­ed to us as a sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion of what is wise and what is foolish…because judg­ments are fal­si­fied by events.” —Cap­pe­lens, 33. Churchill con­tin­ued: “…if you will obey the prompt­ings of your spir­it or nature, when your con­science gives you such lights as may be grant­ed, you will find that there is a way which is far safer in the long run than all the cal­cu­la­tions of the most astute and clever politi­cians that have ever been made.” (This pas­sage is not in Europe Unite or the Com­plete Speech­es.)

World War II

Polit­i­cal Options, May 1940: “I have often been praised for things I said at the begin­ning of the War, when Eng­land was fight­ing alone. That was only expres­sions of my peo­ple [because] it was their courage and great qual­i­ties I put into words. And it was what my col­leagues want­ed me to say. If I had not, they would have pulled me to pieces, as I cer­tain­ly would have pulled them to pieces the oth­er way round.” —Europe Unite, 329.


Count Ciano.

Galeaz­zo Ciano: “Take for instance Count Ciano who start­ed the attack on France and Eng­land in the moment when France was beat­en. “France will not come again in five thou­sand years,” he said. But in two years the sit­u­a­tion was changed. That does show how even seem­ing­ly clever cal­cu­la­tions very often do not come off at all.” —Europe Unite, 330. Gian Galeaz­zo Ciano (1903-1944), Sec­ond Count of Cortel­laz­zo and Buc­cari, For­eign Min­is­ter of Fas­cist Italy 1936-42. Exe­cut­ed by fir­ing squad, 11 Jan­u­ary 1944, at the behest of his father-in-law, Mus­soli­ni, under pres­sure from Germany.

François Dar­lan

François Dar­lan: “There was a man who had the French navy in the hol­low of his hand; he had only to give the word to sail away to Amer­i­ca, or to the French colonies, and he would have gone there, car­ry­ing with him the title-deeds of the France of the future, of Free France….But he cast it all away by cal­cu­la­tion. He thought that to become Min­is­ter of Marine would give him more pow­er at the time; and so he lost all that he cared most about, and his life was cast away in shame, where it might have been long pre­served in hon­our, through cal­cu­la­tion.” —Cap­pe­lens, 32. (This pas­sage is not in Europe Unite or the Com­plete Speech­es)

Oslo University Ring

“I thank you most cor­dial­ly for your kind­ness and for all you have done for me. I wear the ring of the Oslo Uni­ver­si­ty on my fin­ger and will con­sid­er it as a kind of mar­riage ring.I must con­fess that I have quite a selec­tion of Uni­ver­si­ty Degrees and their insignias at home, but I have nev­er received a ring with any degree before. “—Europe, 331. “What hap­pened to the ring?” was the read­er ques­tion that set off this trawl for Churchill’s Oslo remarks. The only Uni­ver­si­ty ring ever pre­sent­ed to him, it is unknown to his fam­i­ly, and its present where­abouts are uncertain.


Omis­sions from speech­es pose a ques­tion for nit­pick­ers and fuss­bud­gets like me. Why? Cap­pe­lens prob­a­bly trans­lat­ed the text from Nor­we­gian news reports, That would explain part of it—but not the huge pas­sages about Dar­lan and “the prob­lem of life,” miss­ing in the speech volumes.

Were the Cap­pe­lens peo­ple edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing? It seems unlike­ly. The Dar­lan text sounds like gen­uine Churchill prose. More like­ly Ran­dolph Churchill, the edi­tor of Europe Unite, did a lit­tle culling. Per­haps he desired not to ruf­fle French feath­ers over Dar­lan. His father always felt Dar­lan lost his chance at glo­ry by refus­ing to safe­guard the French fleet after the Fall of France in June 1940. This caused Churchill and the Roy­al Navy to attack a good part of it at Mers el-Kebir, a sad chap­ter in wartime history.

The omis­sion of Churchill’s mus­ings over “the prob­lem of life” is hard­er to explain. Nev­er­the­less, this was an inter­est­ing exer­cise in the estab­lish­ment of texts. It serves as a warn­ing which Churchill him­self often quot­ed: “Ver­i­fy your quotations.”

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