Years ago the Columbia historian reviewed, for The New Republic, Martin Gilbert‘s official biography Volume VI, Finest Hour 1939-1941. It was, incidentally a fine tribute to Sir Martin, whose epic biography Professor Schama christened “The Churchilliad.”
What we should consider right now, though, are Schama’s evergreen words about Churchill. Martin Gilbert’s volume VI reaches its apogee in May 1940—the very time commemorated by the movie Darkest Hour. The success of Darkest Hour is, ironically, the occasion of today’s outburst of lies and calumny.
Schama on Churchill’s Leadership
Schama identifies three components of Churchill’s leadership. The first is “staggeringly and indefatigably hard work. Churchill was sixty-five when he became prime minister, but his hours and his devotion to detail left his bright young assistants dropping in their tracks.”
The second component is Churchill’s impressive grasp of military strategy. Schama wrote: “More than any of the other war leaders, and certainly more than either Stalin or the warlords in Berlin and Rome, Churchill was in his own right a great commander. This is not to say that he did not commit blunders. …. But he had an unerring nose for fine commanders, and he stuck by them even when they were drawing flack from their staff.”
The third component, Schama continued, is the most remembered: “the passion and the dignity of his rhetoric.” Churchill’s speeches, he wrote, “broke the crust of the British class system and brought together those divided by accent, manners, education and fortune….
He played on his oratory like some mighty brass instrument, muting and swelling as occasion demanded. When he addressed the French, “Francais, c’est moi, Churchill qui vous parle,” he conscripted the ghost of Napoleon exhorting his troops against the Prussians, but was tactful enough not to mention that the occasion was Waterloo. At least one of his listeners thought, “every word was like a transfusion of drops of blood.”
Professor Schama notes that those speeches were not just the product of “technical facility.” Churchill made his listeners brave because “his own moral clarity led him to attribute the best possible motives to his compatriots. Thus he associated them with his own resoluteness.” And thus Churchill’s words to his outer cabinet on 28 May 1940: “If this island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Churchill’s rhetorical quality was the one, Schama wrote, upon which all the rest depended:
He was not wartless—but his warts were just that, imperfections on the face of virtue. Winston Churchill emerges as a generous man, even to a fault. He despised vindictiveness and stood loyally by some who did not always deserve his kindness. He showed exceptional tenderness to Neville Chamberlain, and through the long period of his cancer never neglected to brief Chamberlain on every piece of business. When Chamberlain died in November 1940, Churchill cried at his bier, and reserved one of his most moving speeches for the memorial service. All this was transparently sincere and deeply felt.
Schama then reflects on the “historical miracle” that brought the western democracies two leaders—Roosevelt the other—”who inspired not only respect but love….
None of this adds up to a definitive answer as to why Britain survived. There are more impersonal reasons to be found in this book, and in others. … There are inimitable stiff upper lips all over the place, the stiffest of all belonging to the butler of the Reform Club who answered the phone the night that Pall Mall was put to the torch and responded to a request for information with a Jeevesian “The Club is burning, sir.”
“Like a great granite cliff…”
Nothing, however, stood out more clearly than Churchill’s own part and role. Yes, he did wonder—at times—if it all would be too late. Would Britain survive at all against the “monstrous tyranny”? But in the end Churchill personified, and taught his countrymen to personify, courage. In a note intended for his war memoirs, unpublished until Martin Gilbert’s Volume VI, Churchill wrote: “Everyone realised how near death and ruin we stood. Not only individual death which is the universal experience, but incomparably more commanding the life of Britain, her message and her glory.”
Professor Schama concluded:
The terror of imminent extinction flickers intermittently through Martin Gilbert’s crowded narrative. But whenever it begins to rise with the tempo of accumulating disasters, Churchill’s presence, too, rises above the panic, like a great granite cliff. I suppose that is what our parents felt and what sustained them in the nightmare of 1940. This is a rare thing then. The subject of a vast biography is enhanced rather than diminished with every page and every document. The only somber reflection on putting it down is the certainty that we shall not look upon his like again.
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I’m asked occasionally why I spend so much time defending Churchill’s good name. Why bother with perfervid seat-of-the-pants falsehoods from people who simply haven’t done their homework? There are many legitimate historian-critics—Robert Rhodes James, Paul Addison, John Charmley, W.H. Thompson, David Reynolds—who accompanied their texts with solid research. Their arguments are worth the attention of thoughtful people. But there is a difference between honest critics and dishonest bushwhackers. That’s why.