“Unswerving Moral Decency”: Churchill Remembered by Simon Schama

“Unswerving Moral Decency”: Churchill Remembered by Simon Schama

At a time when Churchill is under vio­lent and irra­tional attack, it is time for a ton­ic. One good anti­dote to it all  is an elo­quent essay by Simon Schama.

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.”

Moral clarity

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.

* * *

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.

3 thoughts on ““Unswerving Moral Decency”: Churchill Remembered by Simon Schama

  1. Ambiva­lent yes; Hitler was look­ing east. Intim­i­dat­ed, maybe not. He thought he could do any­thing after the fall of France in June 1940.

  2. Could we admit though that Hitler was ambiva­lent about invad­ing Britain. he was a bit intim­i­dat­ed by the British.

  3. It is a ter­ri­ble vice to fall into debt and even more ter­ri­ble to utter false­hoods and calum­nies about good and hon­or­able peo­ple. Yes, he “was not wartless—but his warts were as Schama says, “imper­fec­tions on the face of virtue. Churchill emerges as a gen­er­ous man, even to a fault.” He was brave, humane and coura­geous, and val­ued the lives of indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens and sol­diers. He wept for their sac­ri­fices and loss­es. He knew each death was a per­son­al loss to loved ones and to the nation. How utter­ly unlike Hitler, Stal­in or Mao! He made mis­takes because he took rea­son­able chances. But on the whole, he was a pos­i­tive influ­ence in the his­to­ry of lib­er­ty and civ­i­liza­tion. Those who attack him with false­hoods calum­nies civ­i­liza­tion, lib­er­ty and the truth. They can only be apol­o­gists for aome total­i­tar­i­an temptation.

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