“Churchill’s Unmerited Nobel Prize”

“Churchill’s Unmerited Nobel Prize”

A let­ter to The Guardian presents a new Churchill Trans­gres­sion. His 1953 Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture (for “mas­tery of his­tor­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal descrip­tion [and] ora­to­ry defend­ing exalt­ed human val­ues”) is unde­served! The writer says:

As his­to­ri­an David Reynolds has detailed, the six vol­umes of Churchill’s his­to­ry [sic; it was mem­oir not his­to­ry] of the Sec­ond World War were built upon selec­tive mem­o­ry forged out of ego, not least the “great man’s” fleet­ing mem­o­ry of the 1943 Ben­gal famine, in which more than 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple per­ished, to a large extent as a direct con­se­quence of Churchill’s poli­cies and actions. His hatred of the peo­ples of the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent is a mat­ter of record.

It is always intrigu­ing to read a new chap­ter in the unfold­ing cat­a­logue of Churchill’s Per­fidy. Even if the evi­dence offered con­sists of mis­un­der­stand­ing Pro­fes­sor Reynolds, swal­low­ing an emp­ty myth, and seiz­ing on an unto­ward com­ment in a moment of frus­tra­tion (“I hate Indians”).

This let­ter deserves a Nobel Prize of its own. To quote Churchill’s famous 1944 rasp­ber­ry:  “I should think it was hard­ly pos­si­ble to state the oppo­site of the truth with more precision.”

What the Nobel was for…

1) It is a fun­da­men­tal error to believe that Churchill’s Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture was for The Sec­ond World War. It was award­ed in 1953, when the war mem­oirs were still incom­plete. The Nobel Com­mit­tee not­ed instead his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, My Ear­ly Lifeand his biog­ra­phy, Marl­bor­ough. The schol­ar Leo Strauss called Marl­bor­ough  “the great­est his­tor­i­cal work writ­ten in our cen­tu­ry, an inex­haustible mine of polit­i­cal wis­dom and under­stand­ing.” Churchill’s war vol­umes may have influ­enced the Com­mit­tee, so wide­ly were they praised. But none of the Committee’s review­ers men­tion The Sec­ond World War in their comments.
Kjell Ström­berg of the Swedish Acad­e­my said the first report on Churchill’s Lit­er­a­ture nom­i­na­tion was in 1946, two years before the first war mem­oirs appeared. The Academy’s aged Per Hall­ström found “no lit­er­ary mer­it” in Churchill’s nov­el Savro­la, and dis­missed My Ear­ly Life and  The World Cri­sisOnly Marl­bor­ough, Hall­ström wrote, was a qual­i­fy­ing work. He made no men­tion of The Sec­ond World War. (See Fred Glueckstein’s essay on the Prizes, 1946-1954.)

Caesar and Cicero

In award­ing the prize, Sigfrid Siw­ertz of the Swedish Acad­e­my called Churchill
…a Cae­sar who also has the gift of Cicero’s pen. Nev­er before has one of history’s lead­ing fig­ures been so close to us by virtue of such an out­stand­ing com­bi­na­tion. In his great work about his ances­tor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marl­bor­ough, Churchill writes, “Words are easy and many, while great deeds are dif­fi­cult and rare.” Yes, but great, liv­ing, and per­sua­sive words are also dif­fi­cult and rare. And Churchill has shown that they too can take on the char­ac­ter of great deeds.*
Refer­ring to his war speech­es, the Nobel com­mit­tee also cit­ed Churchill’s “bril­liant ora­to­ry defend­ing exalt­ed human val­ues.” Siw­ertz writes of “the resilience and pun­gency of his phras­es.” He quotes Lord Birkenhead’s descrip­tion : a “glow of con­vic­tion and appeal, instinc­tive and price­less, which con­sti­tutes true elo­quence.” Churchill’s ora­to­ry, Siw­ertz con­tin­ues, “is swift, unerr­ing in its aim, and mov­ing in its grandeur.”

Who Wrote What

2) David Reynolds’ In Com­mand of His­to­ry is an excel­lent study of the war mem­oirs. Reynolds explains how Churchill employed teams of experts to help com­pile its six lengthy vol­umes. But Reynolds con­cludes that it was a clas­sic mem­oir. It was Churchill’s case, to be sure, but elo­quent­ly pre­sent­ed. Churchill him­self signed off on every word. Giv­en such a tal­ent­ed team as Reynolds describes, how did they man­age to offer only “selec­tive mem­o­ry forged out of ego​”?​ ​And whom does the writer ​think wrote Churchill’s war speeches?

Bengal Famine: again

3) Slan­der about the Ben­gal Famine is get­ting to be a very old chest­nut. It was refut­ed begin­ning 2008, with Arthur Herman’s Pulitzer-nom­i­nat­ed Gand­hi & Churchill. Hills­dale College’s Fate­ful Ques­tions, vol­ume #19 of Churchill Doc­u­ments, shows the sus­tained effort Churchill and his Cab­i­net made to get grain to India. The doc­u­ments show they scoured the stock­piles from Iraq to Aus­tralia, tried to come up with sub­sti­tute grains, even implored Roo­sevelt (who refused).  The doc­u­ments sup­port Arthur Herman’s con­clu­sion: ​”With­out Churchill, the Ben­gal Famine would have been worse.”

Priorities for India

4) In 1942, the Indi­an Con­gress Par­ty pre­scribed only pas­sive resis­tance if Japan invad­ed India. This affront­ed Churchill. “I hate Indi­ans,” he exclaimed. Affront­ed he might be, giv­en what the Axis Pow­ers had in mind for India. William F. Buck­ley, Jr. said of this remark: “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.”
Yet this was the same Churchill who set out three pri­or­i­ties for the new Viceroy of India, Gen­er­al Wavell: a) “Defense of India from Japan­ese men­ace.” b) “The mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al con­di­tions of the many peo­ples of India.” c) “Assuage the strife between the Hin­dus and Moslems and to induce them to work togeth­er for the com­mon good.” After win­ning the war, feed­ing the peo­ple. Some hater.


Where do peo­ple get these false, sad notions? The ​late Har­ry Jaf­fa said it stems from a pub­lic appetite for arti­cles which den­i­grate nobil­i­ty or idealism:
Young peo­ple are led to believe that to suc­ceed in pol­i­tics is to prove one­self a clever or lucky scoundrel. The detrac­tion of the great has become a pas­sion for those who can­not suf­fer greatness.
Pro­fes­sor Jaf­fa said that thir­ty years ago. He hadn’t seen any­thing yet.
*An inex­pen­sive book from the Nobel Library, con­tain­ing Siwertz’s pre­sen­ta­tion speech, Churchill’s response, with excerpts from My Ear­ly Life and an appre­ci­a­tion by Hugh Trevor-Rop­er, is Albert Camus – Win­ston Churchill (1971). The book also excerpts The Island Race. This was a con­den­sa­tion of Churchill’s His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples. HESP, unpub­lished at the time of the prize-giving.

4 thoughts on ““Churchill’s Unmerited Nobel Prize”

  1. Some­times I can’t believe how a gen­er­a­tion could be so ungrate­ful. Regard­less of his beliefs or char­ac­ter, I don’t think any­one ever lived saved more human lives. A true hero.

  2. Thanks to the late Bill Rush­er for this qua­train by the 19th cen­tu­ry poet Coven­try Patmore: 

    ”For want of me the world’s course will not fail.
    When all its work is done the lie shall rot.
    The Truth is great and shall prevail,
    When none cares whether it pre­vail or not.”

  3. It sad­dens me to see gen­er­a­tions that seek to tear down the great to fit their own beliefs, espe­cial­ly when the great are no longer around to defend them­selves. We are for­tu­nate to have peo­ple like the writer of this arti­cle. He uses the his­tor­i­cal record to defend Churchill, who deserves to be defend­ed, espe­cial­ly in this case.

  4. As one who has read Churchill’s canon almost in entire­ty I find it incred­i­ble that any­one who has read his works could doubt the wor­thi­ness of his Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture. In ora­to­ry he is a Per­i­cles or Cicero; in his­to­ry and biog­ra­phy he is a Thucy­dides or Plutarch; in quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty of prose he is a Dick­ens. In essay he is a Mon­taigne or Orwell. In fact, Churchill is one of the few indis­pens­able authors of the mod­ern age. His great­ness as an author endures as ephemer­al authors fade away. I have said noth­ing of his human­i­ty or states­man­ship, two of his most impor­tant and endur­ing qual­i­ties. The real omis­sion for Churchill was that he did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But as far Lit­er­a­ture is con­cerned all I can say is “what took them so long?”

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