Paris, 13 November 2015: A Churchill Moment for M. Hollande

Paris, 13 November 2015: A Churchill Moment for M. Hollande

“A Churchill Moment for M. Hol­lande” is excerpt­ed from my arti­cle in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor, 18 Novem­ber 2015.

Dear M. Hollande…

The news from France is very bad and I grieve for the gal­lant French peo­ple who have fall­en into this ter­ri­ble mis­for­tune. Noth­ing will alter our feel­ings towards them or our faith that the genius of France will rise again.  —Win­ston S. Churchill, 4 June 1940

On the 2015 Paris attacks: With every mur­der­ous threat to civ­i­liza­tion we are asked: “Where are our Churchills?” There isn’t one, and we should not expect one. Churchills are rare. They appear in extrem­is. The threat in 1940 was, if this is any con­so­la­tion, far more seri­ous than the threat today.

There are how­ev­er ways to approach the prob­lem as Churchill did, learn­ing from and apply­ing his principles—which seem to fig­ure in the think­ing of French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande, the par­ti­san social­ist sud­den­ly become the de fac­to leader of the Free World.

Churchill implored us “not to fall below the lev­el of events.” M. Hol­lande has risen to the lev­el. Mr. Oba­ma has not, but events may have a way of float­ing him along with them.

The Quest for Unity

Hollande’s first act after the Novem­ber 13th mas­sacres was to sum­mon a joint ses­sion of the French par­lia­ment, mem­bers of all par­ties, to seek sup­port for what amount to war pow­ers. Divid­ed by a score of issues only days before, they stood and cheered. Like­wise Churchill, whose first act as prime min­is­ter was to seek uni­ty and shared purpose.

Win­ston Churchill believed in coali­tions. Deeply under­stand­ing mod­ern war­fare, he tried to pre­vent both world wars. Once they came, his instinct was to unite, not divide—to wel­come as “faith­ful com­rades” mem­bers of the oppo­si­tion he had him­self excoriated—and they him—in past quarrels.

Churchill reserved his con­tempt for the ene­my, not polit­i­cal oppo­nents. Bare­ly a year ear­li­er, the Labour Par­ty had vot­ed against con­scrip­tion; in 1938 most Con­ser­v­a­tives had sup­port­ed Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain’s Munich agree­ment. Churchill ignored all that. “If we open a quar­rel between the past and the present,” he told them, “we shall find that we have lost the future.”


In May 1940, as France and Cham­ber­lain col­lapsed, George VI asked Churchill to form a gov­ern­ment. The King did not spec­i­fy a coali­tion. “But in view of what had hap­pened,” Churchill wrote,

a Gov­ern­ment of Nation­al char­ac­ter was obvi­ous­ly inher­ent in the sit­u­a­tion. If I found it impos­si­ble to come to terms with the Oppo­si­tion par­ties, I should not have been con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly debarred from try­ing to form the strongest Gov­ern­ment pos­si­ble of all who would stand by the coun­try in the hour of peril….

Labour’s leader Clement Attlee, and Cham­ber­lain, were giv­en high posi­tions in Churchill’s all-par­ty gov­ern­ment. Churchill led that coali­tion for five years of total war, “at the end of which time, all our ene­mies hav­ing sur­ren­dered uncon­di­tion­al­ly or being about to do so, I was imme­di­ate­ly dis­missed by the British elec­torate from all fur­ther con­duct of their affairs.” But in 1940, he was the indis­pens­able man.


A sec­ond Churchill impulse pur­sued by Hol­lande is the con­cept of “grand alliance.” It sur­pris­es some that France so far has not yet invoked NATO Arti­cle 5, requir­ing a con­cert­ed response by the mem­ber nations. The idea seems log­i­cal, yet Hol­lande has so far resist­ed it—I sus­pect because he wants the Rus­sians on side, and ask­ing them direct­ly to join a NATO oper­a­tion would be a reach, although that would be the effect, if he succeeds.

Now Mr. Putin is no friend of the West, and thought­ful voic­es have said one of his objects has been to mar­gin­al­ize NATO. But in the cur­rent cri­sis Hol­lande sees a trans­for­ma­tive pos­si­bil­i­ty in tak­ing allies where you find them—like Churchill.*

On 22 June 1941, Ger­many invad­ed the Sovi­et Union. Stal­in had been no friend of the West, align­ing Rus­sia with Ger­many in a non-aggres­sion pact and cor­dial­ly applaud­ing each Ger­man vic­to­ry. Churchill at once rec­og­nized the greater threat: “If Hitler invad­ed Hell,” he quipped, “I would at least make a favourable ref­er­ence to the Dev­il in the House of Com­mons.” The night he broad­cast to the nation:

No one has been a more con­sis­tent oppo­nent of Com­mu­nism than I have for the last 25 years. I will unsay no word that I have spo­ken about it. But all this fades away before the spec­ta­cle which is now unfold­ing. The past with its crimes, its fol­lies and its tragedies, flash­es away….The Russ­ian dan­ger is there­fore our danger.

Even unlikely allies

If Hollande’s object Churchill’s “vic­to­ry in spite of all ter­ror,” the need to enlist his oppo­nents is fun­da­men­tal. Who can tell where a grand alliance might lead—perhaps to a new era of what Churchill called “ease­ment,” through redis­cov­ered com­mon inter­ests. Rus­sia arguably has as seri­ous a prob­lem with ter­ror­ism as any nation. The Russ­ian dan­ger is there­fore our danger.

Amidst the cataract of hor­rors, M. Hol­lande is hav­ing his Churchill moment. More pow­er to his hand. May he like Churchill forge “a supreme recov­ery of moral strength and mar­tial vigour,” while time remains.

Retrospective, 1939*

*Excerpt from the author’s Churchill and the Avoid­able War, page 69.

From the Diaries of Harold Nicol­son, April 3, 1939:

Ivan Maisky was the free-think­ing, rather bour­geois, pro-British, lux­u­ry-lov­ing Sovi­et ambas­sador, whose fas­ci­nat­ing diaries have just been pub­lished. This was short­ly after Hitler had absorbed the rump of Czecho­slo­va­kia, and Cham­ber­lain had issued a guar­an­tee to Poland, which would be hard to defend, as Churchill realized….

I am seized upon by Win­ston and tak­en down to the low­er smok­ing room with Maisky and Lloyd George. Win­ston adopts the direct method of attack. “Now look here Mr. Ambas­sador, if we are to make a suc­cess of this new pol­i­cy we require the help of Rus­sia. Now I don’t care for your sys­tem and I nev­er have, but the Poles and the Roma­ni­ans like it even less. Although they might be pre­pared at a pinch to let you in, they would cer­tain­ly want some assur­ances that you would even­tu­al­ly get out. Can you give us such assurances?”….

Maisky [whose answer Nicol­son did not record] takes the line that Rus­sia will not come in to any coali­tion which includes Italy and that they will have no con­fi­dence in France or our­selves if we start flirt­ing with Italy and open­ing nego­ti­a­tions with Mus­soli­ni. Win­ston takes the line that the main ene­my is Ger­many and that it is always a mis­take to allow one’s ene­mies to acquire even unre­li­able allies.


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