Expanded from an article in The American Spectator, 18 November 2015.
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
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.
The Quest for Allies
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 twenty-five 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.
If Hollande’s object Churchill’s “victory in spite of all terror,” the need to enlist his political opponents and available allies 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.
*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.
Read more: James Lewis, “What Putin Knows.”