“The Prophet Churchill”: Paris 2015

“The Prophet Churchill”: Paris 2015

(The Inde­pen­dent. http://ind.pn/1y5nYxy)

Paris, 7 January 2015

”Watch­ing the hor­ri­fy­ing events in Paris this week,” wrote Scott John­son, “I have found Churchill’s great speech of 12 Novem­ber 1936 com­ing to mind. It is one of Churchill’s prophet­ic speech­es. I believe in the Prophet Churchill—decrying the com­pla­cen­cy of the gov­ern­ment in the face of the gath­er­ing storm in Germany.”

Prophet Churchill, 1936

On that date, address­ing the lead­ers of Britain’s gov­ern­ment in Par­lia­ment, Churchill said:

So they go on in strange para­dox, decid­ed only to be unde­cid­ed, resolved to be irres­olute, adamant for drift, sol­id for flu­id­i­ty, all pow­er­ful to be impo­tent. So we go on prepar­ing more months and years—precious, per­haps vital, to the great­ness of Britain, for the locusts to eat…. The era of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, of half-mea­sures, of sooth­ing and baf­fling expe­di­ents, of delays, is com­ing to its close. In its place we are enter­ing a peri­od of consequences.

Let us add Churchill’s reflec­tions five months before. On 2 May 1936, he spoke of  iner­tia in the face of peril:

There is noth­ing new in the sto­ry. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long, dis­mal cat­a­logue of the fruit­less­ness of expe­ri­ence and the con­firmed unteach­a­bil­i­ty of mankind. Want of fore­sight, unwill­ing­ness to act when action would be sim­ple and effec­tive, lack of clear think­ing, con­fu­sion of coun­sel until the emer­gency comes, until self-preser­va­tion strikes its jar­ring gong—these are the fea­tures which con­sti­tute the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of history.

History rhymes

Did self-preser­va­tion strike its jar­ring gong in Paris? His­to­ry doesn’t repeat, Mark Twain argued—“but it some­times rhymes.” Only time will decide if there is a rhyme here.

Those who believe there is no rhyme will argue that today’s ter­ror­ists bear no resem­blance to Nazi Ger­many. But the destruc­tive capac­i­ty of a bomb has advanced expo­nen­tial­ly.  There were 65 mil­lion peo­ple in 1936 Ger­many, only a frac­tion of which were ardent Nazis. There are many more rad­i­cal jihadists today.

Our worst difficulties come from within

Churchill’s words rever­ber­ate. In his time as in ours there were pre­var­i­ca­tors. They declared no dif­fer­ence between “us” and “them.” They insist­ed that we must under­stand and even empathize. In 1933 Churchill had a reply for these—another warn­ing which res­onates today:

The worst dif­fi­cul­ties from which we suf­fer do not come from with­out. They come from with­in [and] not come from the cot­tages of the wage-earn­ers. They come from a pecu­liar type of brainy peo­ple always found in our coun­try, who, if they add some­thing to its cul­ture, take much from its strength.

Our dif­fi­cul­ties come from the mood of unwar­rantable self-abase­ment into which we have been cast by a pow­er­ful sec­tion of our own intel­lec­tu­als. They come from the accep­tance of defeatist doc­trines by a large pro­por­tion of our politi­cians.… Noth­ing can save Eng­land if she will not save her­self. If we lose faith in our­selves, in our capac­i­ty to guide and gov­ern, if we lose our will to live, then indeed our sto­ry is told. (Roy­al Soci­ety of St. George, 24 April 1933)

In the eleventh hour Eng­land did save her­self, and much else besides—but with great dif­fi­cul­ty, and great loss­es. Let it not be said that we were only gal­va­nized after an atroc­i­ty that puts Paris, Ottawa, Lon­don and 9/11 in the pale.

Further reading

“Paris, 13 Novem­ber 2015: A Churchill Moment for M. Hol­lande” (2015)

“Antithe­sis of Democ­ra­cy (Or: Churchill on Port­land, 2020).”

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