Alistair Parker Presents a Balanced, Scholarly Cambridge Seminar

Alistair Parker Presents a Balanced, Scholarly Cambridge Seminar

Review of Park­er excerpt­ed from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text includ­ing more images and end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just scroll to SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW. Your email address guar­an­teed to remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

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Alis­tair Park­er, ed., Win­ston Churchill: Stud­ies in States­man­ship. Lon­don: Brasseys, 2003, 282 pages, paper­back, Ama­zon $32; hard­bound copies also available.

“There are times,” wrote a great Cam­bridge schol­ar, Sir Geof­frey Elton, “when I incline to judge all his­to­ri­ans by their opin­ion of Win­ston Churchill: whether they can see that no mat­ter how much bet­ter the details, often dam­ag­ing, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite sim­ply, a great man.” Cam­bridge University’s recent, one-sided pan­els on Churchill and race prompts this look at an ear­li­er, more bal­anced Cam­bridge symposium.

Sir Geof­frey would like­ly have judged this col­lec­tion favor­ably. It was orga­nized by Cor­rel­li Bar­nett, then Keep­er of the Churchill Archives Cen­tre. Its papers were com­piled by the late R.A.C. Park­er, a his­to­ri­an who spe­cial­ized in the appease­ment peri­od. Its con­tents are var­ied, thought­ful and bal­anced. They demon­strate the right way to orga­nize a seri­ous symposium.

“My views are a harmonious process…”

Like oth­er col­lec­tions of broad essays, Park­er is by nature some­what dis­joint­ed. Fif­teen papers range from the daugh­ter­ly obser­va­tions of Lady Soames to Churchill’s rela­tions with Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Ade­nauer (Hans-Peter Schwarz). They extend to post­war sub­jects like “Churchill and the Euro­pean Idea” (Mar­tin Gilbert). At that time, Britain had only just rat­i­fied the Treaty of Rome, cre­at­ing the mod­ern Euro­pean Union.

The Park­er book is con­sis­tent: It attempts nei­ther to rewrite nor to demythol­o­gize Churchill, as did the con­cur­rent Churchill: A Major New Assess­ment. Nor does it try to white­wash him. It is overt­ly “inter­na­tion­al,” with con­trib­u­tors from Poland, Den­mark, Ger­many and Italy as well as the USA, Britain and Cana­da. There are no new con­clu­sions about Churchill’s char­ac­ter. It shows how Churchill is observed in var­i­ous countries—and how his own views changed with cir­cum­stance. (Once chal­lenged for incon­sis­ten­cy he respond­ed: “My views are a har­mo­nious process which keeps them in rela­tion to the cur­rent move­ments of events.”)

Parker and Co.

Many papers car­ry con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. Tage Kaarst­ed stud­ies Britain and the small­er Euro­pean states, specif­i­cal­ly Den­mark. He explains why, though Churchill did lit­tle for them in the Sec­ond World War, they con­sid­ered him their hero.

Pao­lo Pombeni’s “Churchill and Italy” destroys the late-bloom­ing myth that Churchill sup­port­ed Fas­cism. He ini­tial­ly admired Mus­soli­ni and his benign accom­plish­ments. But he was nev­er blind about whom he was deal­ing with. “Mus­soli­ni and Churchill spoke dif­fer­ent lan­guages, [but] mutu­al under­stand­ing was com­plete,” Pombeni concludes.

Park­er offers valu­able stud­ies of Churchill’s rela­tions with the navy—the Amer­i­can (Phillips O’Brien) as well as the British (Jon Sum­i­da); and his atti­tude toward Europe, from bal­ance of pow­er pol­i­tics (Bri­an McK­ercher) to the post­war sit­u­a­tion (War­ren Kim­ball) to the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ty (Gilbert). There are thought­ful pieces on his rela­tions with France (Mau­rice Vaisse, François Ker­saudy), Ger­many (Schwarz) and Poland (Ani­ta Praz­mows­ka).

There is plen­ty of con­tention in the Park­er col­lec­tion. One exam­ple is Bernd Mar­tin, a Ger­man his­to­ry pro­fes­sor who takes up the ques­tion of Britain back­ing away from the war after France fell.

Peace in 1940

Roosevelt’s offer to medi­ate peace talks in ear­ly 1939, Mar­tin says, was “delib­er­ate­ly reserved.” The crafty Roo­sevelt want­ed it to fail. Amer­i­can pol­i­cy aimed to nul­li­fy Ger­man-Japan­ese indus­tri­al achieve­ment, which threat­ened to sur­pass that of the USA. Roo­sevelt egged on Churchill to stand fast against Hitler, though he “pro­vid­ed no real help” to Britain. When he became con­vinced that war with Ger­many was inevitable, he goad­ed the Japan­ese into attack­ing Pearl Har­bor. Appar­ent­ly FDR was a mind-read­er who knew that Hitler would then declare war on the Unit­ed States.

This analy­sis does not con­sid­er the nature of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the 1930s, Mar­tin writes, was in pur­suit of trade dom­i­nance. One might ask: what U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy? The impulse of Amer­i­cans is iso­la­tion­ist, except in extreme cir­cum­stances, wit­ness their abhor­rence of today’s end­less for­eign wars.

Mar­tin asserts that Churchill’s seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered an armistice with Hitler dur­ing the war cab­i­net of 26 May 1940. Hal­i­fax sup­port­ed explor­ing a meet­ing through the “good offices” of Mus­soli­ni. Mar­tin offers the tra­di­tion­al revi­sion­ist expla­na­tion. To mol­li­fy Hal­i­fax, Churchill said he might accept a cease-fire based on “restora­tion of Ger­man colonies and the over­lord­ship of Cen­tral Europe.” This offer is fre­quent­ly cit­ed as proof that peace was pos­si­ble, but there is lit­tle else to cite. There is no evi­dence that Churchill seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered it.

What price Hitler?

Mar­tin does not men­tion con­tem­po­rary works by his­to­ri­ans like Mar­tin Gilbert or Sheila Lawlor (Churchill and the Pol­i­tics of War (1994). Both showed that there was lit­tle space between Churchill, Hal­i­fax and Cham­ber­lain after France fell in mid-June 1940. Mar­tin does lat­er admit that no British peace over­tures fol­lowed France’s fall. Indeed he won­ders if  even Hal­i­fax “would real­ly have con­clud­ed a peace agree­ment with a vain­glo­ri­ous dic­ta­tor like Hitler.” So why the spec­u­la­tion to the contrary?

Bernd Mar­tin believes “Churchill did not under­stand Ger­many and Ger­man cul­ture in gen­er­al, let alone Nation­al Social­ism in par­tic­u­lar.” Churchill seemed to grasp the lat­er, at least, when he defined it in Octo­ber 1938. Nazism, he said, “spurns Chris­t­ian ethics [and] cheers its onward course by bar­barous pagan­ism.” It “vaunts the spir­it of aggres­sion and con­quest, which derives strength and per­vert­ed plea­sure from per­se­cu­tion, and uses with piti­less bru­tal­i­ty the threat of mur­der­ous force.” Evi­dent­ly Churchill under­stood Ger­many and Nazism well enough.

Parker as model

When Stud­ies in States­man­ship was pub­lished, we were in the midst of the revi­sion­ist argu­ment that Britain should have edged away from the Hitler war in 1940. “Part of the trendy process of cul­tur­al self-fla­gel­la­tion and navel con­tem­plat­ing in which [its pro­po­nents] indulge rests on a foun­da­tion of moral chau­vin­ism,” wrote a cor­re­spon­dent at the time. “This dis­torts what oth­er­wise is the advan­tage of hind­sight. with judg­ments and con­clu­sions not just wrong, but infu­ri­at­ing­ly wrong. One won­ders who can pos­si­bly mea­sure up to the high stan­dards of these pro­fes­sion­al icon­o­clasts.” What would that cor­re­spon­dent say today?

As edi­tor, Alis­tair Park­er took the respon­si­ble approach. He select­ed authors with a range of opin­ions who often dis­agreed with each oth­er. Isn’t that the pur­pose of schol­ar­ly sym­posia? Per­haps Cam­bridge will do this again one day.

Park­er him­self pro­vid­ed only a brief intro­duc­tion: “…this book sug­gests Churchillian prose con­cealed a sharp, flex­i­ble and quick intel­lect unen­cum­bered by prej­u­dices, in prac­tice if not in words….” In his own book, Churchill and Appease­ment (2000), he declared Churchill com­plete­ly right about Nazi Ger­many. An Anglo-Sovi­et alliance, he ven­tured, may well have deterred Hitler.

In this com­pi­la­tion, how­ev­er, not a hint of Parker’s opin­ions inter­feres with or over­rides those of his con­trib­u­tors. Which is some­thing from which the mod­er­a­tor of the recent, egre­gious­ly one-sided Cam­bridge “race pan­el” might learn.

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