Churchill and the revisionists

Churchill and the revisionists – evaluation of UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s career

Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts defends Britain’s war hero against his detractors, in our Longman/History Today Awards Lecture.

`History’, said Churchill in his November 1940 panegyric to Neville Chamberlain, `with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days’. Churchill himself would probably be very pleased by the historical cottage industry which has grown around him. Never far from controversy during his lifetime, he would doubtless have taken enormous pleasure in defending his reputation from what are now loosely called the `revisionists’.

In a sense, of course, all history-writing is a revision of the original version, and for a time Churchill scholars were merely restoring the balance after the mass of over-hagiographical books which appeared lauding him in the fifties and early sixties. Since then, however, and especially relatively recently, a new, violently aggressive, knocking strain has appeared.

It has had surprisingly little effect on the public perception of the great man. The British people, and still more so the Americans seem to have a settled view of Churchill’s glory which no amount of historical debate will now alter. `Churchill has a few detractors’ wrote the Sunday Telegraph on the fiftieth anniversary of VE day `but none has made much impression on the public view of him’. His popularity shows little sign of abating. The numbers visiting Chartwell have been increasingly annually. an American warship was recently named after him, a 140ft statue of him has been proposed for the white cliffs of Dover and his Sten Gun recently fetched 10,000 [pounds sterling] at auction. The virulence of the May 1995 row over the purchase of his archives with lottery money w as a tribute to his continued presence in the national pantheon, as is the way in which both sides of the European debate have attempted to appropriate his political legacy. In the popular, non-academic sense at least, Churchill revisionism is redundant and this speech therefore pointless. Churchill, like George Washington or his own protagonists Gandhi and de Gaulle — but very few other historical figures — is so well-bunked that no amount of debunking books will have any appreciable effect.

The first set of Churchill-knockers are the ideologists. From Clive Ponting on the Left to David Irving on the extreme Right, these people attempt to use Churchill’s career in order to make political points of their own. Depicting him as having a vicious or even evil personality, often by dragging quotations wildly out of context and ascribing motives so Machiavellian that they might even have shocked Churchill himself, the ideologists rapidly lose the sympathy and patience of objective readers. If Churchill is so violently loathed by both ends of the political spectrum, they assume, he could not have been all bad.

A second strand of Churchill revisionism comprises a critique which is growing in American libertarian and isolationist circles. In a recent half-hour speech at a historical conference, the New York State University don, Robert Raico managed to make no less than thirty-two accusations against Churchill. According to him, Churchill was a crypto-socialist, an ethnic-cleansing war criminal and a stooge of Stalin. `A man of blood and a politico without principle’, Raico wrote in an article supporting his thesis, `whose apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history’. Rarely do the American revisionists resort to understatement.

There is much cross-fertilisation here. Many of the quotations Raico uses to illustrate themes come from Irving and Ponting, as well as some nuttier elements on the cusp of American academe. Raico’s own sense of historical standards might be divined from the fact that he believes Churchill was probably responsible for sinking the Lusitania and argues that Churchill was wrong to, in his words `harp on’ about the bombing potential of the Luftwaffe in the 1930s. Survivors of the Blitz will presumably have their own comments to make on Mr Raico’s statement that Hitler never had any intention of bombing London.

A third and powerful source of Churchill revisionism is provided by the press. Editors will affirm that Churchill stories make good copy; especially as the dead cannot sue for libel. We therefore get news stories in reputable newspapers which, had they been written in his lifetime, would have garnered Churchill millions. According to recent news articles he was a drug-addict who ordered Mussolini’s assassination and helped his daughter-in-law to cuckold his own son. Someone has even written a book stating categorically that Churchill helped Martin Bormann escape from Berlin in 1945 and found him a house in the Home Counties in which to live. The advance paid to the author of this drivel was reputed to be in the region of half-a-million pounds.

All one can do when faced with these patent absurdities is stay calm, go back to the authorities — usually Sir Martin Gilbert’s monumental biography — examine the historical context, and work out the truth as forensically as possible. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Churchill comes off scot-free.

In my opinion by far the most important and cogent criticisms of Churchill’s career, and the ones most capable of scratching what I nevertheless still consider to be his by now untarnishable reputation, come from Dr John Charmley and the Tory nationalist critique. In January 1993 Charmley published Churchill: the End of Glory, which he followed up in 1995 with Churchill’s Grand Alliance. Both were closely-argued, well-written and scholarly analyses of Churchill’s personal responsibility for the collapse of British power in this century. Churchill is also blamed for preventing Charmley’s hero, Neville Chamberlain, from successfully pursuing appeasement to its intended conclusion, a German-Soviet war. He is then accused of effectively betraying the Empire to the Americans through naively and an over-exaggerated view of British post-war weakness, and also letting in socialism by the back door. This view, I believe, is fundamentally flawed, in that it mixes up cause and effect and hardly allows for Churchill’s limited alternatives. But Charmley’s work, along with that of Alan Clark to be published later this year, and Maurice Cowling in related historical fields, comprises the only serious modern attempt to dislodge the great man from his Parliament Square pedestal.

One of the delights of history is that, unlike shipbuilding or coalmining, our industry can only ever expand with time. Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding, the trade will always grow as the raw materials increase. The Churchill debate will doubtless continue so long as the, in his own phrase, `English-speaking peoples’ survive and take an interest in their past. Now that’s what I call job security.

Andrew Roberts is a freelance journalist and historian and author of Eminent Churchillians (Weidenfeld 1994).

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