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Books and Culture

Mark Riebling
Churchill’s Finest Hour
How the Paris Hilton of British politics became the savior of the Western world
November 24, 2009

Churchill, by Paul Johnson (Viking/Penguin, 192 pp., $24.95)

Winston Churchill led the life that many men would love to live. He survived 50 gunfights and drank 20,000 bottles of champagne. He won the public schools’ fencing cup and rode in the last cavalry charge of the British Army. He created British Petroleum, invented the combat tank, and founded the states of Jordan and Iraq. And of course, by resisting Hitler, he saved Europe and perhaps the world.

Paul Johnson would seem a natural Churchill biographer. With Niall Ferguson and others, he belongs to a school of British conservatives who explore historical topics with fluent verve. In more than 40 books, Johnson has attacked what liberals defend (modernity, secular intellectualism) and defended what liberals attack (Judaism, Christianity, America). Churchill therefore comes with heavyweight, almost pay-per-view expectations: a great conservative partisan writes about the greatest of conservative partisans.

Johnson sets out to explain Churchill’s greatness and to distill his lessons for youth. “How did one man do so much, for so long, and so effectively?” he asks. “Why did he glow so ardently?”

The work’s merits include restraint and an attempt at balance. These virtues are as rare in Churchill books as they were in Churchill’s life. Johnson avoids the twin sins of Churchill biography: he neither chokes us with too-good-to-omit quotes and anecdotes, nor scants Churchill’s outsize errors and flaws. The flaws include overlooking the Japanese threat before the Second World War; pushing British disarmament after the First World War; believing in the French army; and initiating what Johnson calls the “atrocity” of firebombing German cities (Hermann Göring was condemned to death at Nuremberg partly for bombing Allied cities on a much smaller scale).

Johnson serves up some good insights. Though Churchill was a freethinker, perhaps an atheist, he understood the importance of “spiritual” leadership. More importantly, Johnson credits Churchill’s teachers with nurturing, in the otherwise mediocre student, his native talent for the English tongue. In that respect, “Winston’s education, contrary to the traditional view, was a notable success.”

Yet Johnson provides relatively little such analysis, and what he does provide is often speculative. “Without Churchill it is very likely Israel would never have come into existence.” “Without Churchill’s bombing campaign, the eastern front would have become a stalemate.” “Without the fall from grace of Churchill in the abdication crisis of 1936, it is possible that the Czech crisis in 1938 might have taken a different turn.” These counterfactual arguments are weak, because we can never know what “would have” happened.

Johnson’s readings can also be disappointingly derivative. He writes, for instance, that Churchill’s career was “like a game of snakes and ladders, and he had now gone right down a snake and had to face the task of wearily climbing the ladder again. . . .” That appraisal borrows from Paul Addison’s 2005 Churchill: “Churchill’s career was one of snakes and ladders.”

That Johnson relies on others’ analyses may explain why his judgments are inconsistent. In one place, “Churchill’s oratory” turned the British against Nazism; in another, “it was Hitler’s actions rather than Churchill’s oratory which did it.” Johnson asserts that “Churchill never allowed mistakes . . . to get him down”—and then the opposite: His dark moods “were occasioned by actual reverses.” Most glaringly, Johnson suggests that Churchill “never cadged or demeaned himself to get office, but obtained it on his own terms.” Yet to win a seat in the House of Commons, as Johnson himself notes, Churchill “dropped his free trade views. This public recantation was humbling.”

At least one of Johnson’s judgments is worse than false. “Bring me back certain proof that England will fight if Czechoslovakia is attacked,” German Army chief of staff Ludwig Beck told the British in 1938, “and I will put an end to this [Nazi] regime.” Yet the British never produced the proof, Johnson relates, “and anyway Beck was a cowardly boaster who was soon pushed out without a fight.” Readers interested in the story of General Beck may wish to consult Samuel P. Huntington’s 1959 study The Soldier and the State, one of many scholarly works reporting the well-known facts. The general was not “pushed out”; he resigned to protest Hitler’s “Brown Bolshevism.” He then led three plots to overthrow the Third Reich, including a briefcase bombing that wounded Hitler on July 20, 1944. Captured when his coup attempt failed, Beck paid for his principles with his life. Calling him a “cowardly boaster,” as Johnson does, amounts to the rhetorical desecration of a good man’s grave.

Johnson goes wrong, too, on Churchill and the Jews. “He was always pro Jewish,” Johnson sweepingly writes. This statement is perplexing, because Churchill proclaimed the opposite. “I can quite understand being angry with Jews who have done wrong or are against the country, and I understand resisting them if they try to monopolise power in any walk of life,” Churchill told Hitler’s press secretary in the summer of 1932. That comes from Churchill’s own account, in The Gathering Storm, which Johnson calls a “masterpiece.” Churchill partially undercut that prejudice by asking, in his recap, “What is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth?” But telling Nazis that he understood “resisting” Jews was not the stance of a righteous gentile.

Johnson might counter that a popular biography can’t include every nuance and wrinkle. Yet he finds room to tell us that “the leading taxidermist, Rowland Ward of Piccadilly,” stuffed the rhino Churchill shot in Africa. We learn, too, that Churchill “went to the best dentist of his time, Sir Wilfred Fish, who designed his dentures, which were made by the outstanding technician Derek Cudlipp.” Alas, Johnson devotes more space to describing Churchill’s dentures than to explaining his greatness.

The book allots one clause to answering its central question. Why did Churchill glow so ardently? His “great strength,” Johnson writes, “was his power of relaxation.” This cannot be. Plenty of people know how to relax; the French, especially, are no slouches in that department. Yet France showed as a nation less strength than Churchill showed as a man.

Johnson devotes relatively more attention to the book’s central thesis—namely, that Churchill makes a fine role model for today’s youth. But the morals of his tale turn out to be mere scoutmaster incantations: “The first lesson is, always aim high. Lesson number two is: there is no substitute for hard work.” Those maxims surely describe a better approach than aiming low and lazing about. Yet when Johnson makes Churchill an object lesson in “How to use a difficult childhood,” he goes too far. In his wonder years, Churchill was “at risk” only when he stepped on the Prince of Wales’s toe at a dance. In fact, though he could have done little without his talent, Churchill achieved little before 1940 on talent alone. In that sense, his life’s arc offers more cautionary than exhortative lessons.

Consider his writing. He started out at 21, with no university education, and at once became among the highest-paid journalists in the world. When we see gaudy profits that defy logic, we may suspect rent seeking and the use of positional advantage; and if we seek these in Churchill’s case, we find them. From 1897 to 1900, as Churchill emphasizes, he was the only embedded journalist in the British Army, the only soldier legally allowed to report from war zones. Because the government bent its rules for him, through his family’s influence, he reaped staggering windfalls. When asked what sold papers, one London editor of the day replied: “The first answer is war. . . . a paper only has to be able to put up on its placard ‘A Great Battle’ for sales to go up.” If one had a monopoly on battlefield reporting, as Churchill did, one truly had a key to Ali Baba’s cave.

Later, as a bestselling historian of both world wars, Churchill profited from a legal monopoly on historical documents. By orchestrating Britain’s Official Secrets Act, which banned receipt or disclosure of any official information without government approval, Churchill could “make the earliest possible use of official papers,” and even take “physical possession of them.” Indeed, Johnson notes, Churchill renovated his country home “partly to house this archive efficiently.” As a result, he faced “virtually no competition” while ghostwriters composed The Second World War, which won the Nobel Prize in literature and earned him $50 million.

Many of these positional advantages traced back to Churchill’s mother. They “became the pushiest couple in London, indeed in the empire,” Johnson writes. If a press baron wanted to court the mother, he published the son. When you really want to get ahead, it helps to have a stage mother—that seems one lesson of Churchill’s early success.

Another unstated anti-moral of the story is: Manipulate. Johnson suggests that Churchill tweaked his writings and policies in self-serving ways. Following the pattern set by Julius Caesar in The Gallic War, Churchill wrote books to vindicate policy; but he may also have made policy with an eye toward writing books. Johnson deems it “likely that many of his . . . strategic directives . . . were written by him with a view to future use in his memoirs.” If so, the implications are alarming. Did Churchill conceive bold operations, such as the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles offensive, because these would make exciting episodes in the “text” of his life? A. J. Balfour once joked, “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Was there more truth in that joke than we have so far known?

Churchill’s narcissism makes it difficult to dismiss such suspicions. When his loyal valet protested, “You were rude to me, sir,” Churchill paused and said, “Yes, but I am a great man.” Another time he pronounced, with crypto-Randian frankness: “Of course I’m an egotist. What do you get in life if you aren’t?” Here we may reverse his famous cut-down of the humble Clement Atlee: Churchill had much to be narcissistic about. And in that regard, though Johnson doesn’t signpost it, Churchill does offer a lesson for youth.

Being self-serving can be self-defeating. Churchill spent the 1920s and 1930s in the political wilderness partly because he was a misunderstood genius, but mostly because people didn’t trust him. His admirers conceded that he was a medal-hunting, self-promoting dilettante. As Johnson describes his motives, “Churchill was now in the House of Commons. But what for? Personal advancement, certainly.” He was the outlier of a new type: the first twentieth-century personality to be famous for being famous. If he toured Africa with 17 pieces of matched luggage, or got hit by a car crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, he wrote about it. His life became a forerunner of reality TV; in today’s terms, he did everything to seek celebrity but release a sex tape. The epithet most often hurled at him was “vulgar.” A great question of Churchill biography, therefore, is how this Paris Hilton of British politics became the second coming of King Arthur.

The answer lies, I think, in a part of Churchill that Johnson scorns. From the Sudan, in 1899, Winston wrote his mum: “I have a keen aboriginal desire to kill some of these odious dervishes. . . . I anticipate enjoying the exercise very much.” Half a century later, only the king’s intervention kept the 70-year-old Churchill from rushing ashore on D-Day. “His desire to participate in military action,” Johnson sermonizes, was “foolish in the extreme, a grotesque exhibition of the childish side of his nature.”

Yet I believe this ethos of warrior-play expressed the real Churchill. His father saw it clearly, noting how the eight-year-old boy shrewdly deployed a thousand miniature infantry on his nursery floor. What Johnson calls “Churchill’s childish sense of loyalty and toy-soldier mentality” strikes me rather as the ghost in his machine, the software that governed his decisions. Whether sublimated in the urge to compete and self-promote, or actualized in great crises, he had the root of this martial matter in him.

Johnson distills the mind-set perfectly in one vignette. In autumn 1935, the future Lord Longford and three promising youngsters visited the 61-year-old Churchill at his estate. “If the Germans are already as strong as you say,” Longford asked, “what could we do if they landed here?” “That should not prove an insoluble conundrum,” Churchill explained gravely. “We are here five able-bodied men. The armoury at our disposal is not perhaps very modern, but none of us would be without a weapon. We should sally forth. I should venture to assume the responsibilities of command. If the worst came to the worst, we should sell our lives dearly. Whatever the outcome, I feel confident we should render a good account of ourselves.” Those words adumbrate the climax of his greatest speech, on May 13, 1940: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to do our duty, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

What then is the moral of Churchill’s life? He was the twentieth century’s great man, but we must sharply circumscribe his greatness. Because he drew the sword from the stone in 1940, what he did before and after seems admirable. Through his steadfast stance, Churchill rallied the English to die with honor—therefore they deserved to win. “Whoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Yet were it not for this one courageous triumph, we might now say of him: “Never had one man done so little with so much.”

Johnson misses this deeper meaning, I suspect, for the same reason Churchill himself did. He’s too busy having fun. “It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it,” Johnson exclaims. What he says of Churchill we may say of him: “He was rather like Dr. Johnson’s old friend from Pembroke College: ‘I try to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in.’” This exuberant empiricism gives Johnson a jeweler’s eye for evocative episodes. For instance, puffing through the jungle on the cowcatcher of a steam engine, Churchill wrote, was “like traveling up the beanstalk into fairyland.”

Johnson skates best on these surfaces of Churchill’s life, the “mere adventures.” His Churchill therefore neatly carves a niche between the two most comparable volumes, the short biographies by Addison and by John Lukacs (Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian, 2002). Addison is scholarly; Lukacs, insightful; Johnson, fun. And when it comes to Churchill, if you are missing the fun you are missing the man. In that regard, despite its lapses, Johnson’s book shows us more of the “real” Churchill than many other books of the last quarter-century.

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