Posted Thursday, March 21, 2002

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 If Sir Martin Gilbert's work is the quarry from which the wagons of orthodoxy continue to trundle away . . . then Irving's projected trilogy Churchill's War is the dynamite that lies still unexploded around the quarry.





March 21, 2002 (Thursday)
Key West

A pleasing end to my brief stay in the United States is the arrival in Key West of the April edition of The Atlantic Monthly, one of the country's premier intellectual magazines.

Christopher Hitchens has reviewed the five most prominent biographies of Winston Churchill available in this country (or, in the case of my own, not available, which adds to the piquancy of his review): it is the free intellectuals again striking back against the bigots, just as when, after St Martins Press caved in to Jewish thuggery and blackmail and cancelled production of my Goebbels biography, Professor Gordon Craig chose to dedicate no fewer than six pages of the New York Review of Books to a review of the work although it was never available in US bookstores and never would be. Now comes Hitchens, a brave journalist, liberal and leftwing but with fearlessly independent opinions, who has already once upset the Jewish mafia of Washington by his exposure of one of Clinton's advisers for having perjured himself.

What gulfs divide me from these money-minded people, writers who do anything for Gold! Prostitutes of the pen. It hurts me of course when my high-ranking friends in the US publishing industry tip me off that they no longer dare to publish my books, after some forty years. But a hundred years from now it will matter not one whit whether or not I was able to pay my child's school fees or our grocery bills, or to live in adequate style; what will ultimately matter is whether mine are the biographies and works of real history that count, or those of the potboiler-writers and hacks like John Lukacs, Geoffrey Best, Alan Bullock and Lord Jenkins.

If when I fly home tomorrow the pilot announces in mid-Atlantic that the plane will hit the sea in two minutes, unlike the screaming fellow passengers all around, I shall unbuckle my belt, fold my arms and smile a benign smile: I have written thirty books and fathered five beautiful daughters, and generally done my bit for civilization.

It is the books that I will be known for, but for how long? For ten years or more I have been quietly defining it as my ambition that future schoolchildren and scholars, a hundred years from now, will be advised to use my books rather than the others, as mine were the first to eschew the propaganda and hero worship that soils the others.

I don't know whether I put it like that to Christopher Hitchens on the two or three times that we met for dinner or lunch in his chosen hometown, Washington. Probably not: his last references to me, in an article somewhere that I have forgotten, were defensive, and less flattering than earlier. He claimed to recall that I had chanted the "Baby Aryan" ditty to his infant daughter; and he had not chortled, according to his recollection, when I gave him, as a memento, a couple of the last remaining Rudolf-Hess-Platz adhesive stickers that I had caused to be manufactured ten years ago (Hess was the only man who ever risked his life to halt the madness of World War Two, and he paid for his unwanted temerity with 47 years in a prison cell).

I wanted to enable thoughtful young Germans to commemorate him in proper style, by sticking these bogus white-and-blue street signs over the more offensive street signs commemorating the German traitors (there is no other word for them) like Stauffenberg or Moltke or Seydlitz. I had a thousand of the blue "Hess Platz" signs manufactured, and more than a few were hoisted in the manner prescribed, resulting in jail terms, alas, for a few of the less cautious young men who did the hoisting.


ANYWAY, Hitchens has obviously spent some weeks of his life reading all the major Churchill biographies -- to be precise not only those by Sir Martin Gilbert, John Charmley, Clive Ponting, and William Manchester, who has skidded to a well-publicized halt after completing only two of the three volumes; but also the time-serving concoction by Geoffrey Best, and the oleaginous hagiography of Roy Jenkins, and both volumes of my own trilogy (the third is currently in preparation).

Admittedly, it takes Hitchens some time to warm to his theme, or at least to disclose his hand. He starts by recalling Churchill's most famous 1940 speeches, including "blood, toil, tears and sweat," and "We shall fight on the beaches," and "Even if the British Empire were to last for a thousand years, this would be remembered as its 'finest hour.'" He goes straight to the kill, revealing that these three crucial broadcasts were made not by Churchill himself "but by an actor hired to impersonate him. Norman Shelley, who played Winnie-the-Pooh for the BBC's Children's Hour, ventriloquized Churchill for history and fooled millions of listeners. Perhaps Churchill was too much incapacitated by drink to deliver the speeches himself."

Hitchens might have revealed as early as this (but he does not) that I am the researcher who first discovered this fact, which Norman Shelley himself had confirmed to me many years ago, and that my claim has been borne out by scientific research more recently. Never mind, Hitchens gives me more than enough credit later on for other bold stands on history, even though he more once chooses not to reveal, for instance, that it was I who first maintained, as is now commonly accepted by proper historians, that "The German High Command never got beyond the drawing-board stage of any plan for the invasion of Britain."

After dealing with the criminal attack by Churchill on the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir in July 1940, Hitchens asks: "Which air force was the first to bomb civilians, and in whose capital city? (The RAF, striking the suburbs of Berlin.)" That again was a conclusion which my biography was the first to draw.


LIKE my own father, Hitchens' father served as a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy, in the cruel Arctic convoy operations. Like myself, Hitchens had his first epiphany when he compared official archive records with the popular version of events: In the early 1970s he was working near the Public Record Office, when wartime papers covering Churchill's talks with Stalin about Eastern Europe were released. "The matter had moral as well as historical importance," comments Hitchens, "since it was in defense of Poland that Britain had finally declared war on Hitler, in September of 1939."

When A.J.P. Taylor prompted Hitchens to examine the documents, however, the archival authorities informed him that the entries for Anglo-Soviet discussion of wartime Polish policy had been unaccountably "mislaid."

His lack of proper reverence for national leaders probably originates from that moment. Hitchens mercilessly lacerates President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Caspar Weinberger, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and others for their wanton theft of Churchillian rhetoric for their own speeches.

Equally mischievously Hitchens quotes The New York Times, which lamented in an editorial, no less, that William Manchester would now never write his third volume (being quite content to sit upon the Gold laurels he had procured by writing the first two); the NYT quoted the closing lines of Manchester's second volume:

And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.

How hilarious. Hitchens comments wickedly: "Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed." Having said which, he turns his glare upon two volumes published in the quite recent past , the Churchill biography by Geoffrey Best, and that by the Hungarian Jew, John Lukacs; "these, together with Lord Jenkins's tome, only continue a process begun by Churchill himself when he annexed the papers of his time in office to write his own version of events."

He calls Sir Martin Gilbert the doyen of Churchill historians, and makes proper reference to Churchill's speeches, writing with a sarcasm so refined that it almost escapes my notice of how Sir Isaiah Berlin penned something in The Atlantic Monthly, "in one of his many courageous stands for the conventional wisdom."

Soon after that comes the first direct acknowledgments by Hitchens of my own first two Churchill volumes:

Churchill and his right-wing critics, from John Charmley to David Irving, have something in common. They unite around the two propositions that communism was to be opposed and British imperialism was to be upheld. For the first few decades of his political career Churchill was happy to be counted an extremist -- if not, indeed, a fanatic -- on both these counts. He helped to organize the brutal, abortive invasion of Lenin's Russia in 1918, and published at least one subsequent article blaming the Jews for Bolshevism. He also wrote and spoke until quite late in the day (though more as an anti-Communist than an anti-Semite) in favor of Mussolini, Franco, and even Hitler. His fundamentalism about India, and the racist language in which he opposed the smallest concession to the Indian independence movement, were among the many reasons for the wide distrust that hampered him in the 1930s, and for his exclusion from the Tory Cabinets of that decade. [….]

The hagiographer and the hatchet man are in unspoken agreement here. William Manchester and David Irving lay considerable stress on the near eclipse that overtook Churchill in the mid-1930s.

So why World War Two? Could it have been prevented, and was Churchill the man to do so?

The blunt conclusion, encouraged by a reading of Manchester no less than of Irving, is that the Last Lion needed a last hurrah -- a campaign issue that allowed him scope for all his talents and energies.

Rereading this record, writes Hitchens, and surveying the ever multiplying fund of fresh sources, the reader must find himself reviewing the "career of a vaulting prince of opportunists."


"HERE," continues Hitchens, "one must negotiate the toxic figure of David Irving. If Sir Martin Gilbert's work is the quarry from which the wagons of orthodoxy continue to trundle away, laden with the building blocks for lesser edifices of loyalism, then Irving's projected trilogy Churchill's War is the dynamite that lies still unexploded around the quarry. Two volumes have so far been published, bringing the story up to 1943, with the Battle of Kursk balanced by the impending invasion of Sicily. Since his first volume was published, to some acclaim, in 1987, Irving has been reduced to publishing and marketing his books himself. The reason for this is now well understood. Both in his public life as a fringe speechmaker and in his career as a freelance archivist and historian, Irving has tainted himself with the one thing of which no serious person can even be suspected: a sympathy for the Nazi cause. Much of this taint is the consequence of an unsuccessful libel lawsuit against the Holocaust specialist Deborah Lipstadt.

Anyone who reads his first two Churchill volumes with open eyes will see at once that Irving invites, if not enjoys, his reputation as an untouchable. Whenever he mentions Nazi defectors or mutineers or anti-Hitler plotters (and the frigid reception given to such men by Chamberlain and Lord Halifax was yet another clue to their real sympathy for the Führer), he refers to them as "traitors." He repeatedly describes Churchill as a front man for "the Socialists" and for (variously) "the Zionists" and "the Jews." He has an unconcealed contempt for mongrel America, and for the wiles of Roosevelt as he schemed to poach the wonderful British Empire. Yet in the text Irving often refers to Churchill as "Winston." (Irving, as those who study him will know, has a tendency to mix the oleaginous with the aggressive.) About halfway through Volume One, describing the tit-for-tat raids by which, he maintains, Hitler was first induced by Churchill to bomb London in September of 1940, he summarizes his essential position.
"This first attack had killed 306 Londoners. It was the first lurch towards the holocaust. Now Churchill and Portal needed no further justification for what they proposed to unleash -- a new kind of war, in which ultimately one million civilians in Germany as well as hundreds of thousands of French, Poles, Czechs and others would die under the trample of the Allied strategic bomber forces."

("Holocaust" literally means a devouring by fire, so the term may be technically allowed, but you see what I mean.) Irving has a great facility for innuendo; its most successful application is the repeated suggestion that Churchill used his foreknowledge of German air raids sheerly for grandstanding purposes. On the nights when he knew that Göring's bombers would overfly London on their way to, say, Coventry, he would make a point of standing on the Air Ministry roof, or of taking a stroll in the Downing Street garden, thus impressing his staff and subordinates with his pluck and daring and sangfroid. On the nights when Enigma gave him private information about a raid on London itself, he would decamp to the country house of a wealthy friend. This accumulation of detail is so subversive of the legend as to make a greater difference in the mind of the reader than many more-serious shortcomings of generalship. The allegation has now been in print for fifteen years, and I have never seen it addressed by the Great Man's defenders, let alone rebutted.

I think that Hitchens perhaps goes too far -- the works display no hatred for Churchill (and I know the meaning of the word, having been subjected to waves of hatred from my enemies over the last decades). I feel contempt for Churchill, and annoyance that this man sashayed his way into power in Downing-street at a time of crucial importance for the empire: he was a drunkard, in charge not of an automobile but an empire.


"SO visceral is his contempt for Churchill," continues Hitchens, "that even the later revisionist historians handle Irving with tongs. Clive Ponting's study 1940: Myth and Reality, published in 1991, does not acknowledge Irving's existence except in the bibliography. John Charmley's first book on Churchill, Churchill: The End of Glory, was published in 1993 (while Charmley held the chair at, of all places, Fulton, Missouri), and his second book, Churchill's Grand Alliance, appeared in 1995. The name David Irving is only briefly cited in either text or index. (This method is employed in turn by Lord Jenkins, who awards Charmley a single reference en passant, doesn't even credit Irving in his bibliography, and in general writes as if all "second thoughts" about Churchill are beneath his, and our, notice.)" Hitchens continues:

Yet internal evidence strongly suggests that Ponting, Charmley, and Jenkins have read Irving with keen attention, and have used him to enlarge their narratives without appearing to bow to his influence.

I would not consider as qualified in the argument about Churchill anybody who had not read Irving's work. In those pages one may read, without the veil of discretion or constraint that descended like a thick velvet curtain after 1945, what Churchill's colleagues and subordinates really thought about him at the time. What they often thought-ambassadors, private secretaries, generals, air marshals-was that he was a demagogue, a bluffer, an incompetent, and an inebriate. Some of those cited are jealous subordinates, and others are military men with a pre-war sympathy for fascism. But here, for instance, is Lord Hankey, one of the leading professional civil servants during both world wars, writing in May of 1941, when he had the job of coordinating Britain's secret services:

Churchill has great gifts of leadership, and can put his stuff over the people, Parliament, his Cabinet colleagues and even himself. But he is not what he thinks himself, a great master of the art of war. Up to now he has never brought off any great military enterprise. However defensible they may have been, Antwerp, Gallipoli and the expedition to help the White Russians at the end of the last war were all failures. He made some frightful errors of judgment between the two wars in military matters, e.g. obstructing the construction of new ships in 1925 ... his false estimates of the value of French generals & French military methods ... It was he who forced us into the Norwegian affair which failed; the Greek affair which failed; and the Cretan affair which is failing.

Hitchens finally accepts my view (though without stipulating that I was its first author) that the reason that Churchill fought on, in 1940, was simply because he was "too much committed to a war to turn back without risking ridicule or obloquy." He is merciless in his scorn for Lukacs and Best:

For an instance of the tenacity of the traditional view, by which one historian underwrites and reinforces the conventional efforts of another, I cite this excerpt from John Lukacs's November 2001 review of Geoffrey Best's Churchill: A Study in Greatness:
One of the stunning phrases in Churchill's history of World War I is his description of the First Fleet leaving Portsmouth for Scapa Flow on July 28, 1914, through the English Channel: "Scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought." Best ends his book with Churchill's funeral, on January 30, 1965, "the great cranes along the south side of the stretch of the river between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, dipping their masts in tribute as [Churchill's funeral launch] went by, 'like giants bowed in anxious thought.'" This is the mark of a great historian.

It is by no means the mark of a great historian. It is the mark of a recycler of familiar rhetorical themes, and of stale rhetorical expressions ("wending their way") at that. But Lukacs is committed to this style in precisely the way he is committed to its corresponding substance, which admits of no demurral.

Yes, for one who holds authors of the money-grubbing genre of Lukacs in as deep a contempt as I, this article is surprising, unexpected, heady stuff. I devour it over a vegetarian salad lunch at a café in Duval Street; it has made up in one stroke for all the harrowing days that have preceded it these last two weeks.

I shall mount the British Airways plane tomorrow fearless of its airworthiness. If this article is any guide of opinions to come, the place of my own works seems assured. One of these days I shall invite Christopher Hitchens to lunch in Washington, and this time I shall pay.


[Previous Radical's Diary]

Relevant items on the Internet:

The Atlantic Monthly, April 2002: "The Medals of His Defeats: Our author takes the Great Man down a peg or two..." by Christopher Hitchens
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