That damned elusive PM
WINSTON Churchill is the Houdini of 20th century statesmen. He still manages to break loose from those who have sought to pin him down. His official biography, by Martin Gilbert, is a quarry rather than a classic, burying his subject in six large volumes of detailed chronology. The Cambridge historian, Henry Pelling, made Churchill appear dull, a striking achievement. Popular biographers such as William Manchester and Piers Brendon merely transcribe the old tunes with appropriate hagiographical embellishments.
Geoffrey Best is a professional historian of distinction, and Churchill: A Study in Greatness is in its way accurate and wellwritten. It is perhaps the best single-volume biography to put into the hands of a student, even though, oddly, it contains hardly anything on Churchill's peacetime administration, important historically in reconciling the Conservatives to Labour's welfare reforms. Yet Best remains firmly in the hagiographical tradition, presenting a sanitised Churchill who was hardly ever wrong. That is not a Churchill whom many historians will recognise. Nevertheless, its very artlessness and lack of sophistication make Churchill: A Study in Greatness a strangely moving book.
David Irving, by contrast, is a denigrator, not a hagiographer. Triumph in Adversity, the second volume of his trilogy, Churchill's War, deals with the period from Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 to the battle of Kursk in July 1943. It seeks to portray Churchill as a coward and a drunkard who, through his foolishness in resisting Hitler, forfeited the Empire, turned Britain into an American satellite and allowed Stalin to impose communism on eastern and central Europe.
Irving, however, although he writes about historical topics, is not a historian in the sense of one who seeks to discover the truth about the past. Last year, the libel suit which he brought against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, who had accused him of being a Holocaust denier, was heard in the High Court. The judge, Charles Gray, while accepting that Irving had an 'unparalleled' knowledge of the second world war and a 'remarkable' command of documents, found against him since Irving treated evidence 'in a manner which fell far short of the standard to be expected of a conscientious historian', distorting it to suit his political views which were 'antisemitic and racist'. Richard Evans, (right), Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, the principal expert witness for the defence in the case, has gone even further, and in his magnificent book about the trial, Lying About Hitler, published in the United States by Basic Books, he convicts Irving of
'deliberately falsifying statistics, misrepresenting testimony, attributing false conclusions to reliable sources, using evidence that he knew to be unreliable or forged, and bending reliable sources to fit his argument in order to arrive at conclusions that were historically untenable'.
Few historians will quarrel with this verdict.
Irving's book on Churchill is buttressed with the apparatus of scholarship. None of it can be taken on trust. Here is one example of his methods. In a footnote on page 903 [sic. page 853], Irving declares that 'the papers of Sir Walter Monckton in the Bodleian Library contain as items 23 and 24 correspondence with Queen Elizabeth revealing her desire to accept Hitler's 1940 peace offer; access to these items was restricted until 1999'.
The core of Irving's argument, however, is worth confronting even if his methods are suspect. The view that Britain was mistaken to declare war against Hitler was first put by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1939 and supported by a scattering of non-fascist opponents of the war, from both Left and Right. More recently, it has been resurrected by scholars, such as Robert Skidelsky in his hagiographical biography of Mosley, and by conservative historians such as Maurice Cowling and John Charmley.
Britain, they say, could have saved the Empire had she remained aloof from the Continent in 1939. Yet the rise of colonial nationalism was a fundamental reality, regardless of events in Europe. War did little more than accelerate the process. Hitler, admittedly, had a method by which Britain could retain her Empire, advising Lord Halifax (below) in 1937 to 'shoot Gandhi and if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that does not suffice, shoot two hundred and so on until order is established. You will see how quickly they will collapse as soon as you make it clear that you mean business.' That, however, was hardly advice which any British government could accept.
Equally absurd is the view that Britain could have retained her independence in a Nazified Europe with Hitler in a position to exploit the natural resources of Russia and the Ukraine. Hitler, it is true, repeatedly made a 'generous offer' to protect the Empire. Whether he would have done so against his Japanese and Italian allies, and, in 1939, his new-found Soviet ally, must be open to doubt. Moreover, the infamous Wannsee conference of January 1942, called to plan the extermination of Europe's Jews, included the Jews of Britain in the Nazi murder programme. Those who believe in Hitler's good intentions towards Britain seem not to have considered the implications of this for their argument. British 'independence' would have been worth as much as the 'independence' of Vichy France or any other Nazi satellite, which had been rendered disarmed and helpless.
Churchill intuitively perceived that the liberal civilisation for which Britain was fighting, could not survive in a Continent dominated by Hitler. For Churchill, Hitler was dangerous not because he necessarily sought to conquer Britain but because he sought to conquer Europe. Rather than allow that, Churchill was prepared to allow Stalin control of half of Europe, and to make Britain a junior partner of America. Was he wrong? Only a revisionist historian perhaps would be perverse enough to prefer the role of Hitler's satellite to that of Roosevelt's junior partner.
Why is it proving so difficult to come to terms with Churchill? Geoffrey Best notices that the historical debate on Churchill is in part a debate about modern British identity and the decline of Britain. But it is also about the relationship between Britain and Europe. For Churchill was a great European as well as a British patriot; and his support for European unity after the war was an expression of his patriotism rather than a denial of it. Churchill was the first to realise that Britain could no longer be a great power on her own. 'There I sat,' he said of the Tehran conference in 1943, the first summit conference, 'with the great Russian bear on one side of me, with paws outstretched, and in the other side the great American buffalo, and between the two sat the poor little English donkey who was the only one who knew the right way home.'
Little of this, however, is to be found either in Churchill's War or in Geoffrey Best's biography, which, in line with currently fashionable opinion, persists in seeing Churchill as a Eurosceptic. It is because historians have still to come to terms with these grand themes that Churchill remains, even from beyond the grave, a puzzling if not a distinctly disturbing presence.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, Oxford University
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