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Was Churchill a Great Man?

While the authors argue that their analysis “carries no intrinsic value judgments,” and disavow any political motives, both these claims are belied by their own words. What Churchill “has come to represent,” they say, “has transmogrified into a deeper, more troubling and darker phenomenon in which the past weighs unforgivingly on the present.” They believe “today’s Churchill is mobilized from the grave by those who feel that — somewhere, sometime — they surrendered their historical patrimony.”

Both books attempt to debunk the “great man” theory of history, which the authors of “The Churchill Myths” describe as “Caesarism,” and they feel the need to state that “Churchill never, personally, won the war” — something not even his most ardent defenders claim. For the authors, World War II was a bottom-up “people’s war.”

Fielding, Schwarz and Toye make only passing reference to Charles de Gaulle. But the comparison merits closer examination because both men became the political reference point for their respective nations by personifying their peoples’ determination, their preferred vision of themselves.

World War I’s pointless bloodletting weighed heavily on Britain in the 1920s and ’30s, and Churchill was directly implicated in it as first lord of the Admiralty. Then, as chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929, he allowed economic considerations to slow the Royal Air Force development program. He was an improbable prime minister for confronting Hitler. And yet he became the banner around which the British people rallied. It was leadership, not merely journalism, that allowed him to say: “We ought to rejoice at the responsibilities with which destiny has honored us, and be proud that we are guardians of our country in an age when her life is at stake.”

Faced with the possible German destruction of the Royal Air Force’s bases in 1940, Churchill overruled his military command and drew Wehrmacht attacks to British cities. He describes in his memoirs “a sense of relief” when Hitler took the bait. That is, he was willing to sacrifice civilian lives to preserve the military force on which Britain’s freedom relied, and he was confident that British morale could withstand the assaults. Shouldering the responsibility of that decision while sustaining public support was the act of a great statesman — and that, rather than the journalism of the late 19th and 20th century, is what made his mythic stature possible.

During protests this June, Winston Churchill’s statue in London’s Parliament Square was defaced with graffiti under his name calling him a “racist.” It prompted this witty riposte from a Conservative member of Parliament: Wait until they find out about the other guy.

The authors of “The Churchill Myths” argue that “a diverse Britain now has a diversity of Churchills.” But we ought to be able to appreciate that a singular Churchill was both an unapologetic imperialist, with all the racist attitudes that entailed, and also a great statesman, a leader against whom all subsequent British politicians are measured. As George Eliot once warned, “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.”

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