Revisionist author attacks Churchill's war decisions


January 14, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Every now and then somebody turns history on its head and interprets events of the past entirely contrary to the accepted consensus. It's called revisionism, and its object this time is the old lion of wartime Britain himself, Winston S. Churchill.

He is accused of various failings by a young academic who describes himself as a "Thatcherite historian," whatever that is. His name is John Charmley. His book, "Churchill, The End of Glory," is just out.

Dr. Charmley suggests that by not making a separate peace with Hitler following an offer from him in July 1940 -- about a year into the war -- and by acceding to Roosevelt's policy of "unconditional surrender," which committed Britain to fighting on to the point of national exhaustion and bankruptcy, Churchill guaranteed three outcomes: Britain would lose its empire; it would sink into an enervating socialism; it would become a client of the United States.

All three did happen, more or less. Whether Churchill could have forestalled them by accepting the fuehrer's offer is the question raised by the book. Most think he couldn't have, that what happened was probably inevitable.

Though ostensibly just a dispute among academics, the book thrums on popular emotional chords. Few Britons of the past, and certainly none in the present, enjoy the heroic reputation bestowed on Winston Churchill.

He is almost a myth, and endowed with all the qualities the British admire. Three of these are tenacity in defense of principle and oratorical and literary skills of a high order.

Whether his policies during the war were right for Britain is something reasonable people disagree over, usually politely, sometimes not.

Thus, some people -- Dr. Charmley among them, and Alan Clark, former junior defense minister in the Thatcher government, and a small minority of other historians -- think a separate peace would have worked to Britain's benefit because it would have freed Germany to unleash everything it had against the Soviet Union, demolishing it, and precluding the agonies that ensued in half of Europe following the Red Army's eventual victory.

Yes, others say, that might have happened. But then we would have had a Nazi regime stretching from Calais to Vladivostok. Would that have been better? And what would Britain's relationship have been with such an empire, as compared, say, to how it has evolved with the United States?

The questions are advanced as if the answers to them are self-evident, and perhaps they are.

Asked why the book has caused such a stir, historian Donald Cameron Watt suggested that Dr. Charmley is splashing irreverently in what he described as the "reservoir of heroism and adventure" created by the war, something cherished by nearly all Britons.

"The war was the last major conflict in which very large bands of British people were involved; it laid down a stock of folk memories that built on those inherited from the first war," he added. This is sacred material, not to be trifled with.

Two of the countries probably most obsessed with World War II are Russia and Britain. If you live in either country, or visit for a time, this becomes apparent.

The Russian case is readily understandable; it is a tragic remembrance. The Soviet Union gave up 20 million dead, which is to say 40 percent of all who were killed in the war. Such a loss is bound to assure a continuous fixation on the event, as the Holocaust does for the Jews.

Britain suffered, too, but its 350,000 lost lives hardly compare to the Soviet losses. The war was something else to Britain, a triumph more than a tragedy. Churchill encouraged Britons to believe their heroic resistance was their "finest hour." Perhaps it was. Also, it explains, and perhaps even excuses, the subsequent national decline.

Thus, to be told by a 37-year-old professor who wasn't even alive when the Luftwaffe was overhead that the whole thing could have been managed better seems to deprecate the experience of a generation.

Dr. Charmley seems to have rejected that generation's side of the story; in fact, he declined to speak with anybody who had anything to do with the affairs he was writing about, for fear of being unduly influenced.

Of that, Dr. Cameron Watt said, "I suspect he lacked self-confidence."

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