Winston Churchill lives on, still an immortal fascination

The Argument

Fresh books continue to explore his complex, ambiguous role in history


December 28, 2003|By Paul Duke | Paul Duke,Special to the Sun

Historians are a pertinacious breed. Never ever do they concede that the knowledge of any one subject has been exhausted, which explains why the life of Winston Churchill continues to serve as a limitless fount of exploration.

This is mostly good news. Despite some 650 biographies and other interpretive works already on the shelves, new books with new and fascinating nuggets about the 20th-century's grand old warrior keep rolling out. To a large degree, this reflects the long-standing British mastery of biography, but in the case of Churchill it is much more, something akin to an insatiable and movable love feast.

To be sure, there is much plodding through familiar territory -- Churchill's adventurous early life, his wartime leadership, his bravado in combating the Nazi menace, and his unexpected rejection by British voters in 1945. Even so, many of the newer works are superior to the older works. Not only do they provide a more complete portrait of the man himself, but they impart a more updated perspective to a bygone period.

By any standard, Churchill was a dazzling figure. Apart from his political life, he was an accomplished painter, a talented bricklayer, an airplane pilot and a voluminous writer (he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953). To his countrymen, he has long been venerated as the personification of the English bulldog, John Bull himself.

For all the adulation, though, Churchill has not escaped the wrath of critics. He has, in fact, become more controversial in recent decades as a small band of revisionist historians began stepping forward to argue that the real man had been consumed by legend -- that many of his achievements were overrated and largely the product of mythological excess.

In this unflattering view, he was a leader with numerous faults and deficiencies who didn't deserve heroic status. He was, so it was contended, a vain and arrogant opportunist who had an imperialistic gusto for war, a narrow-minded racist, an opponent of women's suffrage, an aristocratic egocentric, and a rash romantic whose impulsive policies helped to speed the collapse of the British empire.

There were even unkind words for the famed Churchill eloquence. One especially harsh critic, John Charmley, dismissed as "sublime nonsense" the celebrated speech of defiance that was credited with rallying the British populace to defend their country -- "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

In trying to lure America into the war, Churchill's relations with President Franklin Roosevelt were disparaged as overly sentimental to the detriment of British interests. Most of all, the revisionists chastised him for not pursuing a peace pact with Adolf Hitler that might have spared Britain and the West from the protracted agony of World War II.

It is unquestioned that Churchill was something of a Dickensian character of complex contradictions. It is equally true that there was an insufferable side -- he could be exasperating, rude, insensitive and contemptuous of rival viewpoints: A boyhood school report gave him poor marks for conduct because he was "always in some scrape or other." The latter-day British historians, appropriately labeled "the new Churchillians," are unswayed by the bill of indictments. They prefer the high road of tolerance.

For them, it is the bigger picture that counts -- Churchill's ennobling calls for sacrifice, his indomitable spirit and unwavering devotion to victory. All unequivocally reject the notion that he should have reached some accommodation with Hitler on the future of Europe. To the contrary, these writers resoundingly agree with the much-cited conclusion of wartime historian A.J.P. Taylor that he was "the saviour of his country and the saviour of freedom throughout the world."

The point is emphatically hammered home in the latest batch of books which amounts to a rousing counterattack against the anti-Churchill forces. Leading the charge is the monumental study Churchill (Farrar, Straus & Geroux, 736 pages, $40) by longtime political associate Roy Jenkins. Although he had often clashed with Churchill over policy issues and felt some of his actions were misguided, Jenkins changed his mind while researching his subject and came to see him as a larger-than-life genius who was "the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."

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