In a recent broadside in National Review against “ill-informed critics of Churchill,” Ben Shapiro mocks his opponents by reminding them that they “would be speaking German if he (Churchill) had not led the fight against Hitler.” If that’s the worse that would have happened had the Third Reich prevailed, it would have been an exceedingly small price to pay for such an outcome.
I offer this comment as someone who grew up speaking German and who still regards it as his second mother tongue. According to Shapiro, those who dare criticize Churchill are mostly “a variety of groups ranging from Indians to Sudanese to Asian tribes.” These quibblers, he writes, are fixated on Churchill’s “racial comment” which “have taken out of context to slander his achievements.” Supposedly those who dwell on Churchill’s imperialist ideas or slurs about lesser breeds are uniformly on the left and mistakenly believe that “an ounce of sin washes away a lifetime of heroism.”
But Shapiro never demonstrates that Churchill spent his entire life engaged in heroic action. He properly recognizes his heroism in standing up to Nazi Germany; and he notes that Churchill “successfully led Great Britain through the most dangerous time in her history.” But was this a more dangerous period than when Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of Marlborough opposed the expansive despotism of Louis XIV, which threatened both England and the European continent in the early 18th century? What about the heroism of William Pitt the Younger, Britain’s very young prime minister who kept his country fighting on against Napoleon and his empire after other countries had deserted the cause?
It’s also not clear in what way we attack the West “by savaging the civilizational history” that Churchill embodied. Are we not allowed to write critically about someone whom Shapiro, and presumably National Review, want us to admire for his presumed “lifetime of heroism”?
Unfortunately there was a lot in Churchill’s life that was not particularly heroic—it’s striking that our current conservative establishment is willing to “contextualize” away “bigoted” statements made by Churchill, while ranting against Churchill contemporary H.L. Mencken, when he made his own. But then Mencken supposedly took the wrong side in World War One, in which he was effusively pro-German, while Churchill did everything in his power to poison Anglo-German relations before that cataclysm, which he regarded as inevitable. This came after Churchill helped foment the Boer War in South Africa, which enabled the British Empire to swallow up the Transvaal and other parts of South Africa. Later as First Lord of the Admiralty, he imposed on Imperial Germany a starvation blockade that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. This blockade wasn’t lifted until several months after the hostilities had ended. In the Second World War Churchill supported the terror bombing of German cities, at a time when these population centers could no longer defend themselves and when the war was all but lost.
In March 1946 at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill warned about an “iron curtain” descending on Eastern Europe, but during the war he had been at least as willing as FDR to accommodate Stalin. At Yalta the prime minister worked to preserve the British Empire by shamelessly praising Stalin and the Soviet Empire. His positions in trying to hold on to British India in the face of widespread native opposition receive ample treatment from John Charmley, Roy Jenkins, and other non-authorized biographers. Eventually this preoccupation became Churchill’s stubborn obsession.
Perhaps the most staggering catalogue of Churchill’s sins can be found in a long essay and a number of lectures produced by a Taft Republican and visceral isolationist Ralph Raico. Contrary to what Shapiro tells us, the most passionate critics of Churchill have been on the pre-neoconservative Right; and Raico, a trained German historian, comes out of that venerable conservative tradition. Churchill was certainly not the hero of the Right before the neoconservatives elevated him to that eminence. Not all the praise bestowed on him is of course baseless. Much of it stems from Churchill’s opposition to a Nazi regime that almost managed to exterminate European Jewry.
Unfortunately what is admirable about Churchill is blown up into a “lifetime of heroism,” with sometimes embarrassing effects. For example, Churchill’s belligerent opposition to the Kaiser’s Germany is seen through lenses shaped by his later resistance to Hitler. During and before the First World War the British and Americans—we are led to believe—were already combatting a German evil that eventually spawned Hitler’s regime. Furthemore, if Churchill later urged treating colonial subjects a bit roughly, it may be explained that he was just trying to prepare the natives for Anglo-American democracy. What Canadian political theorist Grant Havers ridicules as “the Churchill cult” has been transformed into a religious faith that no one is allowed to question without forfeiting his membership in Western civilization.
Trying to look at the historical problem more dispassionately, it seems to me that great political figures are usually morally flawed; and this was doubtless true of Churchill. According to his biographer Charmley, Churchill “exulted” at the opportunity of going to war. On the eve of the Great War, he prepared for a European-wide conflict “not only in the sense of making sure the Fleet was ready but also in trying to influence opinion in that direction within the Cabinet.” His passion for armed conflict was almost insatiable. Needless to say, one could find the same defects in other historical luminaries on whom we confer the appellation “great.”
Not all political greats have won the struggles they engaged in. Although one can admire the aristocratic character of Robert E. Lee, this was a commander who lost a war he never wanted. A fervent admirer of Lee, Churchill might also have seen himself on the losing side of history. Charmley maintains that his subject symbolized his country’s “end of glory.” Throughout his life, he stood for the British Empire, British independence, and an “anti-socialist vision of England.” In the end, Churchill watched all three vanish.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.