Monday, 7 September 2009

Churchill: a liability to the free world

by Kathryn Hadley

‘Churchill was more a liability than an asset to the free world’. That was the motion defended, on September 3rd, by Patrick Buchanan, Norman Stone and Nigel Knight at the Methodist Central Hall Westminster.

Buchanan, Stone and Knight failed to convince the 1,700-strong audience. However, they had to a large degree already failed before the debate began. Prior to the debate, a mere 118 voted in favour of the motion; 1167 voted against; and 422 ‘did not know’. Their arguments convinced just 63 people, with 181 votes against the motion in the aftermath of the debate, and the majority of those who did not know were swayed by the opposition. At the end of the evening, 1194 voted against the motion and just 34 still ‘did not know’.

Buchanan, Stone and Knight condemned Churchill’s economic policies as Chancellor of the Exchequer (from November 1924 to June 1929), his military strategy during the Second World War and the British bombing of German cities in 1945 and blamed him for the loss of the British Empire. According to Nigel Knight, Churchill’s decision to reintroduce the Gold Standard in 1925 severely weakened the British economy, which was consequently hit even harder by the Great Depression. The effects of the Great Depression, in turn, hampered British rearmament and meant that Britain was inadequately armed at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War. Knight also criticised Churchill’s military tactics of delay and dispersion, partly blaming him for the 10 million losses in the last year of the war. When the British army was victorious, at El Alamein for example, he attributed the victory to Montgomery rather than to Churchill, explaining that the British only won because Montgomery refused to follow Churchill’s proposed strategy. Norman Stone accused Churchill of losing the British Empire. Buchanan went so far as to blame Churchill for the outbreak of the Second World War, arguing that he should have instead sought to compromise with Hitler by dividing Europe into spheres of influence. Finally, Buchanan claimed that, at the Yalta conference in 1945, Churchill had given his ‘benediction’ to the Stalinist regime and had supported over 40 years of repressive rule in Eastern Europe.

However, their arguments lacked coherence and consisted above all of a list of individual mistakes which Churchill had allegedly made throughout his 64-year-long political career. Buchanan, Stone and Knight's only consistent argument was that Churchill’s achievements were a myth.

Churchill is indeed, on the whole, viewed as a hero in popular imagination. His statue on Parliament Square alone, just a few metres outside the Methodist Central Hall, is testimony to his heroic legacy. In the shadow of his statue and mythical place in popular imagination, Buchanan, Knight and Stone’s task to persuade the audience that Churchill was, above all, a liability to the free world was almost impossible.

Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that this myth was built on thin air alone and just a few of the opposition’s arguments were enough to reassure me that Churchill’s reputation was indeed built on solid foundations. Andrew Roberts, Anthony Beevor and Richard Overy all acknowledged that Churchill made mistakes over the course of his 64-year-long career. However, in Roberts’ words, placed in the wider context of his career and of the time, these mistakes were mere ‘pimples’. Although Churchill’s military tactics of dispersion may not have been entirely effective, they were in keeping with a strong British military tradition and, until the United States entered the war, Britain did not have the necessary forces for a more ‘full-on’ attack.

Above all, one of Churchill’s main strengths was his ability to take advice. His plans for El Alamein may not have been realistic; however, he was able to take advice from Montgomery and the battle was ultimately won. Britain was not a dictatorship and Churchill was not the sole decision maker. In this respect the debate seemed almost pointless: Churchill was not, and could not be, the only person to blame or to praise. Richard Overy described him as ‘largely a spectator’. Roberts, Beevor and Overy all agreed that Churchill was a ‘champion to the free world’ (Roberts) and issues of liberty and freedom formed the core of his set of values and beliefs. Churchill was, and remained throughout his career, a defender of the rule of law and of parliamentary government.

He reaffirmed the necessity to fight for justice and freedom at the end of his last major speech in the House of Commons in March 1955:
‘The day may dawn when fair play, love for one's fellow men, respect for justice
and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth triumphant from
the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never
weary, never despair.’

For Paul Addison’s view on the ‘Churchill Question’ read, Makers of the Twentieth Century: Churchill
For an insight into how Churchill dealt with his political rivals, read our article Churchill and his War Rivals
For information about his attitude to black peoples, read our article Churchill and Black Africa
In Churchill as Chronicler: The Narvik Episode 1940, Piers Mackesy suggests that Churchill was particularly skilled at writing his own version of history. He explains how Churchill made his father, General Mackesy, the scapegoat for the allied failure to recapture Norway in 1940.

For further information on the Second World War, visit our Second World War focus page.


vijayramdas said...

Thanks Kathryn, this one is worth recall.

From another perspective, still our world is in the process only a superficial entity to embrace the liberal principles on the whole. Real life at the bottom is different from taking a huge step when watching by the society at sum total. It just reminds me of Norbert Elias’s the history of manners, where he outlines historical progresses of the European habitués, or "second nature," and the meticulous individual psychic structures moulded by social attitudes. Elias traced how post-medieval European standards regarding personal behaviour, bodily functions, manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of adversity and dislike, working outward from a nucleus in court decorum. The internalized "self-restraint" imposed by increasingly complex networks of social connections developed the "psychological" self-perceptions of what Freud phrased it as the ‘super-ego’, that has to be seen through a brief picture on the whole as a contextual rejoinder.

Unknown said...

Nigel Knight says:

Kathryn comments in her article; “[our] arguments lacked coherence and consisted above all of a list of individual mistakes which Churchill had allegedly made throughout his 64-year-long political career.” Pat, Norman and I certainly have different interpretations of Churchill’s policies; however, regarding the list of mistakes, if you subtract that list from his entire political career, you are not left with much. As I point out below, as I did in the debate, his strategy lengthened the Second World War, also his peace-time policies were disastrous for the economy. So what was great about Churchill?

Kathryn says of Churchill’s strategic mistakes; “in Roberts’ words, placed in the wider context of his career and of the time, these mistakes were mere ‘pimples’.” This is problematic, as Churchill’s dispersionist strategy 'was' his strategy, and by persuading the Americans to follow it, this delayed the Second Front by a year and thus the outcome of the war – and in the final year of the war 10 million people died in Europe. Her article continues; “until the United States entered the war, Britain did not have the necessary forces for a more ‘full-on’ attack”; this is, of course, absolutely correct; Britain alone was never in a position to defeat Nazi Germany, we only had a fraction of the resources necessary. But wasting resources in a dispersionist campaign which led to defeats and losses was never going to win the war, it was only ever going to weaken Britain. Her article goes on; “above all, one of Churchill’s main strengths was his ability to take advice. His plans for El Alamein may not have been realistic; however, he was able to take advice from Montgomery and the battle was ultimately won”. But the point is that the battle was won because of Monty, not because of Churchill – any of us may seek advice – but Churchill needed to because his own judgements, as in this example, were wrong.

These were not the acts of the Greatest Briton, a great visionary who could foresee events others could not, they were acts which – crucially – cost time and lives.

Kathryn says; “Buchanan, Stone and Knight's only consistent argument was that Churchill’s achievements were a myth..... it seems highly unlikely that this myth was built on thin air alone.” But myths are made by the public, and the public needed the myth of Churchill, as I say in my book; “the British people completely identified him with victory in World War II. This identification was consequent upon the British peoples’ great psychological desire to interpret victory as arising from their own efforts and sacrifices, which were very great of course – and so victory was personified in the being of Churchill himself – even though victory was principally due to the USSR and the USA… So the British people needed Churchill to be great, the embodiment of their desires and beliefs, they needed to believe that it was indeed they, the British people who were responsible for victory.”

Nigel Knight is the author of ‘Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked’.

Derry Nairn said...

Even though I didn't attend the talk in question, I've read Kathryn's article and been fortunate enough to talk to her in more detail about the points raised on the night.

I would like to add that it seems to me that a large chunk of Churchill's early career was left off the page at the debate.

Churchill's conduct at the Siege of Sidney Street was questioned by the Prime Minister of the day, Arthur Balfour. His actions during the Tonypandy Riots led to the eradication of his reputation in Wales, and during the Treary negotiations of any remaining reputation he held in Ireland.

His alcoholism is well documented. The historian Charles Arnold-Baker said of him 'I have never seen a man drink as much'. History Today editor Paul Lay recently wrote of his tendency to unpredictably break down in tears. Biographies of his 'trusted chela', Brendan Bracken, also do more than suggest at both emotional and mental instability.

As an orator and a showman with a talent for the grandiose gesture, Churchill was indeed talented. However, I cannot see far past Nigel Knight's opinion that the tag of great British hero was one pinned on him after the fact, rather than one earned through any of his deeds.

James said...


"When I look around to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path. We have no Continental army which can defeat the German military power.. Should [Hitler].. not try invasion [of Britain].. there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland. We must be able to overwhelm them by this means, without which I do not see a way through. We cannot accept any aim lower than air mastery. When can it be obtained?" [Extract from Winston S Churchill The Second World War (Volume 2 Their Finest Hour Appendix A), Memo from Prime Minister to Minister of Aircraft Production, 8.July 1940].

ADOLF HITLER in May 1940

Britain and France declared war on Germany, not the other way around. Hitler actually wanted peace with Britain, as the German generals admitted (Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill 1948, Pan Books 1983) with regard to the so-called Halt Order of 24 May 1940 at Dunkirk, where Hitler had the opportunity to capture the entire British Army, but chose not to. Liddell Hart, one of Britain’s most respected military historians, quotes the German General von Blumentritt with regard to this Halt Order:

"He (Hitler) then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh, but ‘where there is planing, there are shavings flying’. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church – saying they were both essential elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the Continent. The return of Germany’s colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in difficulties anywhere.." (p 200).

According to Liddell Hart, "At the time we believed that the repulse of the Luftwaffe in the ‘Battle over Britain’ had saved her. That is only part of the explanation, the last part of it. The original cause, which goes much deeper, is that Hitler did not want to conquer England. He took little interest in the invasion preparations, and for weeks did nothing to spur them on; then, after a brief impulse to invade, he veered around again and suspended the preparations. He was preparing, instead, to invade Russia" (p140).

David Irving in the foreword to his book The Warpath (1978) refers to "the discovery.. that at no time did this man (Hitler) pose or intend a real threat to Britain or the Empire."

James said...

A major awkwardness concerning Churchill’s conduct of the war lies in the secret British policy of so-called ‘area bombing’, adopted early in 1942 and outlined by (Lord) CP Snow in the 1960 Godkin Lectures at Harvard University (published in his book Science and Government, Oxford University Press 1961). Snow had an insider’s view of the development of this policy. He outlines how the sinister Professor FA Lindemann (later to become Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s chief scientific adviser), persuaded the British Cabinet to adopt the policy of directing bombing campaigns primarily against German working-class housing. ‘Middle-class houses have too much space around them, and so are bound to waste bombs; factories and "military objectives" had long since been forgotten, except in official bulletins, since they were much too difficult to find and hit’ (p 48). Snow asks, 'What will people of the future think of us? Will they say.. we were wolves with the minds of men? Will they think that we had resigned our humanity? They will have the right.' (p 49). Fortunately, Snow needn't have worried. There have been and remain such powerful vested interests committed to preserving the myths of World War II that even the history departments of universities have in most cases assisted with the cover-up.

The respected British military historian Martin Middlebrook says, ‘In some ways, Area Bombing was a three-year period of deceit practiced upon the British public and on world opinion. It was felt to be necessary that the exact nature of R.A.F. bombing should not be revealed. It could not be concealed that German cities were being hit hard, and that residential areas in those cities were receiving many of the bombs, but the impression was usually given that industry was the main target and that any bombing of workers’ housing areas was an unavoidable necessity. Charges of ‘indiscriminate bombing’ were consistently denied.. The deceit lay in the concealment of the fact that the areas being most heavily bombed were nearly always either city centres or densely populated residential areas, which rarely contained any industry.. The vital links in the dissemination of this view were the press and the radio upon which the public depended for all wartime news.. Neutral reports [of the campaign against the residential areas of the German city of Hamburg, for example] that 20,000 or 30,000 people had been killed were dismissed as ‘Nazi-inspired stories’.. The military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart [after the Thousand Bomber Raid on Cologne with its claim of so many acres of city destroyed] wrote: "It will be ironical if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric and unskilled way of winning a war that the modern world has seen." ’ (Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg (1980) pp 343-4]. In his foreword, Middlebrook notes ‘I am likely to be criticized.. for choosing a series of raids which produced such extremes of horror on the ground. But I must point out that a large proportion of the raids carried out by R.A.F. Bomber Command in the Second World War were devoted to this type of bombing. What happened at Hamburg was when Bomber Command ‘got everything right’ (p 12). In reality many of these raids consisted of initial attacks using high explosive bombs to break up the buildings, followed with attacks using thousands of incendiary bombs to set alight all the fabrics, furnishing and upholstery exposed by the explosives. In this way firestorms were created under the right conditions which burned tens of thousands of people alive, especially the women and children at home while the men were at the front.
Churchill himself ordered the firebomb raid on the city of Dresden (David Irving The Destruction of Dresden (1966) pp. 96-100), Alexander McKee Dresden 1945 (1982) p 300, 306, 310) in the last months of the war, producing the most spectacular deliberate firestorm in the history of Europe. This action was probably the major war crime committed in Europe.

James said...

It's now official - there's no actual shortage of Holocaust survivors:
'The Israeli Prime Minister's office recently put the number of "living Holocaust survivors" at nearly a million' (extract from The Holocaust Industry by Norman G. Finkelstein of the City University of New York, published by Verso, London and New York, 2000, p.83).

I've checked out the six volumes of Churchill's Second World War and the statement is quite correct - not a single mention of Nazi 'gas chambers,' a 'genocide' of the Jews, or of 'six million' Jewish victims of the war.
Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe is a book of 559 pages; Churchill's Second World War totals 4,448 pages; and De Gaulle's three-volume Mémoires de guerre is 2,054 pages.
In this mass of writing, which altogether totals 7,061 pages (not including the introductory parts), published from 1948 to 1959, one will find no mention either of Nazi 'gas chambers,' a 'genocide' of the Jews, or of 'six million' Jewish victims of the war.

Unknown said...

People don't start wars; events do and people initiate events...

Hitler may have been the first one to fire a shot in WW2 but he did not initiate this conflict. Actually it was FDR who did.

Michael Hudson, a highly respected economist, traces the economic consequences of WW1 and found the real hero to be Herbert Hoover who came to understand the travesty of reparations and allied loan repayments that were the results of American insistence upon loan repayments at Versailles. Hoover and his economists pleaded with the incoming Roosevelt to halt the repayments on these debts and FDR refused throwing the world into an economic crises that Germany simply could not survive. Thus, Hitler, considered nothing more than a political clown at the time by most Germans rose to power on the wave of events that threw Germany into its worst economic crisis up to that time. The rest is history in light of that.

As Hudson eloquently describes in his study, "Super Imperialism", FDR had a sincere desire to see the US at full employment but he foolishly enforced military loan repayments to the Allies to do so, which in turn instigated the punishing reparations that were forced on Germany.

To this day, remaining payments by allies in WW1 are still being made...

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