'A Slaughterhouse for Sacred Cows'
A new revisionist biography of Winston Churchill, which contends that Britain would be better off today if the wartime prime minister had made peace with Hitler, has touched off a furious debate about the legacy of Britain's most revered 20th-century personality and other fundamental questions of the Second World War.
In Churchill: The End of Glory, British historian John Charmley argues that Churchill was so blindly bent on battlefield glory that he ignored realistic opportunities to make peace with Hitler, and by doing so bankrupted his country, lost the British empire, and insured his nation's inexorable decline.
The 37-year-old Charmley, who calls himself “the first historian to come to Churchill without the baggage of memories,” says:
We are the first generation to view him only as an historical figure. I wanted to clean the varnish off the portrait, so to speak, to look in closer detail at the man, warts and all.
He remains a great man by definition, but great men always leave a fertile heritage. Oliver Cromwell apart, I believe no other great Englishman has bequeathed so sterile a legacy.
Dr. Charmley, currently on leave from the University of East Anglia, is serving at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where, ironically, he holds the professorial chair dedicated to Churchill's memory.
Charmley maintains that Churchill, whose belligerence and lapses of judgment were already well known before he became Prime Minister in May 1940, displayed these same faults as a wartime leader. Contrary to his image as a farsighted statesman, Churchill was actually preoccupied with “short- and medium-term con-siderations,” writes Charmley.
"I have only one purpose,” Churchill himself explained during the 1940-41 period, “the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” In blindly pursuing this “one purpose,” writes Charmley, the simplistic British leader condemned hundreds of thousands — if not millions — to death and suffering, financially ruined Britain, and ensured the survival of the Soviet tyranny. Churchill's fanatic determination to continue a war that Britain had no possible chance of winning alone inevitably bankrupted the country, shattered its social order, and reduced it to a second-rate power.
Stopping just short of saying that Churchill should have concluded peace with Hitler, Charmley maintains that the British leader missed his best opportunity to change the course of history for the better in June 1941, when Hitler invaded Soviet Russia. This was a golden opportunity, Charmley contends, “to rethink priorities and foreign policy” and to quietly disengage British troops from the hopeless battle with Hitler, leaving Russia and Germany to fight to the death. In Charmley's words:
… The world's two nastiest dictators would have faced each other like two great overweight heavyweight boxers. The “victor” would have been either Russia or Germany, and they would have been so shattered by the effort that they would not have been in a position to threaten anyone.
In this scenario, Charmley argues, the United States would not have intervened in the European conflict, and Britain's power would have continued only slightly abated.
Instead, Churchill immediately threw in with Stalin and committed Britain to a military alliance with the Soviet Communist regime.
Summing up, Charmley writes:
That Churchill was a great man cannot be doubted, but his flaws, too, were on the same heroic scale as the rest of the man … At the end of the war he was, once again, faced with what looked like an attempt by one power to dominate the Continent, an odd result for so much expenditure of treasure and manpower… His thinking on foreign and domestic policy was stuck firmly in the past.
Surveying the situation in 1945 it was hard to argue that Britain had won in any sense save that of avoiding defeat … Churchill stood for the British Empire, for British independence and for an “anti-socialist” vision. By July 1945 the first of these was on the skids, the second dependent upon America, and the third had vanished in a Labour [party] election victory.
Although it sells for the equivalent of $45, all copies of Charmley's thick, scholarly book sold out on the first day it was available for sale. Publisher Hodder & Stoughton was forced to triple the original press run, and quickly scheduled a second printing. Several American publishers are said to be interested in the book, which is not yet available in the US.
In early January, many pages of London newspapers and entire television shows were devoted to the raging exchange set off by the provocative work. A report on the controversy in the prestigious London Times (January 5) — which also published two lengthy extracts of the book — began:
Never has a work of historical revisionism upset so many in so short a time. In the space of three days, John Charmley's radical reappraisal of the life of Churchill and Alan Clark's article in The Times on Saturday have turned the history of the Second World War into a battlefield and shattered the scholarly consensus on the war leader's achievements.
A Washington Post report on the furor called Charmley's book “a slaughterhouse for sacred cows,” while an article in the New York Times informed readers that Charmley's book “has struck an especially sensitive nerve, not only because of the Churchill mythology, but also because there are those who reject out of hand the notion that any kind of compromise could be justified, morally or intellectually, with the Nazis.”
In an editorial about the book, the London Times (January 6) cautiously affirmed the propriety of historical revisionism. After declaring that “nothing in history is inevitable, except that history shall be rewritten,” it noted that Charmley's book “has broken a 40-year-old taboo and unsettled a complacent historical orthodoxy.”
"… The net result of the revisionist impulse is usually positive,” the editorial continued. “In the United States, the bizarre cult of political correctness has threatened the very academic freedoms which allowed it to prosper.” Charm-ley's book “has introduced doubt to a field of history hitherto dominated by certainty and clubability. In this sense, revisionism is the friend of skepticism, the enemy of cant.”
This book might easily have slipped into obscurity if it had not been for a highly favorable review in the London Times (January 2) by Alan Clark, a former British Defense Minister, a Conservative Party Member of Parliament, and the author of several works of military history.
Praising Charmley's work as “probably the most important revisionist text to be published since the war,” Clark went beyond the young historian's thesis to forthrightly argue that Britain should have made peace with Germany in 1940 or 1941. In Clark's view, Churchill was a warmonger who turned down opportunities to get “first reasonable, then excellent, terms from Germany.”
"Anyone in the Tory [Conservative] party who realized what was happening [in 1940-41] was horrified,” Clark went on. There was a clear alternative to the disastrous course being pursued by Churchill: make peace with Hitler, preferably in the spring of 1941, when Germany was about to invade the Soviet Union in a life-and-death struggle. Instead, Clark laments, Churchill pursued a war that abased Britain before the United States, bankrupted the country, overturned the social order and ruined the empire.
Several of Britain's most prominent historians lost no time in denouncing the views of Charmley and Clark. The main theme of these hostile responses is that popular feeling in Britain was such that if Churchill had negotiated peace with Hitler, he would have been thrown out of office, and that Hitler was so insatiable and untrustworthy that eventually he would have reneged on any peace agreement and turned against Britain. “Hitler never made a treaty he did not break,” commented Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), perhaps the courtliest of Britain's court historians (and who, in 1983, “authenticated” the phony Hitler diaries).
Official Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert conceded that Charmley's biography is impressively researched, but dismissed out of hand the view that Churchill should have made peace with Hitler. “You can't argue that the Nazis were not as bad as was thought at the time,” said Gilbert. “If anything, they were worse.”
In his criticism of Charmley's book, British historian and author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock, remarked:
There is nothing fresh in this. It is what Hitler said. The Hitler thesis is that he never wanted war with Britain and it was all [due to] that terrible warmonger Churchill. If you want to explore the Hitler thesis and go on and say, yes, we won the war and destroyed the British empire in doing so, that is what Hitler said would happen.
Hitler wanted to attack Russia, and he wanted Britain to be his ally, as he said in Mein Kampf. Anyone who has studied Hitler knows that was in his mind.
On this point, Bullock is right. No love-struck suitor was more ardent in his pursuit of a woman's hand than was Hitler in his effort to win the friendship, if not the close collaboration, of a nation he deeply admired.
Far from seeking conflict with Britain, Hitler was aghast when that nation's leadership used the pretext of an attack against Poland to declare war against Germany on September 3, 1939. “Even if the British win,” he remarked a few weeks later, “the real victors would be the United States, Japan and Russia.”
In his speeches of October 6, 1939 (following the successful conclusion of the Polish campaign) and July 19, 1940 (in the wake of the stunning defeat of France), Hitler dramatically appealed for a reasonable end to a conflict that, if continued, could bring only catastrophe for Germany and Britain, and indeed for all Europe.
General Franz Halder, chief of the Army General Staff, noted in his diary in 1940 that Hitler “accepts that he may have to force Britain to make peace; but he is reluctant to do so, because if we do defeat the British in the field, the British empire will fall apart. Germany will not profit therefrom. We should be paying with German blood for something from which only Japan, America and others would draw benefit.”
In an extemporaneous speech delivered in Berlin on October 3, 1941, when his power seemed all but unassailable, Hitler took note of his nation's cordial relations with Italy, Hungary, Finland, Japan and other countries, and then went on to declare:
Unhappily, however, not the nation I have courted all my life: the British. Not that the British people as a whole alone bear the responsibility for this, no, but there are some people who in their pigheaded hatred and lunacy have sabotaged every such attempt at understanding between us … As in all the years I strove to achieve understanding whatever the cost, there was Mr. Churchill, who kept on shouting, “I want a war!” Now he has it.
As remarkable as Charmley's book may be, it has been the voices of support for its thesis by Clark and others that most strongly suggest that the Churchill legend — one of the most towering and durable of the Second World War — may at last be giving way to a more sober and clear-sighted view of the era. “The Clark thesis is broadly right,” commented Bristol University history professor John Vincent. “Churchill presided over a country whose blood was up, and it nearly ended in disaster.”
Peter Millar, a youngish writer for the widely-distributed liberal weekly paper The European, presented a remarkably revisionist view of the Second World War in a recent (Jan. 7-10) column devoted to Charmley's book:
… The accepted view that his [Churchill's] “bulldog breed” stubbornness led Britain through its “finest hour” to a glorious victory is sadly superficial … In no sense, other than the moral one, can Britain be said to have won. She merely survived.
Britain went to war ostensibly to honor an alliance with Poland. Yet the war ended with Poland redesigned at a dictator's whim, albeit Stalin's rather than Hitler's, and occupied, albeit by Russians rather than Germans. In reality Britain went to war to maintain the balance of power. But the European continent in 1945 was dominated by a single overbearing power hostile to everything Britain stood for. Britain, hopelessly in hock to the United States, had neither the power nor the face to hold on to her empire.
Churchill, in the critical months before and after the fall of France, opposed any sort of peace not only because he recognized the nature of Hitler's evil, but also because he thought Germany would demand humiliating terms. Yet it is by no means clear that this would have been the case. The “evil genius bent on world conquest” that most Americans believe Hitler to have been, is a myth. The evil genius had more precise aims in eastern Europe. A Britain that would have withdrawn from the fray and from all influence in Europe to concentrate on her far-flung empire would have suited him admirably.
An Anglo-German peace might have been possible, and could have preserved the empire and not bled Britain as dry as the war did. It would not have been a glorious deal. But it is arguable that the greatest atrocities of Nazism were not much curtailed by the prosecution of the war over a further five years.
Charmley's thesis is not at all new, of course. His reportedly very well-researched biography vindicates the work in earlier decades of a handful of far-sighted Revisionist historians. Fellow English historian Francis Neilson, for one, already had Churchill — and his place in history — accurately pegged in a literate and devastating critique published in 1954, The Churchill Legend.
On this side of the Atlantic, Harry Elmer Barnes was equally unimpressed with the Churchill legend. In a 1962 essay, for example, the American historian commented:
… The damage he [Churchill] did to the British Empire was far greater and more permanent, in the long-range perspective, than what Hitler brought to Germany … The British Empire has been liquidated and the situation in the British homeland become more precarious each year. Yet Churchill could find millions of benighted persons in Britain and the United States willing to spend their money lightheartedly to buy the books in which he boasted of his achievements as Prime Minister. He still totters around, smirkingly giving his “V” sign, to the plaudits of his countrymen, despite the fact that today it more accurately implies “vanquished” than “victorious,” in terms of the Britain of 1939.
[Quoted in: Barnes Against the Blackout, p. 115.
Published by and available from the IHR.]
More recently has been David Irving's monumental study, Churchill's War, the first volume of which was published in 1987. [Available from the IHR.] The British historian's 680-page work documents Churchill's cynicism, deceit and brutality, and supplies a wealth of evidence to show how he put venal personal interests ahead of those of his country.
Charmley's Churchill: The End of Glory will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the Journal.-- M. W. and G. R.
From The Journal of Historical Review, March/April 1993 (Vol. 13, No. 2), page 4.