Review

An Unsettled Legacy

reviewed by Mark Weber

It has been fourteen years since the publication of the first volume of David Irving's three-part biography of Britain's legendary wartime leader. This second volume, subtitled “Triumph in Adversity,” traces Winston Churchill's career from June 1941 through July 1943, the pivotal period when, after calamitous setbacks, the tide of the war turned decisively in favor of the Allies.

With this handsome, meticulously referenced and generously illustrated work (including many color photographs), Britain's best-known and most controversial historian once again displays his extraordinary knack for extracting information from overlooked diaries and suppressed records, and his gift for turning mountains of data into well-crafted prose. This measured, masterful examination of Britain's towering twentieth-century premier is Irving at his best.

It is difficult to avoid being impressed, even dazzled, by Churchill's colorful personality, in comparison with which most political leaders of the past fifty years seem pale midgets. From the pages of this book emerges a vivid portrait of an often exasperating and sometimes callous man of quick wit, myriad prejudices, puckish humor, arresting eloquence, and enormous energy.

As with Irving's other biographical works, this book's strength is also its weakness. While it is packed with day-to-day and even hour-to-hour detail, Irving sometimes, and perhaps unavoidably, neglects context and the larger picture. He sheds new light on Churchill's relations with major and minor figures of the fragile Allied wartime coalition, including, for example, his deep, abiding loathing of “Free French” leader Charles De Gaulle. Irving traces Churchill's wartime hypocrisy and treachery — most tragically toward the Poles, on whose behalf Britain had declared war against Germany in 1939. Excessive space is devoted to speculation about the July 1943 death of Wladyslaw Sikorski, prime minister of Poland's London-based government in exile. Irving musters evidence to suggest that Sikorski's death in a freakish airplane crash at Gibraltar was not an accident, as officially announced, but instead may have been secretly arranged by British authorities, perhaps on Churchill's order.

As Irving notes, Churchill and other British officials received reports — from Jewish agencies, from intercepted and decrypted secret German dispatches, and from other sources — of killings of Jews in the lands under Axis rule. [See note] And yet, in his own six-volume history of the great conflict, The Second World War, some 4,448 pages altogether, he made only passing references to wartime Germany's harshly anti-Jewish policies (what is now called “the Holocaust"), and no mention whatsoever of “gas chambers” or “gassing." [See note]

Adding significantly to the work of such skeptical historians as John Charmley (notably in his 1993 work, Churchill: The End of Glory), Irving delivers here another powerful blow to Churchill's well-manicured image as the heroic figure who “saved” Britain and “Western civilization.” Churchill, writes Irving in the introduction, “won the war in spite of himself… Britain, in short, surrendered her own empire to defeat a chimera conjured up by Winston Churchill, a putative danger from Nazi Germany — a threat which never existed except when Churchill needed to call upon it. He sacrificed the substance to defeat the myth.”

During our own cynical era, when the reputations of once-towering figures are routinely debunked and discredited, Winston Churchill is still held in high regard. Churchill, says British-American writer Christopher Hitchens, has become a “totem” of the Establishment. “His titanic standing depends principally on a set of rotundly defiant speeches made in the years 1940 and 1941, when he staked everything on resistance to Hitler,” writes Hitchens. “… For innumerable readers and reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic (Arthur Schlesinger prominent among them) the iconic status of Churchill is an indispensable 'fact' of life. If it can be shown that he was a vain old fool, then their world would turn upside down." [See note]

In the view of the influential Jewish writer Charles Krauthammer — a Washington Post columnist (and fervent apologist for Israel) — Churchill is “the only possible” individual to be regarded as “Person of the Century.” Krauthammer explains: “Take away Churchill in 1940 … and Britain would have settled with Hitler — or worse. Nazism would have prevailed. Hitler would have achieved what no other tyrant, not even Napoleon, had ever achieved: mastery of Europe. Civilization would have descended into darkness." [See note] Henry Kissinger has called Churchill “the quintessential hero." [See note]

Contributing not insignificantly to the durability of his reputation was Churchill's lifelong philo-Semitism. Throughout his career, as Irving makes clear in both the first and second volumes of his trilogy, Churchill was an ardent booster of Jewish and Zionist interests. [See note] He believed Jews to be “the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.” In the words of British historian Andrew Roberts, Churchill “felt an instinctive affinity for their genius as well as a historian's respect for their trials, and he supported Jewish aspirations wherever they did not clash with those of the Empire. He may have inherited this philo-semitism from his father, but he certainly give it a new lustre in his own life." [See note]

The well-entrenched idealization of Churchill is part and parcel of a drastically misleading view of the Second World War that Americans have been fed for decades. One common deceit is to give the impression that Hitler sought war against Britain and France, and that Germany aggressively attacked those two countries. Routinely suppressed is the key fact that Hitler strenuously sought to avoid conflict with Britain and France, and that it was those two countries that declared war against Germany. As Irving points out: “Britain was the one country of which Hitler consistently spoke favourably. From 1918 to the day of his suicide in 1945 he avowed that his one ambition had been to work in unison, even in grand alliance, with the British empire. There is nothing to be found in the archives to contradict our view that he meant it.”

Churchill's enduringly stellar image is all the more remarkable considering that his views on a range of issues were, by today's standards, hopelessly backward and politically incorrect. He was, for example, a strong and seemingly sincere supporter of the British empire. [See note] In November 1942, for instance, he declared: “Let me, however, make this clear, in case there should be any mistake about it in any quarter; we mean to hold our own. I have not become the King's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." [See note]

Along with most Britons (and Americans) of his era, he was also an unabashed racist. Blacks he dismissed as “niggers” and “blackamoors,” Arabs were “worthless,” Chinese were “chinks” or “pigtails,” and dark races were “baboons” or “Hottentots.” Indians, in his view, were “the beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans." [See note] Churchill not only favored white supremacy in Britain, and disparaged racial mixing, but, as Irving points out, wanted English-speaking whites — whom he was not ashamed to proclaim as a superior breed — to rule the entire world. “We are superior!,” he exclaimed during a White House luncheon, to which vice president Henry Wallace responded sarcastically: “So you believe in the pure Anglo-Saxon race. Anglo-Saxondom über alles!" [See note] Given such views, it is not surprising, as Irving records, that Churchill and other high-ranking officials were distressed over the impact on British society caused by the wartime arrival of thousands of black U.S. servicemen. [See note]

Similar sentiments voiced by Irving earned censure during his well-publicized lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt. [See note] To Judge Charles Gray's castigation of him as a “racist,” for example, Irving retorted: “My own feelings about race are precisely the same as 95 percent of the people of my generation … If the British soldiers on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 could look forward to the end of the century and see what England has become, they would not have bothered to advance another 40 yards up the beach." [See note]

Although Churchill's harshly anti-Hitler rhetoric is well known, as late as 1937, in his book Great Contemporaries, he was extolling the German leader's “patriotic ardor and love of country.” The story of Hitler's struggle, Churchill went on, “cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all the authorities or resistances which barred his path." [See note] In another publication from that same year Churchill wrote: “One may dislike Hitler's system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations." [See note]

Churchill is often praised for his outspoken criticism of his government's policy in 1938 and early 1939 of “appeasement” of Hitler and Third Reich Germany. In parliament his eloquent voice was nearly the only one raised against Neville Chamberlain (whom he would succeed as prime minister in May 1940) for his short-lived effort to accommodate Hitler's demands for self-determination for ethnic Germans living in what was then Czechoslovakia, and, by extension, accepting German hegemony in central and eastern Europe.

But when Churchill himself held power as prime minister, he carried out a policy of appeasement far surpassing that of his predecessor. The foreign leader whom Churchill (and Franklin Roosevelt) appeased was not Hitler, though, but rather the Soviet premier Stalin — a dictator who, by any measure, was a far more ruthless ruler then Hitler, and whose victims, by all accounts, vastly outnumber those of the German leader. Churchill not only cynically sanctioned Stalin's brutal hegemony over central and eastern Europe, helping him dispose of the fates of many millions of people against their will, he also collaborated with the Soviet ruler on issues of military strategy.

Although Churchill spoke out against the Soviet Union before and after the war, during the war years he spoke cordially of the Soviet dictator. On several occasions he praised Stalin, repeatedly calling him his “friend." [See note] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer who was a prisoner in Stalin's “Gulag” camps, has commented: “In their own countries, Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious …" [See note]

In Churchill's first address as prime minister — the famous “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech of May 13, 1940 — he proclaimed his goal in the war: “You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is Victory — victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be.” Did those who thrilled to such defiant rhetoric fully grasp what this meant? Were they really willing to support victory “at all costs"? As it turned out, the cost was very high indeed.

During the war Churchill made clear his simple aim in the great conflict: “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." [See note] In keeping with that aim, Churchill refused even to consider Hitler's repeated offers of peace, thereby condemning the people of Britain, and Europe, to years of horrific warfare.

In the early 1950s, historian Francis Neilson produced a stern portrait of the British leader, The Churchill Legend, which remains worth reading despite the passage of years:

Churchill had but one aim; only one desire. In The Grand Alliance he states, “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” It is his life that is to be satisfied. England? Europe? Are they merely the arenas that provide the accessories of the conflict? His life is to be “simplified” by throwing the world into chaos again. His purpose is the destruction of one man; and the last chance to maintain the culture of a thousand years must be abandoned because a politician's life is to be “simplified.” [See note]

Alan Clark — historian and one-time British defense minister — more recently handed down a similarly harsh verdict of Churchill's war policy:

There were several occasions when a rational leader could have got, first reasonable, then excellent, terms from Germany … The war went on far too long, and when Britain emerged the country was bust. Nothing remained of assets overseas. Without immense and punitive borrowings from the U.S. we would have starved. The old social order had gone forever. The empire was terminally damaged. The Commonwealth countries had seen their trust betrayed and their soldiers wasted … [See note]

"Victory at all cost” also meant accepting the Allied “United Nations” principles of egalitarianism and liberal democracy, which laid the groundwork for the dismantling of empire and for a massive influx of former imperial subjects, ushering in drastic changes in every area of life in Britain (and the rest of Europe) in recent decades.

In 1945, at the end of the terrible five-and-a-half-year conflict, Britain did not “win” — it merely emerged on the victorious side, together with the two great powers that really did “win” the war: Soviet Russia and the United States.

British writer Peter Millar echoed this assessment a few years ago:

… 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 honour 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.

… 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. [See note]

It is to his credit that Churchill acknowledged, on at least one or two occasions, the tragedy of his own life's work. During a dinner with close associates in early 1945 — as his private secretary confided to his diary — a “rather depressed” Churchill was “saying that Chamberlain had trusted Hitler as he was now trusting Stalin (though he thought in different circumstances) …" [See note]

Three years after the end of the war, Churchill wrote: “The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted." [See note] Later, reflecting wistfully on his legacy as wartime leader, Churchill mused: “Historians are apt to judge war ministers less by the victories achieved under their direction than by the political results which flowed from them. Judged by that standard, I am not sure that I shall be held to have done very well." [See note]

No man did more to bring about that “human tragedy” than Churchill himself, who had devoted so much energy and effort to crafting the wartime alliance that so greatly aided Stalin and the Soviet Union, the source of the “worse perils.” And, as David Irving painstakingly lays out in this outstanding, unsparing work, no man among the Allied wartime leaders better deserves to be judged by the results that flowed from his victories than Britain's legendary wartime premier.

Notes

  1. David Irving, Churchill's War, vol. II, pp. 546-548.
  2. Robert Faurisson, “The Detail,” The Journal of Historical Review (JHR) 18, no. 2 (March-April 1998), p. 19. Similarly, neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Charles De Gaulle made any mention of Nazi gas chambers in his memoir of the war.
  3. Christopher Hitchens, “Whose History Is It?,” Vanity Fair, December 1993, p. 110.
  4. Charles Krauthammer, “Einstein Was Wrong Choice,” Washington Post column, as it appeared in the Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), January 2, 2000.
  5. Quoted by Ralph Raico, “Rethinking Churchill,” in John V. Denson, The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997), p. 255. Source cited: H. Kissinger, “With Faint Praise,” New York Times Book Review, July 16, 1995, p. 7.
  6. For example, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt in August 1942: “I am strongly wedded to the Zionist policy, of which I am one of the authors.” F. L. Loewenheim, Harold D. Langley, and Manfred Jonas, eds., Roosevelt and Churchill: Their Secret Wartime Correspondence (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1975), p. 234.
  7. Andrew Roberts, “Winston Replied That He Didn't Like Blackamoors,” The Spectator, April 9, 1994, p. 11.
  8. David Irving, Churchill's War, vol. I (Bullsbrook, Western Australia: Veritas, 1987), p. 437.
  9. Francis Neilson, The Churchill Legend (Appleton, WI: C.C. Nelson, 1954), p. 432; quoted in part in Irving, vol. II, p. 624.
  10. Roberts, “Winston Replied…,” pp. 10-11; Irving, Churchill's War, vol. II, p. 624.
  11. Irving, Churchill's War, vol. II, p. 789.
  12. Irving, Churchill's War, vol. II, pp. 560-563.
  13. See Mark Weber, “After the Irving-Lipstadt Trial: New Dangers and Challenges,” JHR 19 no. 2 (March/April 2000), pp. 2, 6.
  14. Weber, “After the Irving-Lipstadt Trial,” p. 6.
  15. Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1937), p. 232. Quoted in Neilson, The Churchill Legend, pp. 374-375.
  16. Churchill, Step by Step (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939), pp. 143-144. Quoted in Neilson, The Churchill Legend, pp. 373-374, 444.
  17. Examples or citations can be found in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, vol. VII (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), pp. 1031, 1035, 1066, 1173-1174, 1186, 1194, 1229, 1320. During the Feb. 1945 Yalta conference, for example, Churchill declared: “It is no exaggeration or compliment of a florid kind when I say that we regard Marshal Stalin's life as most precious to the hopes and hearts of all of us … I walk through this world with greater courage and hope when I find myself in a relation of friendship and intimacy with this great man, whose fame has gone out not only over all Russia but the world.” (p. 1194). In 1943 in Iran, at the conclusion of the Tehran conference, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, issued a joint statement that concluded: “We leave here friends in fact, in spirit, and in purpose.” Declaration of December 1, 1943. Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, A Basic History of the United States (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1944), p. 530.
  18. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1-2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 259n.
  19. Churchill, The Grand Alliance p. 370. Quoted in Francis Neilson, The Churchill Legend, pp. 411, 444.
  20. Neilson, The Churchill Legend, p. 444.
  21. Alan Clark, “A Reputation Ripe for Revision,” Times (London), January 2, 1993.
  22. Peter Millar, “Millar's Europe: Question over Glory Days,” The European (London), January 7-10, 1993.
  23. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, p. 1232.
  24. W. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), pp. iv-v.
  25. R. Boothy, Recollections of a Rebel (London: 1978), pp. 183-184. Quoted in Raico, “Rethinking Churchill,” in Denson, The Costs of War, p. 291.

Bibliographic information
Reviewer: Mark Weber
Title: An unsettled legacy: [David] Irving's Churchill's War, Volume II (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: July/August 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 4
Location: page 43
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: "Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.