Churchill: Visionary. Satesman. Historian.
By John Lukacs
Yale University Press, August 2002
Hardcover, 200pp., $21.95
John Lukacs' new short biography celebrates Winston Churchill's faculties in writing, politicking, and war. The book reads as a historians' cage match, pitting various views of Churchill against each other. It often feels more like an apology than a biography, but John Lukacs is an apt defender. In nine short chapters, Lucacs portrays Churchill as a prophetic genius whose foresights saved the world, whose personal relationships with Stalin, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower rewrote the map, whose work as an historian prepared him for leadership. Lukacs vehemently defends Churchill against his critics, and offers a deeply moving personal account of Churchill's funeral.
Churchill mastered the history and direction continental politics. He advocated a united Europe, decades in advance of the European Union. He constantly studied and wrote about Europe and English speaking countries. This passion derived from a deep itching for Churchill to understand himself, where he came from, and the players around him. While many in Britain thought the English Channel wider than the Atlantic Ocean, Churchill knew that England's destiny lay in Europe. It was this mind, steeped in history, that knew exactly its place and time and what was afoot in 1940, and more importantly, what was at stake. If Hitler won, he said, "then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we know and care for, will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." There was no closer measure of good versus evil in the field of human conflict than when Germany sat on the pinnacle of world conquest in the summer of 1940. In this setting, Lukacs sets out to attack those who claim that history is merely made of vast movements in social upheavals and that Hitler was bound to be defeated in any scenario whether Churchill was there or not. On the contrary, everything depended on the relationships among Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Consequently what they saw in each other, and the gambits they played to achieve their own various ends, determined the outcome of the war. Winston's deep understanding of history and vision of the future possibilities allowed him to play a good hand, though Britain was much weaker militarily than any the other great powers.
Churchill declared Hitler a threat as early as 1930, while he dined at the German Embassy. Perhaps one of his most prophetic moments came in 1935, when he wrote about Hitler's abilities and ambitions:
Then (in 1919) it was that one corporal, a former Austrian house-painter, set out to regain it all. In fifteen years that have followed this resolve he has succeeded in restoring Germany to the most powerful position in Europe, and not only has he restored the position of his country, but he has even, to a very large extant, reversed the results of the Great WarŠ(now) the vanquished are in the process of becoming the victors, and the victors the vanquished. When Hitler began, Germany lay prostrate at the feet of the Allies. He may yet see the day when what is left of Europe will be prostrate at the feet of Germany. Whatever else may be thought of these exploits, they are certainly among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world.
At the pinnacle of German power after the fall of France, when Europe was truly prostrate before the feet of Germany, and before the Battle of Britain, there would be no bartering. Churchill decided with some opposition that Great Britain would not capitulate to any Hitler's overtures of settlement to a conclusion of Anglo-German conflict. While the appeasement strategies of Neville and others had most obviously failed, there were still many who sought dialogue with Hitler's Germany, dialogue that would likely lead to surrender. The key to the whole war was the summer of 1940, when Hitler and Churchill engaged in a chess match that would decide the fate of Europe. After that it was determined that England would not capitulate, and that the United States would support her while Hitler tired of the game and turned his Panzers east.
Everything would have been lost if not for Churchill's resolve. Most of Lukacs's book is dedicated to defending this resolve, and various other aspects of Churchill's life. He shreds historians' claim that Churchill was a Germaphobe willing to destroy all of Europe in order to squash the German State. Some British scholars contend that a separate peace could have been settled with a unified Europe under Nazi Germany while the Empire could have been maintained. Churchill is thus charged with handing all of Eastern Europe to Russia, and the rest of the world to the United States. Roosevelt was very much an anti-colonialist, and worked against the British Empire. In effect Lukacs dismisses the notion of Churchill as an undertaker for the British Empire, executing its last will and testament at the end of a 400-year colonial period. Far from it: Churchill was more like a Savior, who preferred a loss of Empire to a United Europe under the evils of Nazism. For Churchill, Nazism was an ancient barbarism.
Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian. is short and sweet, easily read in a day, yet ranges over a great sweep of this man's life. It encompasses Churchill's love/hate relationship with the Russians, his failure to convince Eisenhower and Roosevelt of Stalin's true threat, and his Percentages Partition of Europe, which saved Greece while Roosevelt dithered. Assessing the major personalities of the war, Lukacs writes, "Churchill and Hitler wereŠthe two protagonists of the dramatic phase of the last war, even though Roosevelt and Stalin played the decisive roles in its epic phase, in the end." Lukacs's book whets our appetite for further study, while dismembering Churchill's detractors. The fun of the book is in watching Lukacs rip into glaring mistakes by several others of Churchill's biographers. At the end we feel the personal attachment of Lukacs for his subject. Of Winston Churchill's death, he writes, "Farewell Churchill. Farewell British Empire. Farewell, spiritual father. Of many. Including myself."