2. Churchill and the bitter truth
Churchill came to the fore in May 1940 because Chamberlain was not acceptable as the head of the coalition government that appeared necessary in the developing international crisis. Churchill was controversial, indeed regarded by many as a dangerous maverick, but he conveyed determination, had war experience, and whatever the reservations of some generals, gave the impression he could do the job. He certainly provided the necessary backbone when the fall of France hit the new government hard, leading to a major crisis of credibility.
Churchill was convinced that Hitler was untrustworthy and a mortal threat to Britain and the world. There was to be no alliance of expedience with Germany comparable to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 or (very differently) American isolationism, which helps explain why the British account of the politics of their war record is justifiably a good one. Instead, Churchill’s determination led him to withstand pressure for negotiation and steadied both government and nation for the challenges of the summer and autumn of 1940, notably the German air-assault. He was able to explain the need to fight on and the purpose of doing so, although, in practice, waiting for something to turn up was important.
Darkest Hour, and, in particular, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill, have deservedly won some very favorable reviews for their dramatic portrayal of those decisive days. How does it measure up for an historian? Peggy Noonan underlined the importance of this question recently in the Wall Street Journal, where she identified historical inaccuracies in the recent television series, The Crown, and the film The Post, and worried about how dramas that bend historical truth can warp public understanding of history. Her warnings are well taken, and there are indeed a few problems in Darkest Hour, notably the fictitious scene of Churchill taking the “tube” (London Underground railway) and seeking a reassurance he receives from the public about the merit of fighting on. George VI’s doubts about Churchill are also played up for dramatic effect.
Nevertheless, the film captures Churchill’s historical accomplishment in overcoming the British political crisis that continued even after he became Prime Minister. Interest within the government in negotiating peace with Hitler via Mussolini was indeed strong until the latter declared war on Britain and France on June 10. Viscount Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, favored negotiations, while in the Commons, R.A. Butler, the Under Secretary of State in the Foreign Office (a post made more important because Halifax was in the Lords), was willing to consider negotiations and was not moved to a less contentious post until 1941.
The film, however, links Neville Chamberlain and Halifax, and underplays the role of David Lloyd George in the political crisis, which is both too critical of Chamberlain and too charitable to Lloyd George. A Liberal who became Prime Minister in 1916 during the crisis of the First World War, and served until 1922, Lloyd George was initially critical of Hitler, referring to Nazi political and religious repression as “a terrible thing to an old Liberal like myself.
By 1940, however, Lloyd George was convinced that Churchill was a fool to fight on. A turning point for him was a 1936 invitation to Germany from Hitler, who had praised Lloyd George’s wartime leadership in Mein Kampf. Their final meeting closed with the former Prime Minister urging Hitler, “the greatest German of the age,” to visit Britain, which Hitler wanted to enlist against Communism. In 1940, Lloyd George’s hopes of office after Chamberlain’s resignation were thwarted due to the latter’s opposition, and when, on June 4, he was at last offered a Cabinet post by Churchill, he refused to serve as long as Chamberlain remained in office. Chamberlain saw Lloyd George as a potential Petain, another figure from the previous world war. Regarding Churchill as his junior, he felt he had a better claim to lead the country. That October, Lloyd George said he would enter office when “Winston is bust.”
No longer Prime Minister, Chamberlain had become one of the five on the War Cabinet and served as Lord President of the Council and as leader of the Conservative Party until he resigned on grounds of ill health in September (he died in November). The film thus does not do justice to Chamberlain’s opposition to Lloyd George, or to his refusal to use his position to overthrow Churchill.
What about Mike Huckabee’s tweet comparing Churchill with Trump, and Chamberlain with Obama: “We have a Churchill”? All comparisons are of course problematic, but there are some instructive items. The USA may well be on the eve of more threatening confrontations in East Asia, and may even face an unprovoked assault as in 1941.
Britain, in May 1940, constructed an effective coalition government that lasted until after Hitler’s defeat. As well as succeeding Chamberlain as Party leader, Churchill was able to lead a coalition government. I do not assume that Huckabee is predicting such political ambitions (or skills) on the part of Trump. In 1940, Churchill also became Minister of Defense and, albeit to the anger of many military leaders, including the Chiefs of Staff, he acted effectively in this role. Churchill had relevant experience and certainly more than current or recent leaders, American and British.
The film’s focus, however, is on leadership and that can entail a willingness to be unpopular. Though very different characters, both Churchill and Trump show that. Yet, it is also necessary to be able to move forward effectively and to win both domestic and international support to that end. Churchill displayed that skill. Let us hope that America’s leaders, whatever their politics, can do the same.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: eu