Winston Churchill died 50 years ago this year.
After having been eulogized as perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th century, it has recently been in vogue to dwell on Churchill’s mistakes.
To be sure, there were many. It is also quite common now to refer to some of his more objectionable statements. There were a few of them, too. The famous historian Andrew Roberts, hardly a critical observer of Churchill, does not mince words to describe Churchill’s rude and inconsiderate mode of conduct with his professional entourage.
All of the above just makes Winston Churchill a complex human being, which he certainly was. He was not an angel, to say the least. If I had to choose between having a cup of tea with Churchill or with Stanley Baldwin, who served on three different occasions as British prime minister, I would no doubt choose the latter, no matter how less familiar he is to people today.
Let us be candid: If Churchill had died in 1929, the year he left government, he might have been remembered as a failed politician; had he died in 1939, the year World War II started, he might have been considered in retrospect as a prophet of doom who turned out to be right. Because he died in 1965, we recall him – and quite rightly so – as one of the greatest leaders in modern history.
To claim that his record from 1933, the year the Nazi Party came to power, to 1945, the year the Allies won World War II, erases every error he made or any objectionable opinion he held prior to 1933 is as persuasive as claiming, vice versa, that the latter diminishes the singular effect of what he did and said from 1933 to 1945.
Churchill demonstrates that an individual can shape history. This can be shown by merely posing a “what if” question: What would have happened had Lord Halifax, rather than Churchill, been appointed British prime minister following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain in May 1940? After all, Lord Halifax was a strong candidate to replace Chamberlain. It was hardly inevitable that Churchill should have succeeded him.
Based on the information available to us today, we can safely assume that Lord Halifax would have sought a peace agreement with Nazi Germany as Britain was standing alone and fearing for its sovereign existence as an independent state. Churchill refused to follow that path, preferring to continue the fight to the end.
Churchill also demonstrates that rhetoric and leadership can make a difference. His oratory inspired the British people, his leadership guided them, in a period where suffering was rife and victory seemed remote.
Churchill became a symbol, not only for the people he led, but also for all those around the world who prayed for Britain to win.
Baldwin, whom we mentioned above, had said that Churchill could turn out to be an ideal wartime leader.
This speaks well not only of Baldwin’s political intuition, but of his personal integrity, for he said so as he was being criticized by Churchill for his policies as prime minister toward Nazi Germany between 1935 and 1937.
His singular achievement as a wartime leader notwithstanding, the Conservative Party led by Churchill lost the 1945 general elections. Churchill, who was distraught, is said to have replied to his wife, trying to console him that this might be a blessing in disguise, that “so far, it is very well-disguised.”
He returned to 10 Downing Street following the general elections of October 1951, and would serve as prime minister until April 1955. During his second term as prime minister, Churchill would suffer a stroke. During his second premiership Churchill would try to shape events as he had done during his first, but his health would not allow him to be as effective.
Nevertheless, it was during those years that Churchill became the guardian angel of Israel in Britain. The documents of that period in British archives demonstrate quite clearly that Churchill saw himself as a Zionist.
He made it abundantly clear to his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, that Israel was uppermost in his mind.
He urged Eden to support Israel and not emulate what he termed “Bevin’s anti-Semitic policies.” There was hardly a question pertaining to the Middle East that did not prompt Churchill to defend Israel’s position, to guard against those who might harm its interests.
His words on Israel, both in writing and in private conversation, were imbued with an emotional tone which went well beyond pragmatic reasoning.
As leader of the Opposition, Churchill had said that the establishment of the State of Israel was “an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.” The same might be said about his own leadership from 1933 to 1945.
The author is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Program of Tel Aviv University.