Roberts’ Churchill: On courage, destiny and the miracles of history

The book, as well as about Churchill’s lonely but firm stand against antisemitism in the UK and his attitude towards Jews and Israel.

Eminent historian and Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts (photo credit: ANNA KUNST)
Eminent historian and Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts
(photo credit: ANNA KUNST)
in my opinion, the book, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, is the most precious gift of the year 2018 – in history, education, knowledge and literature. Its author, prolific British historian Andrew Roberts, has aptly been called by his Jewish colleague, Richard Cohen, “The Beatles of modern historians.”
In The New York Times, Bret Stephens brands the book “an antidote to idiocy.” Roberts is one of the most brilliant historical writers living and working today, if not the most brilliant. This 1,105 page volume, the fruit of four years of colossal labor, is not his first encounter with one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century, William Churchill, who died on January 24, 1965, at the age of 90.
Roberts, 56, is also the author of such well-known books as Hitler and Churchill and Eminent Churchillians.
In a recent conversation with Roberts, I asked him why he wrote the book, as well as about Churchill’s lonely but firm stand against antisemitism in the UK and his attitude towards Jews and Israel.
“Every new generation deserves its own Churchill biography,” Roberts told me. It was a giant task, but the historian, who has been working for 30 years on Churchill, was exceptionally well-equipped for meeting it.
In the splendid volume, Roberts notes that according to a survey among 3,000 British teenagers conducted back in 2008, more than 20% believed that Winston Churchill was a fictional character, while 48% and 37% thought that Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, were real people.
Another serious reason for writing such an extensive biography of Churchill, in Roberts’ view, was the vast number of baseless myths about him floating all over the Internet.
“There have been a new load of lies and myths that have developed about him recently, poison-gassing Iraqis, encouraging the Bengal famine, sinking the Titanic, etcetera, which needed to be exposed,” he said.
Roberts details the treasure of new material made available to him for the book. “The Queen allowed me to become the first Churchill biographer to have access to the wartime diaries kept by her father, King George VI,” he said. “The Churchill family gave me access to the papers of his children, some of which were precluded to other researchers. I have also worked on the papers of 131 individuals who knew or worked with Churchill, including 41 sets of papers recently deposited at the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge. “Over the past 30 years I have interviewed over 100 people who worked with Churchill, and I have discovered speeches by him that are not included in the eight volumes of his published speeches. Furthermore, very important new books have been published recently, such as the diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Russian ambassador to London fro 1932 to 1943, letters to Lord Halifax when he was Viceroy of India, and so on, which did not exist when previous Churchill biographies were being written; Lawrence Burgis’s unpublished verbatim reports of the War Cabinet, Foreign Office official Valentine Lawford’s diaries from 1940-45, Pamela Harriman’s love letters and many sources are now available, which were not when the last major biography of Churchill was published. So I wanted to be the biographer who used these new sources before anyone else did!”
The excerpts from King George VI’s private diary are especially interesting. One has the feeling of stepping back in time and feeling the key events through the eyes of the King, with a perspective that is both unique and intimate. Maisky’s diaries are another newly found treasure, with their honest and vivid portrayal of the time and people by an insider.
Roberts’ approach allows his readers to become privy to some stunning details while at the same time being provided with a brilliant historical analysis. In our interview, he shared his method for sifting through the stunning amount of material at his disposal, just as sculptor Auguste Rodin did with his marble statues, chipping away at every detail.
“I drew up a timeline for what Churchill was saying or doing every month – sometimes if it was an important period, every day – of his life, just as I had done with my Napoleon biography.” Then I worked on 500 or so files on every possibly aspect of his interests, personality, character, etc. Only once I had got everything I knew that I needed did I sit down and weave the latter into the former, constantly cutting huge amounts of material as I went. In 100 days of writing an average of 5,500 words a day, the first draft of the book was ready. There are plenty of less painstaking ways of writing a book, I’m sure, but not for writing the kind of comprehensive work that I wanted to produce, one that will last for a long time.
“The research took me four years, which was the most enjoyable part for me as I built up a picture of the man in my mind. The writing took 100 days, and was easily the worst part. Cutting one’s wordage down is like chopping off one’s fingers.”
I asked Roberts where Churchill’s understanding and support of the Jewish people came from.
“His philosemitism was indeed one of the best things that he inherited from his father, Lord Randolph Churchill,” Roberts replied. “Lord Randolph certainly saw [Benjamin] Disraeli as the inspiration behind his political philosophy of Tory Democracy, which was effectively Winston Churchill’s political philosophy too, even in the years when he was in the Liberal Party. Winston went on holidays with Jews as an adolescent, believed that Jews gave the world its system of ethics (he was never a Christian), represented the heavily Jewish constituency of Manchester North West early on in his parliamentary career, was friendly with his father’s great friends, the Rothschilds, liked Chaim Weizmann from the moment he met him before the Great War, and supported the Balfour Declaration.
“His philosemitism was an important feature of his personality, therefore, and set him apart from many of the antisemites in his party, class, age and background.”
Among many others books in which he has distinguished himself, Roberts is known as the editor of two famous volumes of historical essays defined by the “What if?” question regarding crucial events in history.
In this context, I asked him about Churchill’s meeting with Weizmann in November 1944, and its consequences if he were to have stayed on as prime minister of Britain in 1945.
“Churchill would have supported the creation of the State of Israel as a successor to the British Mandate in Palestine immediately after the Second World War, putting Britain’s weight behind its recognition by the other great powers and preventing the need for the War of Independence in 1948,” Roberts said. “He would probably not have been able to win acceptance from the Arab powers for Israel, but he could have blunted their military and other hostility.”
Churchill was known for his phrase, “ Man is spirit,” his last words to his cabinet before leaving it in April 1955 and retiring. Sixty-three years later, an extraordinary historian with unparalleled clarity and vision has produced an epic biography of the wartime British premier. Important historical books are also spiritual. They encapsulate the spirit of noble intentions, uncompromising views and impeccable writing.
If there were a Nobel Prize for historical research, Andrew Roberts would be a perfect candidate.