Churchill’s ‘Admirable Self-Restraint’

Churchill: Walking with Destiny
by Andrew Roberts

Allen Lane, 2018, 1104 pages, $69.99

In April 2002 The Atlantic published an essay by the Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens on Winston Churchill (“The Medals of His Defeats”), which reviewed some of the prominent and recent Churchill biographies and more broadly attempted to critically evaluate his career and legacy. After expounding on what he saw as the “Churchill cult”, fostered by sycophantic, sentimental historians whose works are riddled with turgid prose and hopelessly mixed metaphors, even the arch-contrarian Hitchens was unable to avoid the conclusion that Churchill was a great man.

This review appeared in December’s Quadrant.
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This view, unsurprisingly, comes down to the events of May and early June 1940. These were the crucial few weeks in which, with the imminent fall of France and the threat of a German invasion of the British Isles, Churchill rallied a defeatist War Cabinet, spurned Hitler’s offers of a negotiated peace and resolved to commit his people to fight on to the end—events that may be fresh in readers’ minds after the recent release of the Churchill biopic Darkest Hour. So despite, for example, pointing to Churchill’s part in battlefield defeats like Gallipoli in the First World War, the ignominious retreats from Norway, France, Greece and Crete in the Second World War, or the inevitable dissolution of the now debt-laden British Empire by 1945, Hitchens writes:

I find that I cannot rerun the tape of 1940, for example, and make it come out, or wish it to come out, any other way … Alone among his contemporaries, Churchill did not denounce the Nazi empire merely as a threat, actual or potential, to the British one. Nor did he speak of it as a depraved but possibly useful ally. He excoriated it as a wicked and nihilistic thing. That appears facile now, but was exceedingly uncommon then … Some saving intuition prompted Churchill to recognize, and to name out loud, the pornographic and catastrophically destructive nature of the foe. Only this redeeming x factor justifies all the rest—the paradoxes and inconsistencies, to be sure, and even the hypocrisy.

To what hypocrisy is Hitchens referring? This is surely Britain’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, which he alludes to several times:

The argument about World War II and its worthwhileness is the most apparently settled and decided of all major questions in our culture … Even the standby argument of some anti-Churchill Tories (and others, including George Orwell), about the callous collusion between Churchill and Stalin, seems almost anachronistic in view of the eventual implosion of the Soviet system.

This argument seems to me to be faintly ahistorical. The Soviet Union did not implode until 1991. The preceding forty-five years, which we call the Cold War, saw the “Soviet system” ruthlessly imposed on Eastern Europe and large parts of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, leading to tens of millions of deaths from genocide and proxy wars, not to mention the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

This “callous collusion”, as Hitchens provocatively puts it, is an under-explored theme in studies of Churchill during and after the Second World War. Take, for example, a major new work by the popular historian Andrew Roberts. Churchill: Walking with Destiny is the first full-length biography of Churchill based on primary sources for some years. It is a huge achievement. Certainly it is not hagiography. Roberts has uncovered some interesting new information and is highly critical of many aspects of Churchill’s career.

With a constant flow of Churchill books released every year, Roberts manages to bring freshness to a familiar story. However, when it comes to Churchill’s evolving attitudes and policies towards Stalin and the Soviet Union, Roberts is predictably deferential to historical orthodoxy. He concludes his study by asserting that when it came to the three mortal threats posed to Western civilisation, “by Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgement stood far above that of the people who had sneered at his”. I think the last of these assertions is far too generous. Churchill’s judgment on the Soviet threat was more ambiguous and problematic than his admirers would like to admit. There is ample evidence that his relationship with Stalin consistently exhibited naivety, hypocrisy and denial. As a result, Churchill’s conscience was tormented by the moral compromises he had to make during the war and was depressed by its most enduring legacy: the proliferation of communism in Europe (and later Asia). He initially thought that Europe and the world would be safe and secure if the single-minded pursuit of the destruction of Nazism was effected. When late in the war it became obvious that this was not going to be the case, Churchill came to realise the limitations of a war policy predicated solely on the grounds of idealism and morality.

Churchill initially opposed the communist movement in Russia. During the failed British intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks in 1918 and 1919, when he was Secretary of State for War, he called the ascendant communists under Lenin a “plague bearing” regime. In the years that followed, however, most of Churchill’s antipathy towards communism was directed at Lenin and Trotsky rather than Stalin, and in any case by the 1930s Hitler’s Germany was the more ominous threat. After the Second World War began, the Soviet Union, under the terms of the nefarious Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, had been happy to remain neutral in the conflict, continuing to supply Germany with raw materials as France was defeated and Britain was forced from the continent. Following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Churchill immediately committed Britain to an alliance with Stalin’s regime. This was largely accepted by the British Parliament and the public. As George Orwell wrote at this time, there are “great numbers of English people who have no special reaction towards the USSR”. Russia, like China, was “simply a mysterious country a long way away, which once had a revolution, the nature of which has been forgotten. All the hideous controversies about the purges, the Five Year Plans, the Ukraine famine, etc have simply passed over the average newspaper-reader’s head.”

Not just the average newspaper-reader, I would add, as Churchill’s first meeting with Stalin shows. The Soviet Union survived the initial German onslaught and Moscow avoided capitulation but, in early 1942, the Wehrmacht renewed its offensive and once again the Red Army was in a headlong retreat. In August Churchill made the arduous trip by aeroplane to Moscow. The main purpose of the meeting was to reinforce the alliance and break the bad news to the Soviet dictator that, even with the United States in the war, the second front against Germany would not be launched in the near future. Roberts, of course, covers this historic episode but makes only a passing reference to one particularly interesting exchange between Churchill and Stalin. A fuller and more revealing account can be found in the fourth volume of Churchill’s own history of the war (and in the official biography of Churchill by Martin Gilbert). During their final meeting on August 15, Churchill asked Stalin if the stresses of the war had been as bad as the collectivisation of agriculture, which had its most intense and murderous phase in 1932 and 1933. Stalin said this earlier struggle was worse and admitted ten million people died, holding up his hands, most of whom were the more affluent peasants. As Churchill writes:

“These were what you call the Kulaks?”

“Yes,” [Stalin] said, but he did not repeat the word. After a pause, “It was all very bad and difficult—but necessary.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh well,” he said, “many of them agreed to come in with us … but the great bulk were very unpopular and were wiped out by their labourers.”

Churchill continues:

I record as they come back to me these memories, and the strong impression I sustained at the moment of millions of men and women being blotted out or displaced for ever. A generation would no doubt come to whom their miseries were unknown, but it would be sure of having more to eat and bless Stalin’s name. I did not repeat Burke’s dictum “If I cannot have reform without injustice, I will not have reform.” With the World War going on all round us it seemed vain to moralise aloud.

Churchill knew that the very necessary alliance with Stalin was making him a hypocrite. Britain’s conflict with Germany (and later Italy and Japan) was justified to his people on moral precepts. Churchill’s policies were based on not just a sober assessment that the Nazis threatened Britain’s independence, which they certainly did, but a unique understanding that Hitler’s regime unchecked would be a catastrophe for mankind, or a “new Dark Age” as he put it.

Soviet propaganda: The lighter side of mass murder

To be sure, this understanding was vindicated, as at this time the Holocaust had already begun, with mass shootings of Jews in conquered Soviet territories in 1941 and the establishment of extermination camps in 1942. But here in Moscow we have the Soviet dictator admitting to his new ally, albeit somewhat cryptically, the unnatural deaths of ten million Soviet citizens ten years earlier, and all Churchill can do is inform his readers that he wanted to retort with a quote from Edmund Burke, but chose not to.

During the war Churchill tried to ignore, with limited success, any doubts over the alliance with the Soviet Union by reasserting his belief that victory over Germany would bring a lasting peace. To this end, at the meeting of the Big Three Allied powers in Teheran in November 1943, Britain and the United States made a commitment to launch an invasion of northern France the following year to take the pressure off the Red Army and hasten Germany’s defeat. At the conference Churchill even presented Stalin with a specially commissioned ceremonial sword to commemorate the decisive Soviet victory at Stalingrad earlier in the year.

Maintaining this conviviality was difficult. At a notorious episode at a dinner during the conference, Stalin proposed that 50,000 German officers be shot after the war to prevent any resurgence of German militarism. Churchill is recorded as being outraged, but later wrote that the Soviet dictator was teasing him, and that he did not mind. Roberts, therefore, praises what he calls Churchill’s “admirable self-restraint”, claiming that he could have responded “with his own devastating wit and irony”, but chose not to in order to preserve good relations. We might add that this supposed self-restraint is all the more admirable given that, as Roberts acknowledges, Churchill knew through his codebreakers that the Soviet Union, as German propaganda had been broadcasting, had executed 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals shortly after Hitler and Stalin had divided up that nation in 1939.

Soon after the Teheran conference, contemplating the likelihood that Stalin would control the whole of Poland after the war, Roberts writes that Churchill told his guests at Chequers in February 1944 that “he felt like telling the Russians, ‘Personally I fight tyranny whatever uniform it wears or slogans it utters.’” Again, he “felt like” telling the Russians, but didn’t. Clearly the moral compromises Churchill was making in his alliance with the Soviet Union were giving him a guilty conscience. Further dwelling on Stalin’s increasing intransigence after Teheran, Churchill said, “Why do I plague my mind with these things, I never used to worry about anything.” According to his doctor, Lord Moran, Churchill asked himself whether Stalin would “become a menace to the free world, another Hitler”.

Another recent book on Churchill, by the American journalist Thomas E. Ricks (Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom), illustrates the knots into which writers and historians often tie themselves. After the Normandy landings in June 1944, Ricks points to Churchill’s interference in the military planning for the imminent Allied invasion of southern France in August:

The summer of 1944 was a time when his great mind could have dwelled on the larger pieces of the postwar world. For example, was there anything to be done to counter the likely Russian takeover of eastern Europe? In particular, could anything be done to help the Poles? These were questions worthy of his powers. But they were so overwhelming, or so intractable, that he chose to instead focus his energies on the secondary issue of whether to land in southern France.

One is left wondering what exactly Ricks is trying to say in this passage, because it seems glaringly contradictory. Perhaps writers and historians have to start accepting that Churchill’s mind was not so great and that some post-war questions were more than worthy of his powers for, as Ricks admits, he chose not to focus on them. Indeed, on August 2, with the Red Army moving into Poland, the Prime Minister instead reassured the House of Commons, “I salute Marshal Stalin, the great champion”, and that the Russian Army brings “the liberation of Poland in their hands. They offer freedom, sovereignty and independence.” This was particularly bad timing because when Churchill spoke these words the Polish Home Army in Warsaw started an uprising against the Nazi occupation. Stalin halted his forces outside the city and, over the next sixty-three days, the Germans brutally suppressed the revolt and almost completely razed the city.

In private Churchill also continued to hope that Polish independence could be maintained after the war. When the Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, met Churchill in Moscow on October 14, 1944, Churchill subjected the Polish leader to an angry tirade for protesting against Stalin’s demands and trying to defend the issue of his nation’s borders, insisting that the nature of the Soviet Union had changed. It is no surprise to read that at this point even Roberts concedes Churchill was being naive. Yet the alliance with Stalin had to be maintained and the self-delusion continued. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, with the Red Army pushing further into Central and Eastern Europe, Churchill and the ailing Roosevelt persuaded Stalin to sign a Declaration on Liberated Europe promising the “right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live”. Stalin had no intention of honouring this agreement, and Churchill revealed that he was keenly aware that by taking comfort in signed agreements with dictators very recent history was repeating itself, saying after the conference, “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I am wrong about Stalin.” Yet Roberts defends Churchill, making a banal observation that no historian of the Munich Agreement would get away with: “The simple fact is that Stalin lied to Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta about Polish independence, free elections in eastern Europe and the influence he would wield there after the war.” It’s not only Churchill who is sometimes naive.

In this context, Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech in March 1946, in which he highlighted the increasing communist influence in East European nations supposedly liberated by the Soviet Union during the war, is not the brave, galvanising call to arms that it is usually presented as, and more a case of too little, too late. It is hardly remarkable foresight for Churchill to warn of the potential Soviet domination of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary as late as 1946, given that he had been agonising over but ultimately acquiescing to this eventuality during the second half of the war. As Christopher Hitchens comments drily, when he “mounted the podium at Fulton and spoke of an ‘Iron Curtain’ extending from the Baltic to the Adriatic, Churchill at least possessed the authority of someone who had done much to bring that curtain down”.

Furthermore, Churchill was in opposition at this stage so we can see that, much as during the late 1930s, being free of the constraints of high office is more conducive to taking principled stands against aggressor nations. Roberts agrees, but thinks it is to Churchill’s credit, writing he “could not have warned of the threat of Communism if he had also had to deal diplomatically with the USSR from day to day”. This is not complimentary. It is argued by historians, and no doubt readers of this essay, that Britain and the United States could not do anything to help the Poles or other East European nations during the war because of the need to preserve the alliance to achieve the unconditional surrender of Germany. With Germany defeated, couldn’t we expect that if in an alternative reality Churchill was returned as Prime Minister in 1945 that the Iron Curtain speech could have been official British policy? Roberts does not think so, inadvertently admitting that a Churchill as Prime Minister during the onset of the Cold War would probably have continued his policy of admirable self-restraint with Stalin. In his account, apart from the Iron Curtain speech and some public remarks denouncing the Czech coup in 1948, even in opposition there is little to suggest Churchill was turning into an ardent Cold Warrior. Instead, Ricks tells us that in 1950, after the communist takeover of Eastern Europe was completed, Churchill gave an interview to the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge in which he lamented, “What a pity [Stalin] turned out to be such a swine.” “Turned out to be?” we may ask. Churchill, rightly lauded for his prescience in warning of the inherently aggressive and evil nature of Hitler’s regime, in 1950 is still struggling to come to terms with Stalinism and blatant Soviet expansionism.

By 1950 it was left to the United States and the Attlee Labour government to change policy towards the Soviet Union. Attlee had led a weakened Britain, despite initial ambivalence, in fully co-operating with the Truman administration’s evolving policy of abandoning any notion of placating Stalin and instead robustly resisting Soviet aggrandisement in Europe and Asia through a policy formulated by the US State Department called “containment”. When Churchill returned as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1954, we would expect that by this stage the great British statesman would unequivocally support this policy. This is not the case. After Stalin died in March 1953, Churchill made an abrupt policy reversal and publicly proposed a major three-power summit with the new Soviet leaders to try and negotiate an end to the Cold War. This was received with alarm by the new US President Dwight Eisenhower and his advisers, not to mention threats of resignation from Churchill’s own cabinet. As Roberts recounts, the Americans hastily convened a meeting with Churchill in Bermuda, at which the Prime Minister urged a policy of “easement” with the Soviet Union. This, Churchill argued, was not the same as appeasement as it would take place from a position of strength. Eisenhower responded with bluntness and vulgarity that shocked the British representatives but at least left them in no doubt what the Americans thought of Churchill’s lame attempts to ameliorate the consequences of his wartime friendship with Stalin.

Ricks observes of the final volume of Churchill’s war memoirs, published at this time: “the tone of the volume is increasingly bleak. The biggest surprise of this final book is its pervasive sadness … Churchill had seen the future, and feared it.” I do not know why Ricks is surprised. Churchill had found that in order to rid Europe of one despotism it would inevitably and indefinitely be replaced with another, and this time there was nothing he or Britain—both in sad decline—could do about it.

Dr Adrian Williams lives in Geelong.


2 thoughts on “Churchill’s ‘Admirable Self-Restraint’

  • whitelaughter says:

    Hope for Poland died when they helped the Germans carve up Czechoslovakia. While it is easy to criticise Churchill, he was able to negotiate the freedom of Greece, saving at least one country from the evils of the Soviets.

  • Bushranger71 says:

    The Brits heralded intention to open the files concerning the German offer of a negotiated peace for the European War, before World War II was triggered; but those files remain closed. WHY?

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