Reviewed by Jonathan Colman (Humanities and Social Sciences, South Cheshire College)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2003)
Exalting Winston Churchill
Exalting Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill's historical reputation currently stands high, as witnessed by the recent publication of two laudatory biographies by major writers as well as a more general revival of interest in his life and leadership qualities. John Lukacs has supplemented the literature with his own highly favorable appraisal of this archetypal British leader. The book is not a full-blown biography; instead, it takes a thematic approach. It addresses topics such as Churchill's relationships with other leaders such as Stalin, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower; his "visionary" anticipation of developments such as the Cold War; his attitudes towards issues such as European unity; his prowess as a historian; the way he has been perceived by admirers and detractors alike; and Lukacs's personal account of Churchill's funeral in 1965. The work is a compelling read, although not without some modest flaws.
Lukacs argues that Churchill regarded Stalin as a latter-day incarnation of a Tsar, as brutal and ruthless a figure as Ivan the Terrible and with the longstanding Russian proclivity towards territorial aggrandizement. The two bilateral meetings (1942 and 1944) between Stalin and Churchill were, Lukacs maintains, at least as significant as the trilateral gatherings in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945), and Potsdam (1945). In 1942, despite the Anglo-American failure to open a "second front" in Europe, Churchill managed to engage Stalin's respect, and this permitted them when they next met bilaterally--in 1944--to divide eastern Europe by means of the notorious "percentages agreement." The arrangement, notes Lukacs, helped to preserve Greece from Soviet domination, while at Yalta Churchill played the decisive role in helping to preserve Poland's existence as an independent state--albeit one within the communist sphere of influence.
So momentous were the events that drew Churchill and Roosevelt together that the extensive correspondence between these two great personalities represents "no less a monument than, say, the Colosseum in the age of Rome or the city of Paris in the Modern Age" (p. 50). Lukacs examines Churchill's efforts to maximize American support in the war against Hitler in the years 1940-41, and points out that the British leader was the more prescient with regard to the dangers of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As the war progressed, Roosevelt--feeling that he could handle Stalin better than could Churchill--was inclined to disassociate himself from the Prime Minister, but the bonds between him and Churchill laid the foundations for the modern-day Anglo-American "special relationship."
Lukacs analyses Churchill's largely fruitless efforts in the early 1950s to persuade Eisenhower of the virtues of pursuing an East-West d=tente. The author notes the irony that in 1944-45 Eisenhower had opposed Churchill's proposals to try to restrain Soviet territorial expansion in Europe on the grounds that the these proposals were anti-Russian, but a few years later the American leader regarded Churchill's efforts to ease the Cold War as excessively favorable to Russia. Lukacs argues that while Churchill's expectations for a summit meeting with the Russians may have been exaggerated, he was correct in his anticipation that the Soviet Union was softening its line, with, for example, the signing in 1955 of the treaty upholding Austrian neutrality. Eisenhower is depicted as self-satisfied and dogmatic in his outlook, and there is a corresponding need for historians to adopt a more critical line towards his policies.
There is also an assessment of Churchill's concerns in the 1930s about the dangers of a resurgent Germany, and of his hostility towards the diplomatic appeasement of the Nazi regime. He clearly loathed the prospect of a German-dominated Europe, and after the war he was a leading proponent of European unity as a means of underpinning a Franco-German reconciliation and of establishing a bastion against Soviet encroachment. His vision of European unity did not include Britain, but Lukacs does not go far in illuminating why Churchill did not seek to promote a British connection with western Europe.
Lukacs assesses Churchill's talents as a historian, noting that his writings were very "personal and participatory" in nature (p. 104). Churchill's main strength as a writer of history was not the objective analysis of the past but the masterful and compelling way in which he expressed himself. There is an account of Churchill's numerous political and personal failures in the years before 1940, although--needless to say--these were overwhelmed by his role as "the savior of Western civilization" (p. 129). Lukacs also evaluates some of the recent biographies of Churchill, and the book culminates in an evocation of the three days that Lukacs spent in London for Churchill's funeral in 1965.
Although it sheds light on some of the lesser-known aspects of Churchill's life and suggests a number of topics that warrant further research, it must be noted that John Lukacs's Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian. does not add much to the historical record. There is the irritating absence of an index, let alone a bibliography. However, overall the book is an eloquent testimony to the power and fascination of personality in history, and it represents a worthy addition to the literature on one of the most interesting and humane of twentieth-century leaders.
. The biographies are Geoffrey Best, Churchill: a Study in Greatness, and Roy Jenkins, Churchill, both London, 2001.
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Jonathan Colman. Review of Lukacs, John, Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian.
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