Darkest Hour – Why Winston Churchill Matters

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In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

– Winston S. Churchill (May 13, 1940 in his first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons)

Eleven years ago, I had an idea.

Traveling through England with my wife and reading Roy Jenkins’ exhaustive work, Churchill: A Biography, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was never taught. As we traveled from Churchill’s birthplace (Blenheim Palace) to his final resting place (St. Martin’s Churchyard in Bladon), from monuments at Parliament’s Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, the towering figure of Winston Churchill only grew taller.

Now, I know, I know. Teachers can only cover so much in so little time. And I deserve some blame for having loaded my college schedule with sciences aimed to prepare me for medical school (*sigh*instead of more enduring coursework in history, theology, literature and art. That said, I was blindsided by the courage, the wit, the eloquence and the sheer genius to be found in the story of Hitler’s greatest nemesis, Winston Churchill.

And so what was my idea?

I wanted to tell Churchill’s story to those who either had never heard it or had never fully appreciated it.

And so, quite determined, I bought (and read) innumerable books by and about Winston Churchill, traveled to sites of significance in his life, consumed countless essays and articles (both popular and academic), joined the International Churchill Society and engaged in dialogue with leading experts in Churchill scholarship. As an internal medicine physician and clinical professor who teaches medical students and residents, I was clearly stepping out of my comfort zone. In fact, in wanting to translate my knowledge into teaching opportunities, I was soon relying on various open-minded benefactors who, like me, might see the dearth of Churchill literacy as a wrong that urgently needed to be righted. As would be expected, some benefactors were more warm to my vision than others. In one instance, as I described how I planned on rolling out the biography of Churchill with quotes, anecdotes, sweeping speeches, harrowing history and engaging pictures, I found a pregnant pause at the other end of the telephone line followed by, “Well… uh, that’s unique.” And then,  “You know, people don’t necessarily get rich giving these types of talks.” After assuring her, I had gainful employment, we struck an agreement. After countless hours of research and rehearsal followed by a ninety minute one-night presentation, I was exhilarated. Weeks later I received my first check. It was for $15. Even though she asked me repeatedly if I was going to cash it (she was a stickler for balancing her books), I said no. This was the hardest and most passionately earned $15 in my life. It was the beginning of a good thing.

For the last ten years I have told Churchill’s story (along with Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Truman’s and others in my Titans & Tyrants Lecture Series) to high school history classes, community education audiences, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, county libraries, countless large civic or religious organizations and even packs of friends in the back room of pubs (one even named Brit’s Pub, no less). It is a tale too inspiring, too harrowing and (yes, with Churchill) too witty to ever grow tired.

Of late, Winston Churchill has started to re-emerge in the public’s consciousness. There is never a shortage of books on Churchill (most recently, Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire, and Thomas Ricks’ Churchill and Orwell). Netflix brilliantly cast John Lithgow in The Crown as an aging (but quite engaging) Winston Churchill opposite the young, inexperienced Queen Elizabeth II. And Gary Oldman just triumphantly portrayed Churchill in Joe Wright’s film, Darkest Hour, the indispensable story of the pivotal and desperately uncertain moments of Churchill’s earliest days as Prime Minister (in May, 1940).

In the sprawling, blood-soaked drama that was World War II, Darkest Hour clarifies just why Winston Churchill matters. But I want to observe that while this indispensable story has been told in segments by so many over the years, perhaps no one has yet told it better than historian John Lukacs in his 1999 book, Five Days in London, May 1940. This brilliant yet approachable book  terrifies by forcing us to consider the very real possibility of an alternative, hellish ending to World War II.

Think about it…

A popular Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ousted due to negligence over the handling of the war (and the events leading up to it) from September, 1939 to early May, 1940. A dashing, charismatic preferred replacement, Lord Halifax, who favored a negotiated peace with Hitler declines the Prime Minister position (but still wants to influence policy and his party). The Nazi Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, has not only negotiated a deal with the Soviets in the East, but has turned his screaming blitzkrieg westward and has begun to conquer Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and is about to achieve in six weeks what the German Army couldn’t achieve in four years of World War I – the conquest of France. If that weren’t bad enough, 350,000 British and French troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting certain death by the German Luftwaffe and pressing Nazi ground forces. The Americans chose to remain aloof to Europe’s crisis having promised in the recent election that ‘no American boys will be sent to fight any foreign wars.’ And Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister tapped to decide the best way forward, was distrusted as a capricious, untrustworthy, functional alcoholic too bent on his own advancement and hare-brained schemes to be a sound leader in distressing times.

This was not only Churchill and England’s Darkest Hour, but it was the Darkest Hour for Western Civilization. Page after page of Lukacs’ book illustrates and scene after scene of Darkest Hour recreates how close England – the last bastion of hope against the ruthless Nazi menace – came to cutting a deal with Hitler.

But why didn’t they negotiate?

First, because Churchill was an attentive student of history (especially the recent historical blunders of an appeasing Britain) and knew that,  “Nations that went down fighting rose again, but those who surrendered tamely were finished.” Hitler’s violation of his word was now legendary and those nations and individuals who appeased him drew his merciless ire.

Second, Churchill was an exquisite analyst of human nature. He understood the fine nuance of when to press an argument and when to step away. He discerned the cool value of pragmatism, logic and rationality, but also the deep and undeniable thirst for courage, dignity and purpose. When discussions as a group faltered, Churchill adjourned and approached the individual. When discussions with an individual were at a stalemate, he excused himself and grew support by persuading the group. When others saw the desperate need to approach President Roosevelt in the direst of circumstances, Churchill said ‘no’ for it would only signal weakness (and no one wants to back the weak horse). When strength and victory began to mount, Churchill pressed the President to join in their winning cause.

Finally, Churchill had a near-mystical sense of calling. One of the most extraordinary stories I have ever heard about Churchill came from a boarding school friend of his, Murland Evans, who quietly approached Martin Gilbert when Gilbert was writing his biography on Churchill. As seventeen year-old schoolboys in the headmaster’s basement, Evans recalled having a discussion with Winston about what Churchill planned on doing in the future. Here is what Churchill said in 1891 (forty-nine years prior to becoming Prime Minister) about dreams he had been having. Without question, Churchill’s prophetic words shocked Evan’s sensibilities.

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster.…dreams of the future are blurred but the main objective is clear. I repeat—London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.

John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940 and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour tell the story of  how, under extreme pressure and against unthinkable odds, the nuanced considerations and courageous decisions of one man altered the shape of a nation, a cause and the world. Forever.

Why does Winston Churchill matter?

Because in a war that consumed over fifty million lives, that saw ghastly concentration camps and unrepentant butchery, that truly could have seen a perpetually Nazified Europe and an Asia (and beyond?) gripped by Imperial Japan, one man (unlike any other) held out dogged hope and delivered. And the world is forever indebted to him.

When Winston Churchill turned eighty, thousands gathered and lauded him for having the lion heart which galvanized Allied and subjugated people to victory. But the aging Churchill demurred. The lion heart, he effectively said, belonged to all those who stood up to tyranny…

“I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

Photo credit: Wikipedia “The Roaring Lion” by Yousuf Karsh