With the release of “Darkest Hour” in theaters today, the larger-than-life personality and historical presence of Winston Churchill comes back to the forefront of the public’s imagination. The film perhaps introduces one of the most consequential figures of the twentieth century to a younger generation for the first time.
The film centers around arguably the most dramatic and perilous period in a lifetime of drama and danger: when Great Britain stood alone against the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of Nazi Germany. France had surrendered, the Low Countries had fallen, Scandinavia was occupied or cowed in fear, and Eastern Europe lay pinned under Nazi and Soviet jackboots. To a contemporary observer, resistance to the Nazis seemed hopeless.
More than a few neutrals threw in their lot with the Nazis in hopes of sharing the spoils of conquest, while others, including many in the United Kingdom, believed the only recourse was suing for peace on Adolph Hitler’s terms and praying a few precious scraps of freedom would remain to them. Churchill, almost alone, disagreed.
An anachronism even in his own day, Churchill clung to romantic notions of honor and imperial glory, which caused some of his peers embarrassment and would be mocked by many today. Although history now views him favorably for his foresight in predicting the Nazi threat, he was often on the wrong side of history, reluctant to embrace changes his countrymen viewed as inevitable.
Churchill was steadfastly against India’s independence, or of any diminishment of the British Empire. He long clung to the dream of his country maintaining its mantle as the world’s sole superpower and sole arbiter of peace. He was wrong, and history moved on with or without him. But whereas most of the rest of the free world believed the scourge of war had ended forever in 1919, Churchill knew there would always be new dragons to face.
The Life that Built the Legend We Know
While Churchill is best known for rallying the British people, and the free world, to a heroic stand against the Nazi war machine, his life prior to 1940 is worthy of admiration, emulation, and study. His biography often reads like an adventure story, laced with healthy doses of drama, tragedy, and comedy.
This man who belonged to another era came to be his country’s last hope and the savior the world from Nazi tyranny, even if it came at the cost of his beloved empire and a lost way of life. His death in 1965 marked the passing of a giant cursed to see the end of the world he had known and loved and condemned to a new one he didn’t fully understand, but had paradoxically saved from destruction, or as William Manchester eloquently writes in his biography of the man:
Tragedy is the wasting shadow always cast, sooner or later, by towering heroism. Therein lay the terrible grandeur in Churchill’s funeral, a quarter century after Dunkirk. The nation was bidding farewell both to a great Englishman and to the greatness of England. When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bareheaded Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he meant, but all that they had been, and no longer were, and would never be again.
From his early life, one could be forgiven for thinking Churchill would never amount to much. He was born scion to a wealthy and distinguished family, but treated with indifference, if not outright neglect, by his socialite mother and status-seeking father. Confined to the care of successive nannies and boarding schools, denied any affection by his parents (whose marriage was a constant string of infidelities), Churchill came to know the opposite of a healthy home life and upbringing.
He was a poor student, afflicted with a speech impediment, and deemed generally below average. By nature of his birthright, he could easily have slid into comfortable mediocrity, enjoying the fruits of his family name and amounting to little else. However, the precocious youth instead sought to turn his weaknesses into strengths and follow the path of honor to his destiny.
Up from an Unfavorable Home Life
He gained admittance to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he was commissioned with the Fourth Hussars. He served as an observer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and saw action in northern India and Sudan while in uniform. During the Second Boer War, he served as a newspaper correspondent, was captured, and made a thrilling escape across hundreds of miles of enemy territory to freedom in Portuguese East Africa. Hanging up his uniform, he became a well-known and respected author, lecturer, and eventually parliamentarian. His star was ascendant.
In his personal life he also strayed far from the childhood he had known. He married Clementine Hozier in 1908. She was the love of his life from whom he never strayed, and served as a foundation upon which the rock of his resolve would stand. Together they had five children, whom Churchill adored. He lavished them with love and affection as if trying to make up for his own childhood neglect.
In the years leading up to World War I, Churchill was promoted to first lord of the admiralty, a position of tremendous responsibility overseeing the “senior service.” While there, he pioneered the use of aircraft in combat and modernization of the British fleet. His service as first lord ended in disaster with his support of an offensive in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, a plan designed to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and open Austria-Hungary to invasion from the south.
The plan was sound, and if the naval attack had been pursued with vigor, likely would have succeeded as Enver Pasha conceded after the war: “If the English had only had the courage to rush more ships through the Dardanelles they could have got to Constantinople.” Nevertheless, Churchill became the scapegoat for the plan’s failure and loss of life. But rather than return to the countryside to lick his wounds, he decided to once more don a uniform and fight in Flanders, amidst all the mud, gore, and horror the trenches could offer.
Churchill was not superhuman. He simply refused to allow himself to be average through inaction, channeling a tremendous willpower and resolve to succeed in what he put his mind to. He erred mightily, but he did not shirk responsibility and adapted accordingly so that he would succeed when he tried again. He suffered from depression, his “Black Dog,” as he called it, but he refused to allow the setbacks that brought it on to become his master. It is well he did not, for another storm was gathering over Europe, one for which he, and few others, was prepared.
The Defender of the Realm
As a child Churchill had memorized great tracts of Thomas Macaulay’s “The Lays of Ancient Rome,” with a favorite verse being the pledge of brave Horatius to defend the Sublician bridge from invading Etruscans. Perhaps his love of the epic was prologue, as he would be the earliest, most vehement, and often sole voice in the wilderness warning of the threat emanating from a revived Germany hypnotized by the ravings of Hitler.
As powerful members of his government and those on the continent sought accommodation or even alliance with Hitler and the Nazis, Churchill warned incessantly that no accommodation with the beast was possible, war was inevitable. He was mocked, derided, and shunned for most of the 1930s by the most prominent European leaders aside from the senior Nazi hierarchy, who almost alone recognized Churchill as a formidable challenge to their plans. When war did finally come in 1939, upon learning of Churchill’s appointment to the war cabinet Hermann Göring sighed, “Churchill in the cabinet. That means war is really on. Now we shall have war with England.”
With the fall of France in June 1940, the war seemed over and by most measures should have ended with a catastrophic rout of the Western allies and the British under siege. The Nazis were keen to negotiate a settlement, as were many in the British government, but Churchill once again refused to capitulate.
As after the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., when the legions of the Roman Republic were routed and destroyed by Carthaginian Hannibal Barca, the war seemed lost. Hannibal expected terms. The Romans refused, believing that their destiny was either to conquer and rule, or to vanish from history. There was no middle way.
Churchill took this same view, telling his countrymen in the midst of their most desperate hours that their aim was “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
Through his eloquence and proud rhetoric, he was able to reignite the fires of British national pride and the spirit of resistance. His voice summoned up the courage for Brittania to once more unsheathe her sword and take up her shield to stand as the last light against the howling dark. He stood before his people as brave Horatius asking, “Now, who will man the bridge with me?”
Winston Churchill’s Legacy
What does the memory and legacy of Winston Churchill mean to us today, and how may we emulate his example? The obvious failure of the Nazis to achieve the full measure of the final vision of their horrific regime is the most prominent reason for gratitude towards Churchill, but his life in full may serve as a beacon to us even today. His unflagging determination to succeed, his love of family, and his steadfast faith in honor and righteousness even in the face of evil is one to which we should all aspire.
In his heart of hearts, even Churchill must have known the sun was finally beginning to set on the British Empire in 1939. Despite his best efforts to cling to imperial glory, the changing world would not abide. Others in his position may have become embittered and withdrawn, spurning a world that left them behind.
But as the curtain began to fall on the empire, he recognized that she needed him in the final act. Ever the romantic, he knew that the choice but remained on how to meet the end of an era, and so he uttered the immortal lines to an anxious nation: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.” And so it was.