Magazine article History Today

Churchill and the Revisionists

Magazine article History Today

Churchill and the Revisionists

Article excerpt

Andrew Roberts defends Britain's war hero against his detractors, in our Longman/History Today Awards Lecture.

`History', said Churchill in his November 1940 panegyric to Neville Chamberlain, `with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days'. Churchill himself would probably be very pleased by the historical cottage industry which has grown around him. Never far from controversy during his lifetime, he would doubtless have taken enormous pleasure in defending his reputation from what are now loosely called the `revisionists'.

In a sense, of course, all history-writing is a revision of the original version, and for a time Churchill scholars were merely restoring the balance after the mass of over-hagiographical books which appeared lauding him in the fifties and early sixties. Since then, however, and especially relatively recently, a new, violently aggressive, knocking strain has appeared.

It has had surprisingly little effect on the public perception of the great man. The British people, and still more so the Americans seem to have a settled view of Churchill's glory which no amount of historical debate will now alter. `Churchill has a few detractors' wrote the Sunday Telegraph on the fiftieth anniversary of VE day `but none has made much impression on the public view of him'. His popularity shows little sign of abating. The numbers visiting Chartwell have been increasingly annually. an American warship was recently named after him, a 140ft statue of him has been proposed for the white cliffs of Dover and his Sten Gun recently fetched 10,000 [pounds sterling] at auction. The virulence of the May 1995 row over the purchase of his archives with lottery money w as a tribute to his continued presence in the national pantheon, as is the way in which both sides of the European debate have attempted to appropriate his political legacy. In the popular, non-academic sense at least, Churchill revisionism is redundant and this speech therefore pointless. Churchill, like George Washington or his own protagonists Gandhi and de Gaulle -- but very few other historical figures -- is so well-bunked that no amount of debunking books will have any appreciable effect.

The first set of Churchill-knockers are the ideologists. From Clive Ponting on the Left to David Irving on the extreme Right, these people attempt to use Churchill's career in order to make political points of their own. Depicting him as having a vicious or even evil personality, often by dragging quotations wildly out of context and ascribing motives so Machiavellian that they might even have shocked Churchill himself, the ideologists rapidly lose the sympathy and patience of objective readers. If Churchill is so violently loathed by both ends of the political spectrum, they assume, he could not have been all bad.

A second strand of Churchill revisionism comprises a critique which is growing in American libertarian and isolationist circles. In a recent half-hour speech at a historical conference, the New York State University don, Robert Raico managed to make no less than thirty-two accusations against Churchill. According to him, Churchill was a crypto-socialist, an ethnic-cleansing war criminal and a stooge of Stalin. `A man of blood and a politico without principle', Raico wrote in an article supporting his thesis, `whose apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history'. …

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