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The difference that a single man made to history

In the just-published Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning"John Lukacs provides a streamlined, elegant account of Churchill’s speeches and statesmanship during the crucial summer of 1940, when Britain stood on the brink of disaster" -

Churchill delivered the speech before a parliament still dominated by supporters of Neville Chamberlain and by Conservative mandarins suspicious of Churchill’s alleged bellicosity, "unreliability" "unscrupulousness," and sundry other character defects. As Lukacs makes clear, Churchill’s enemies at that time were primarily members of his own party; only a year or two earlier, they had been wholehearted defenders of a policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. After the deceptive inactivity of the "phony war"—in which the Western democracies stood back waiting to be attacked—and the devastating British defeat in Norway, a critical mass of the Conservative party came to realize that Neville Chamberlain did not have the personal qualities necessary for wartime leadership. But many still distrusted Churchill, including some eminent lights who in time would become unabashed Churchillians.

. . .Delivered three days after King George VI asked Churchill to form a government, the speech, one of Churchill’s shortest, was neither recorded nor broadcast to the nation at large. It became famous only after the fact. The BBC laconically summed it up in its regular news that evening by citing its key sentence: “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined the government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In the speech itself, those words were followed by Churchill’s declaration of his government's "policy" to "wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us."

For Lukacs, Churchill’s maiden speech as prime minister is striking for the moral realism that informed his judgment of the international situation and his message to the British people. He did not in any way obscure what Lukacs calls the "prospect of plight and suffering" that lay ahead. Lukacs convincingly argues that Churchill was a liberty-loving aristocrat who appreciated the British people's capacity to absorb bad news and to respond accordingly. He could appeal to the gritty determination of a free people to stand up against a "monstrous tyranny" and respond, when necessary, to a call to sacrifice on behalf of a way of life worth defending. As Lukacs points out, judging events by their eventual consequences is easy; it is now a commonplace to say that "the British pulled through," that "England held." But there was nothing inevitable about the survival of either Britain or of "Western civilization." A student of Tocqueville, Lukacs resists the illusion of retrospective fatalism, of historical determinism, to which so many historians succumb in a democratic age and about which the French thinker warned so powerfully. Lukacs is wonderfully attentive to the human element, to the difference that a single man made in shaping history.

Not forgetting the people who made it possible . . .with all the strength that God can give us.

Comments (1)

Anonymous:

As Chancellor in the 1920's Liberal government Churchill was responsible for denuding Britain of its defense capability. Having ended WW1 with the greatest army in our history, the largest airforce in the world and a modern navy all this was thrown away. Churchill was thrown out of government and crossed The House (again) to rejoin the Conservative Party he had left as at the time he saw no political and personnal advantage in his staying with the Connservatives.No wonder he was not trusted by other members of his new party!

Neville Chamberlain was no appeaser of Hitler. In 1938 there was no sense in going to war as British rearmament had hardly begun.It was Chamberlain who declared war on Germany in 1939 following their invasion of Poland. Churchill was made First Lord of the Admiralty and followed the same course as in 1914 when he held the same position by interferring in the running of the naval war. The Norway debacle had a lot to do with Churchill's meddling, just as the escape of the Goeben in 1914 did which led ultimatley to bringing Turkey into the war on the side of Germany. We were lucky that in 1940 Sweden stayed neutral!

Churchill was not the unqualified success that he makes himself out to be in his rewriting of history in 6 volumes and there is a good argument to be made that some other leader could have made a better job by letting the Generals, Admirals and Air Marshalls fight the war in the way they saw fit. Hitler had a better understanding of military matters than Churchill. He actually served at the front rather than play at it for a few weeks.

Churchill has his place in British history but do not get carried away by the myth that he has created about himself. We tend to over do the blood, tears, toil and sweat thing before asking why this was what we were left with after Churchillian failures of the 1920's and after!

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