Churchill’s Uncontested Status as a ‘Great Man' in world history
By the time Churchill was making his mark, historians were more likely to attribute individual greatness to social forces set in place long before any particular actor arrived on the scene. While there certainly is truth in the notion that Churchill would not have been Churchill without the late 19th-century British society into which he was born, impersonal forces seem inadequate to explain his winning performance as a leading force in the free world.
Five decades after Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson hopes to rekindle interest in the great man. Johnson has served since 2008 as mayor of London, the city from which Churchill helped sign Nazism’s death warrant 70 years ago. Through the book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson makes the case for a truly indispensable man.
Take, for example, Churchill’s decision at the beginning of his term as wartime prime minister to ignore his advisers and reject any prospect of a peaceful settlement with Adolf Hitler. “If Britain had done a deal in 1940,” Johnson writes, “then there would have been no liberation of the continent. The country would not have been a haven of resistance, but a gloomy client state of an infernal Nazi EU.”
“I don't know whether it is right to think of history as running on train tracks, but let us think of Hitler's story as one of those huge and unstoppable double-decker expresses that he had commissioned, howling through the night with its cargo of German settlers,” Johnson adds.
“Think of that locomotive, whizzing towards final victory. Then think of some kid climbing the parapet of the railway bridge and dropping the crowbar that jams the points and sends the whole enterprise for a gigantic burton — a mangled, hissing heap of metal. Winston Churchill was the crowbar of destiny. If he hadn't been where he was, and put up resistance, that Nazi train would have carried right on.”
As the passage suggests, Johnson is no buttoned-down academic historian. Like his more famous subject, the mayor has a journalist’s eye for detail and ear for conversational language. His narrative leaps back and forth in time, tying Churchill’s biographical details to chapters addressing broader themes: his reckless heroism, love of combat and publicity (as well as publicity about his combat), and steadfast belief in the British Empire among them.
A not insignificant amount of verbiage describes Johnson’s own interaction with the Churchill story. He visits Churchill's home and office settings, cemeteries and battlefields, even modern-day businesses named for Churchill. Political observers have noted that Johnson, an eccentric character with some degree of Churchillian charisma, has produced this book just as he prepares for a likely return to the British House of Commons, where he might contend for the prime minister’s post that Churchill held on two occasions in the 1940s and 1950s.
It’s not hard to read the book as Johnson’s attempt to convince Britons that another Tory with unorthodox views and a showman’s chutzpah might be just what the island nation needs. Regardless of Johnson's political intentions, his book succeeds in identifying the ways in which Churchill’s personality proved as important as his policies in helping Britain cope with the dark task of winning World War II.
Consider another passage focusing on a famous propaganda image of Churchill aiming a tommy gun while wearing a pinstripe suit and bowler hat. “To use an overused word, there is something iconic about that shot, because in 1940 Churchill was in the process of becoming an icon — almost literally.”
“He was transmogrifying himself into the spirit of the nation, the very emblem of defiance. … He is fat, jolly, high-living, rumbustious — and patriotic to a degree that many have always considered hyperbolical and unnecessary, but which now, in the present crisis, seems utterly right. It is impossible to imagine any of his rivals achieving this feat … none of them.”
Had Churchill succeeded only in holding Britain together long enough to enable Russian, and later American, forces to pound Hitler’s Nazis into submission, the Briton’s place in history would be secure. But Johnson reminds us that Churchill was also the single most important figure in coaxing Americans into the Second World War, that he was the first world leader to publicize concerns about a communist “Iron Curtain” in eastern Europe after that war’s end, and that he played a critical role in drawing a map of the Middle East (a term he coined) that still has ramifications today.
If history truly has no “great men,” no one told Winston Spencer Churchill, and it would be hard to read this book and imagine how today’s world could have come into existence without his highly personal stagecraft.
Mitch Kokai is an Associate Editor of Carolina Journal.