Winston Churchill, who is the subject of Martin Gilbert’s book, comes out of it all a towering public figure—an inspiring wartime leader who never lost his confidence in the darkest hours of the war, a man of enormous vitality and energy, unsparing of himself, but who never lost an opportunity to enjoy what life had to offer.
Winston Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, seven volumes, by Martin Gilbert (Boston, 1986)
Martin Gilbert’s massive, carefully documented book, the seventh volume of what one can assume to be the official biography of Winston Churchill, gives the reader an almost day-by-day account of Churchill’s decisions and actions in World War II. The author makes no judgments, ascribes no motives, and makes no attempt to relate Churchill’s role to the overall strategy of the war. It is not, therefore, history in the usual sense and can better be described as a chronicle. Having had access to all the relevant documents, including private correspondence and diaries, and because of its meticulous scholarship, this work will remain an indispensable source for historians of World War II.
The book begins with Churchill’s decision following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to go to Washington to confer with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the purpose of his visit, as he said in his telegram to the President, to review “the whole war plan” and to discuss problems of production and distribution. The meeting was set to take place just before Christmas, in Washington. Churchill concluded his telegram with these words: “I never felt so sure about final victory, but only concerted action will achieve it.” With his usual respect for the procedures and traditions of British parliamentary government, Churchill obtained the approval of the War Cabinet for his plans and informed King George VI. The American declaration of war against the Axis powers was a triumph for Churchill and the culmination of many months of careful effort, one of the more skillfully staged events in the process of bringing the United States into the war being the meeting on board the cruiser Augusta in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on August 17, 1941, from which emanated the much-heralded Atlantic Charter, soon to be forgotten after it had served its purpose.
While crossing the stormy Atlantic in that fateful December, Churchill dictated a series of memoranda on the future conduct of the war. One of these, “The Atlantic Front,” dated December 16, is of utmost relevance to an understanding of the future conduct of the war and its consequences. “It was essential,” Churchill concluded, “for Britain and the United States to send Russia the supplies they had promised ‘without fail and punctually.’ In this way alone ‘we shall hold our influence over Stalin and be able to weave the mighty Russian effort into the general texture of the war.’” In April 1942, Churchill told the House of Commons that the war could be ended “only through the defeat of the German armies.” Following Adolf Hitler’s decision to turn against his former ally, Joseph Stalin, therefore, Churchill supported the Soviet Union in every possible way, making no conditions of any kind—“To help Russia there was nothing he would not do,” as he told the House of Commons.
It must have given Stalin, that former Georgian bandit, immense satisfaction to have this British Prime Minister, a descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, no matter how pointed his insults, literally at his beck and call. When, for example, convoys bringing Soviet supplies to Murmansk were temporarily halted following the loss of twenty-three merchant ships from one convoy out of a total of thirty-four, Gilbert quotes Stalin as saying to Churchill at their August 1942 meeting in Moscow, “This is the first time in history that the British Navy has turned tail and fled from battle. The British are afraid of fighting.” Churchill concluded his stay in Moscow with an aide-mémoire, to Stalin, which ended: “We reaffirm our resolve to aid our Russian allies by every practicable means.” No matter what the provocation by Stalin, which included the refusal to permit the British to maintain medical facilities in Murmansk for sailors suffering from frostbite or the use of Russian airfields by their British allies to supply the Poles fighting the Germans during the Warsaw uprising, Churchill continued to supply the Russians “without fail and punctually,” still in the belief that by this means “we shall hold our influence over Stalin.“
Churchill’s conduct of the war can only be understood in view of his determination to win, whatever the cost and whatever the consequences. Two of the elements of his strategy were the unconditional support of the Soviets on the German eastern front, and “an absolutely devastating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” Churchill sent numerous messages to Stalin describing the British air attacks on German cities that give the impression he was intimidated by Stalin and wished to impress him. On January 17, 1943, he telegraphed Stalin: “We dropped 142 tons of high explosives and 218 tons of incendiaries on Berlin last night.” On January 18, he telegraphed that it had been 117 tons of high explosives and 211 tons of incendiaries. In May 1943, he proudly informed Stalin: “We gave Duisburg 1,450 tons, the heaviest yet launched in a single raid.” Following a meeting of the Defense Committee on November 16, 1942, Churchill set out his thoughts on the conduct of the North African and Italian campaigns, a copy of which was sent to Roosevelt and which stated that British night air attacks “should be brought to bear on Italy whenever the weather is more favorable than for bombing Germany”; that every effort should be made “to make Italy feel the weight of the war”; and that Italian industrial centers should be attacked “in an intense fashion,” with every effort made to render them uninhabitable and “to terrorize and paralyse the population.”
Gilbert quotes Churchill as saying to Stalin during his 1942 visit to Moscow, with regard to the German civil population, “[W]e looked upon its morale as a military target. We sought no mercy and we would show no mercy.” Following a particularly heavy series of air raids on the cities of the Ruhr in June 1943, when, according to Gilbert, 15,000 tons of bombs were dropped in seven major attacks, a film was shown during the customary weekend at Chequers, the country house of British Prime Ministers, showing the bombing of German towns from the air, during the course of which one of Churchill’s guests, Richard Casey, is quoted as reporting, “WSC suddenly sat bolt upright and said to me: ‘Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?’” But the air raids went on. Following the terrible air raid on Dresden on February 13, 1945, when, according to Paul Johnson, 135,000 men, women, and children were killed and 4,200 acres of the city completely destroyed, Churchill was sufficiently disturbed to suggest to the Chiefs of Staff Committee “that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities…should be reviewed.” The Air Staff did agree, Gilbert says, that “at this advanced stage of the war” there was no great advantage in bombing “the remaining industrial centres of Germany,” but on the night of April 14, Potsdam, which would hardly qualify as an “industrial centre,” was bombed. Johnson calls the destruction of Dresden “the greatest Anglo-American moral disaster of the war.” The policy of terror bombing, he goes on to say, “marked a critical stage in the moral declension of humanity in our times.”
As was the case with the air raids on German cities, Churchill had occasional moments of doubt concerning his policy of unlimited, unquestioning support of the Soviet Union, particularly of how it might affect the future state of Europe, but in neither case did it have any noticeable influence on his policies. Churchill was a warrior, he loved fighting, and for a warrior, the sole objective is to win. Furthermore, Churchill was a man who lived in the present: “It is a mistake,” he said on February 27, 1945, in a speech in the House of Commons, “to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at one time.” No one can accuse Churchill of “looking too far ahead,” except, perhaps, when it was too late. In a note to Anthony Eden, written in 1942 in response to his views on the post-war organization of the “Four Great Powers,” Churchill added at the end: “It would be a measureless disaster if Russian barbarism overlaid the cultures and independence of the ancient states of Europe.” In a long message to Eden written at the time of San Francisco conference, there is a foretaste of what was to appear in his famous “Iron Curtain Speech,” given in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946—“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent of Europe.” In his message to Eden, Churchill set out his fears for what lay ahead:
Thus the territories under Russian control would include the Baltic Provinces, all of Germany to the occupational line, all Czechoslovakia, a large part of Austria, the whole of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Roumania, Bulgaria, until Greece in her present tottering condition is reached. It would include all of the great capitals of Middle Europe including Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia. This constitutes an event in the history of Europe to which there has been no parallel, and which has not been faced by the Allies in their long and hazardous struggle.
The bombing of Dresden did no credit to those responsible for it, but it was no worse than the bombing of Berlin or Hamburg—the number killed was doubtless far less—and while it could have had no effect on the outcome of the war, which by February 1945 was already decided, neither did the air raids on such beautiful old cities as Freiburg or Wurzburg. Much more disastrous for the future, not only of Europe but of civilization itself, was the policy of unconditional surrender, which made any sort of reasonable peace impossible and required that the war continue to its final, hideous end. The utter failure of Churchill’s efforts to secure the independence of Poland made clear that he, as a result of the policy of unconditional surrender and unlimited support of the Soviets, was, in effect, a prisoner of Stalin. It was President Roosevelt, of course, who initiated the policy of unconditional surrender, but Churchill, whatever doubts he may have had, accepted it unequivocally. During the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, when this policy was first made public, he informed the War Cabinet in London that it was proposed to include in the statement to be issued at the end of the conference “a declaration of firm intention of the United States and the British Empire to continue the war relentlessly until we have brought about the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.”
It was, of course, impossible even to negotiate with such a megalomaniac as Hitler, who, it seems clear, was convinced that if the German people were not willing or able to win the war for him, then they deserved to go down in cataclysmic defeat. But there were other possibilities. As has been confirmed in a number of books by responsible and respected historians—the first was Hans Rothfels’s The German Opposition to Hitler (1948)—there was a responsible, committed opposition to Hitler, which was active before the war started and included men in high places in the army, the Foreign Office, and the Protestant and the Roman Catholic churches, the most visible manifestation of which was the attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. But the policy of unconditional surrender made any encouragement of such efforts impossible. To have negotiated with Hitler was out of the question, but, considering the stakes involved, the millions of lives, the subsequent deportations, the devastation of cities, it is hard to understand why no effort was made to give some encouragement to the high-minded Germans who were willing, and in thousands of cases did, sacrifice their lives to get rid of Hitler. From Roosevelt, one would not have expected much more than such a catchy slogan as “Unconditional Surrender,” as Paul Johnson says of him: “There was an incorrigible element of frivolity in Roosevelt’s handling of foreign policy.” But of Churchill, with the long tradition of British statesmanship behind him and the example of the appalling results of similar policies following the Great War, one might have expected something better. In retrospect, he deplored it all, as in his “Iron Curtain” speech, but by then it was too late.
In The Secret War Against Hitler, William Casey, who was head of the O.S.S. office in London, speaks of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s efforts to induce President Roosevelt to redefine unconditional surrender, having reason to believe that the German generals would then be willing to surrender. “Ike would just as soon not have taken the risk of Overlord [the code name for the cross-channel invasion] if other means of winning the war were available.” Roosevelt refused, Casey said, and then quotes the President as responding that he was not “willing at this time to say that we do not intend to destroy the German nation.” Eisenhower then suggested, Casey says,
that Allied heads of state announce a “clarified” policy the German generals could accept and that would allow them to quit fighting…. But Hull and FDR turned thumbs down on the idea. Nor did Ike have any more luck with Churchill, though a host of British advisors urged the Prime Minister to press for clarification of unconditional surrender. In a minute dictated on April 19, 1944, Churchill said: ‘The matter is on the President. He announced it at Casablanca without any consultation. I am not going to address the President on the subject. For good or ill, the Americans took the lead and it is for them to make the first move.'
In fairness to Churchill, he probably felt that it would serve no purpose “to address the President on the subject,” and that a rebuff would only lessen his already declining influence with him.
“Early in May,” Casey goes on to say, “the conspirators inside the Reich came up with a new scheme, a specific military proposal, which Dulles radioed to London. Dulles said: ‘The opposition group which includes Beck, Rundstedt, and Falkenhausen…were ready to help our armed units get into Germany under the condition, that we agreed to allow them to hold the Eastern front.’” Eisenhower, on his part, Casey continues, “was still looking for a way of rephrasing unconditional surrender to make it more palatable to the German generals and their concept of honor and obligation. He even got playwright Bob Sherwood to draft a speech that took another crack at redefining unconditional surrender. Eisenhower planned to deliver it after the landing. Washington, however, remained silent. Finally, Churchill wrote Ike that ‘this is a matter that really must be dealt with by governments, and cannot be the subject of friends’ talks. I never read anything less suitable for the troops.’” Following the attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, Dulles, so Casey tells us, renewed his efforts to induce those responsible for the conduct of the war to take advantage of the offers of the German generals to end the fighting, but to no avail. “‘And what came from Washington and London?’” Casey quotes Dulles: “‘The attempt on Hitler’s life was dismissed as of no consequence. Churchill suggested that it was merely a case of dog-eat-dog.’” Casey concludes his revelations of efforts to end the war in 1944 with this somber paragraph:
A little encouragement to those Germans ready to risk their lives to free Germany of Hitler could have brought peace before the Russians had crossed the Vistula and before the Western allies had advanced beyond Normandy. This could have avoided many thousands and perhaps millions of casualties, in gas chambers as well as in battle, and could have saved the freedom of millions of people in Eastern Europe.
Martin Gilbert’s book makes it clear that Churchill, old warrior that he was, thoroughly enjoyed the war, at least until its consequences had become evident to him: crossing the Atlantic to confer with Roosevelt, once by battleship and once on the Queen Mary, reminders of the days when “Britannia ruled the waves”; the great conferences when decisions were made which decided the destinies of millions to be followed by sumptuous banquets and congratulatory toasts, very satisfying to the ego; the opportunity to employ his great talent for oratory; reviewing the troops, taking the salute, and observing the progress of the war from his map room; and perhaps most satisfying of all, the sense of power all this gave him. Gilbert quotes from the notes Churchill had dictated while working on the sixth volume of his war memoirs, when, reflecting on the first meeting of the Yalta Conference with Stalin and Roosevelt, he wrote: “We had the world at our feet. Twenty-five million men marching at our orders by land and sea.” So it may have seemed, but as the fate of Poland demonstrated, the independence of which Britain has ostensibly gone to war in the first place to protect, Britain, by the time of the Yalta Conference, had become very much the junior partner in what Churchill liked to refer to as the alliance of “The Three Great Powers,” even as Churchill himself had almost no influence on the actual course of events. The policies of unquestioning support of the Soviet Union and unconditional surrender, the first of which Churchill had initiated and the second supported, if reluctantly, had given Stalin a free hand in Eastern Europe, which, the commitments made in the Atlantic Charter notwithstanding, he lost no time taking advantage of.
World War I, it is painful to remember, was concluded with the Peace of Versailles, which did not bring peace but was to lead to what was, in reality, a continuation of the war it was supposed to end. In contrast, the Congress of Vienna, which followed the Napoleonic wars, resulted in a settlement which lasted for a century without a major European war. France, the defeated, was not subjected to indemnities or territorial annexations, nor treated as a moral pariah, as was Germany following World War I. Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, took part in the deliberations leading to the settlement as an equal. The objective at Vienna was to arrive at a peace which would last; Prince Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, recognized that France, in defeat, was still a major power and a part of Europe.
Following World War II there was not even such a dictated peace as the Treaty of Versailles; the nearest thing we have to a general settlement was represented by the two conferences of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Teheran and at Yalta, which did little more, in reality, than divide Europe between the Soviet Union and the Western powers, to the great advantage of the Soviet Union. These two ill-fated conferences have been the subject of acrimonious debate, have fueled political campaigns and accusations of bad faith and broken promises—all of which makes the detailed, objective account in Gilbert’s book all the more to be welcomed.
The Teheran Conference opened on the afternoon of November 28, 1943, in the Soviet Embassy in Teheran. The American delegation was housed in a separate building on the grounds of the Soviet Embassy and the British delegation in the British Embassy several miles distant. Roosevelt, as the only head of state, presided. At the first meeting, as Gilbert informs us, Churchill told the group that they represented probably “the greatest concentration of worldly power that had ever been seen in the history of mankind.” There were a number of thorny problems and differences among the Allies to be settled: the date of the cross-channel invasion, the Mediterranean strategy, the disposition of Poland, and its future frontier with Germany on the west and Russia on the east, and what was to be done with defeated Germany. When the conference ended, a date for the cross-channel invasion had been settled. It was determined that, rather than proceed north from Italy, there should be an invasion of southern France, that the eastern frontier of Poland should be the “Curzon Line” and the western frontier on the Oder, and that Germany should be divided and made incapable of waging war again in the future. Clearly, Stalin got everything he wanted.
To fulfill the Soviet demand for a warm-water port, Churchill generously suggested giving Stalin the historic German city of Konigsberg, and to compensate Poland for the loss of territory to Russia on the east, he proposed giving Poland the rest of East Prussia and the German territory east of the Oder and the western Neisse, which meant that the historic German cities of Danzig, Stettin, and Breslau would be evacuated and turned over to Poland, while Konigsberg would go to Russia as its warm-water port. When something was said about the evacuation of the population involved, approximately 8,000,000 people, President Roosevelt, always the humanitarian, inquired if it would be possible to make such transfers on a voluntary basis. Stalin made it clear that the Red Army was already taking care of driving out the population under its control. Churchill had demonstrated the movement of populations with three matches, which Stalin then referred to as “the matter of the three matches,” an easy way to dispose of the lives of 8,000,000 people. As for Poland, Churchill said: “What we wanted was a strong and independent Poland, friendly to Russia.”
In connection with all these changes of frontiers and evacuations of populations, it is interesting to recall that while still on board the Duke of York on the way back from his first meeting with Roosevelt in 1941, Churchill was informed by Eden that at a conference with Stalin in Moscow the latter insisted, before making any military agreements, that Britain and the United States agree to Stalin’s demands concerning the future frontiers of Finland, the Baltic states, and Romania. Churchill replied to Eden that such demands “were directly contrary to the first, second, and third articles of the Atlantic Charter to which Stalin has subscribed.” By the time of the Teheran Conference, obviously, all these solemn assurances had been conveniently forgotten.
When Stalin sensed some hesitation on the part of Churchill concerning the date of the cross-channel invasion, he angrily threatened to withdraw from the war; neither Roosevelt nor Churchill, however, was willing to take a strong stand to support any jointly agreed to position, whatever it may have been. Certainly, they would not speak up for Poland. At the time of the Teheran Conference, with the cross-channel invasion in the future, the Western powers still had much the stronger bargaining position with respect to the Soviet Union, but Roosevelt was too subservient to Stalin to make use of it and Churchill, having squandered his freedom of action, was powerless except when acting in concert with Roosevelt.
Robert Nisbet is of the opinion that the Cold War began at the Teheran Conference. “It began,” he says, “with Stalin’s unmistakable and unavoidable perception of a fatal flaw in the U.S.—British alliance, the flaw being chiefly President Roosevelt’s ineradicable hatred of all imperialism and particularly British imperialism. Stalin’s perception included also the fact—How could it not have?—that Roosevelt was eager to curry favor with him, Stalin, and wouldn’t hesitate to join him faithfully at the conference table at the expense of Churchill and Britain.”
When the Yalta Conference began at 5:00 on the afternoon of February 4, 1945, World War II was approaching its end, the Third Reich in its death throes, and whatever was decided by “The Big Three” really made little practical difference, since the Red Army was in control. It is ironic and says much about the character of each of “The Big Three” that, as Averell Harriman was later to recall, “the ailing Roosevelt had decided to travel all the way to the Crimea—4,833 miles by sea from Newport News, to Malta, and then 1,375 miles by air from Luqa airfield, Malta, to the snowy runway at Saki—because Stalin on the advice of his doctors refused to leave the Soviet Union.” Churchill, at seventy, was also not pleased to make the long and arduous journey to Yalta, for, as he had telegraphed to Harry Hopkins, “If we had spent ten years on research we could not have found a worse place in the world.” His daughter Sarah, who accompanied Churchill to Yalta, mentions in a letter to her mother that on the way to one of the meetings while driving across the bleak countryside of the Crimea, her father described it as “the Riviera of Hades.” Commenting in his diary on the appearance of “The Big Three” at their first meeting at Yalta, Admiral Cunningham of the British delegation, wrote: “Stalin was good and clear in his points, the PM also very good, but the President does not appear to know what he is talking about and clings to one idea.” Insofar as Poland was concerned, all that remained of the original British guarantee of a free and independent Poland was Stalin’s assurance, in reply to a question of Roosevelt’s as to how soon it would be possible to hold elections, “that he thought it should be possible to hold them within a month unless there was some catastrophe on the front, which he thought was improbable.”
As for the future of Germany, Gilbert quotes Churchill as stating: “In principle, all three were agreed on the dismemberment of Germany.” To this Stalin added that, by the terms of surrender, “they would reserve all their rights over German land, liberties, and even lives.” Churchill is then quoted as expressing some concern about the reaction in Great Britain to the evacuation of millions of people from their homeland, but “he himself was not shocked…. [I]f Poland took East Prussia and Silesia as far as the Oder it would mean moving 6,000,000 Germans back to Germany. That might be managed subject to the moral question which he had to settle with his own people.” He went on to say that he was “not afraid of the problem of transferring populations so long as it was proportionate to what the Poles could manage and what could be put into Germany.” Roosevelt did make some objection to moving the western border of Poland to the western Neisse because of the “difficulties involved in large transfers of populations,” but apparently this objection did not carry much weight since the border was settled at the western Neisse. The atmosphere of the meeting seems to have been cordial. All these momentous decisions, involving the fate of millions, were followed by a sumptuous dinner and the usual toasts. General Sir Alan Brooke, who attended the conference, remarked in his diary that the standard of the speeches “was remarkably low and mostly consisted of insincere, slimy sort of slush!” Churchill concluded his fantasy to Stalin with a particularly embarrassing oratorical flourish: “I walk through this world with greater courage and hope when I find myself in relation of friendship and intimacy with this great man, whose fame has gone out not only over all Russia but the world.”
In reading Gilbert’s careful, detailed record of those two lamentable conferences, it is impossible to understand how a man of Churchill’s experience and knowledge of history could have accepted, without qualm or protest, the decision to drive millions of people out of their homeland into a country they had never inhabited. “He was not shocked,” he said, in view of the fact that such a “disentangling of populations” had been done in connection with the Greeks and the Turks after World War I. But Churchill, of all people, should have known that one historic crime does not in any way justify a still greater one. According to official German statistics, the German population of the area east of the Oder-Neisse in the former German Reich was 9,300,000. Of these 1,100,000 did not leave, and 6,943,000 were accounted for in the migration to West Germany and Berlin, leaving 1,257,000 unaccounted for—they may have died in the flight to the west or have been shipped to the east for forced labor. Whether Roosevelt and Churchill agreed or not to the Russian demands at Teheran and Yalta probably made little practical difference. Stalin knew what he wanted and as a result of the policies of unquestioned support and unconditional surrender was placed in a position to get it. Rather than the “Big Three” making the decisions at Yalta, they were, in reality, made by the “Big One.”
At the time of the Teheran conference, it would have been possible to have saved Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe from Russian domination, but by the time of the Yalta Conference, it was too late. As Churchill was to remark in his The Second World War: “I could at this stage only warn and plead.” On the other hand, following the Yalta conference, Churchill reported to the House of Commons in a major speech on February 27, 1945: “Most solemn declarations have been made by Marshal Stalin that the sovereign independence of Poland is to be maintained.” That decision, he went on to say, “is now joined by both Great Britain and the United States.” In the same speech, to give further emphasis to the solemnity of the agreements made at Yalta, he added:
The impression I brought back from the Crimea, and from all my other contacts, is that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet Leaders wish to live in honorable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond. I know of no government which stands to its obligations even to its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government.
It is evident that Churchill had a great facility for self-delusion.
These two old men, both obviously intimidated by “Uncle Joe,” as they referred to him, were not prepared, however great our preponderance of military and, economic power undoubtedly was, to take a strong position. By agreeing to the expulsion of millions of people from their ancestral homelands and the condemnation of hundreds of thousands to forced labor, Roosevelt and Churchill destroyed whatever claim they may have had to have conducted themselves on a higher moral level than Stalin. In saying this, it is not even implied that Hitler would not have done worse if he had had the power to do so. With the record in Poland and the Holocaust before us, we know what Nazi Germany was capable of, but we like to think of our leaders as operating on a higher moral plane.
As a striking contrast to “the Big Three” of Teheran and Yalta, it is salutary to remember the four men who played a leading part in the restoration of Western Europe—Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, and Alcide de Gasperi. It was surely no accident that these four men, who, in the face of the animosity and hatred left by the war, were able to conceive of European society in its wholeness, came from Charlemagne’s Middle Kingdom—de Gaulle from Lorraine, Adenauer from the Rhineland, Schuman from Alsace, and de Gasperi from the Trentino. During the Yalta Conference, Churchill remarked to Eden, “The only bond of the victors is their common hate,” which was probably also true at Versailles. How fortunate it was, then, that at a critical moment in history there were four men in positions of great moral and political authority who could think and act in terms of peace and reciprocity between nations. In his Memoirs, Adenauer describes the dramatic moment on May 11, 1950, when a personal messenger from Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister, brought him the proposal to place the entire French and German coal and iron industry under a common high authority, which, as Adenauer put it, “would create the first firm foundation for the European Federation which was indispensable for the preservation of peace.”
Martin Gilbert’s book is not easy reading, and as an account of human folly on an enormous, unprecedented scale it is, in fact, thoroughly depressing. But it gives every appearance of being an honest account of what happened, of decisions our leaders made, the consequences of which future generations, including our descendants, will have to face. Churchill, who is the subject of these pages, comes out of it all a towering public figure—an inspiring wartime leader who never lost his confidence in the darkest hours of the war, a man of enormous vitality and energy, unsparing of himself, but who never lost an opportunity to enjoy what life had to offer, devoted to his family, much beloved by those who worked closely with him, a master of the English language, a great orator. For all that, however, it is difficult to admire a man who, as a wartime leader, could order Italian industrial cities to be bombed in an intensive fashion with every effort made “to terrorize and paralyze the population”; who could recommend that such a city as Konigsberg, the city of Emmanuel Kant, be handed over to Stalin in order to satisfy the Russian demand for a warm-water port, as though it was his to give; who could acquiesce to the “transfer,” as he called it, of millions of people from their homelands; who could agree to the repatriation of thousands of Russian prisoners to what he knew was certain death; who could refer to Joseph Stalin as “that great and good man”; and who could take the position “that we pay no attention to unilateral declarations about Rome being an open city, but continue to bomb remorselessly.” He was willing to sacrifice the cultural patrimony of Europe to win a war which could only result in moving the frontier of Soviet Russia to the middle of Europe.
It was in 1942 that Churchill made his famous statement, “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” but that is exactly what he did. And perhaps it was fitting that this descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, the proud offspring of the British Empire at the peak of its power and influence, should have been fated to preside over its liquidation.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 1989).
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1. Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, 7 vols. (Boston, 1986).
2. Ibid., 72.
3. lbid., pp. 9-10.
4. Ibid., p. 94.
5. lbid., p. 185.
6. Quoted from a letter to Lord Beaverbrook, Minister for Aircraft Production, in Paul Johnson, Modern Times (New York, 1983), p. 370.
7. Gilbert, Road to Victory, p. 295.
8. Ibid., p. 391.
9. Ibid., p. 259.
10. Ibid., p. 179.
11. lbid., p. 437.
12. Johnson, Modern Times, p. 404.
13. Gilbert, Road to Victory, p. 1257.
14. Ibid., p. 1258.
15. Johnson, Modern Times, p. 404.
16. Gilbert, Road to Victory, p. 1234.
17. lbid., p. 239.
18. lbid., pp. 1329-30.
19. Ibid., p. 300.
20. Johnson, Modern Times, p. 344.
21. William Casey, The Secret War Against Hitler (Washington, D.C., 1988), p. 66.
24. Ibid., p. 67.
25. lbid., p. 120.
27. Gilbert, Road to Victory, pp. 1173-74.
28. Ibid., p. 570.
29. Ibid., p. 588.
30. lbid., p. 589.
31. lbid., p. 15.
32. Robert Nisbet, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (Washington, D.C., 1988), p. 102.
33. Gilbert, Road to Victory, p. 1158.
35. Ibid., p. 1175.
36. Ibid., p. 1193.
37. Ibid., p. 1178.
38. lbid., p. 1179.
39. Ibid., p. 1189.
40. lbid., p. 1194.
42. Ibid., p. 1189.
43. Ibid., p. 1234.
44. Ibid., p. 1196.
45. Konrad Adenauer, Memoirs: 1945-53 (Chicago, 1966), p. 257.
46. Gilbert, Road to Victory, p. 474.
The featured image (detail) is a photograph of Winston Churchill taking aim with a Sten sub-machine gun in June 1941. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.