Seventy years ago, in the summer and fall of 1940, Western civilization teetered in the balance as Britain stood alone against Nazi-controlled Europe. Other major world powers did not lend aid; Russia supported Germany, and the United States remained neutral. After Britain resisted the assault of Nazi bombers, in what was dubbed the “Battle of Britain,” the country was saved and German momentum stymied. The whole course of the war then radically shifted. Germany turned east and attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and then declared war on the United States in December 1941, sealing its ultimate defeat.
It was Winston Churchill who, upon becoming prime minister in May 1940, fortified the British people against the German assault. Churchill’s role has become the stuff of legend. Less well understood is how he came to lead his nation at that crucial moment. For decades, his judgment, integrity, and credibility had been questioned, if not disdained. But it was the very essence of his character—his eclectic but distinctive worldview and his dedication to the advance of civilization—along with his ample rhetorical and leadership skills, that led him to shape history at such a pivotal moment.
Although Churchill is perceived by Americans as a man of great principles and constancy, many in England claimed that he was quite the opposite—mercurial, devoid of a core character, a political opportunist with poor judgment. As one journalist wrote in 1916, “It is the ultimate Churchill that escapes us”; he was a “soldier of fortune” who “loves the fight more than the cause.” Churchill fed that perception with his frequent political shifting: switching from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904 and then back to the Conservatives for good in 1924. The Socialist dramatist George Bernard Shaw once wrote Churchill about the opposition of the unimaginative reactionaries: “You [are] a phenomenon that the Blimps and Philistines and Stick-in-the-muds have never understood and always dreaded.”
Further muddling his image was Churchill’s mixed pedigree: a maverick father from a prominent British aristocratic family and an American mother. (The latter was considered a major flaw.) He did not fit neatly into any period in which he lived, seeking guidance from history but shirking the stultified embrace of the past adhered to by some Conservatives. He avoided newness for its own sake—an instinct that characterized some Socialists—yet nimbly welcomed new developments.
Churchill’s worldview also cannot be easily categorized. It blended Victorianism and Edwardism, Liberalism and Conservatism. He saw the world in grand, often romantic, terms and himself in the tradition of great leaders like Napoleon, Castlereagh, Marlborough, Disraeli, and Gladstone. The ultimate issue for Churchill was the advance of “civilization,” by which he meant the British and Western way of life—its liberal values, laws, culture, industry, and science. He saw Britain and its empire as propagators of civilization, imbuing his nationalism and imperialism with a moral imperative. He came to see the United States, also, as a guarantor of civilization, and his support for Zionism was ultimately rooted in the belief that the Jews in Palestine/Israel were collaborators in this grand cause. Everyone, no matter his or her race—and Churchill conceived a hierarchy of races—had an obligation to contribute to the world’s progress. As he wrote in a 1908 travelogue about Africa, “No man has a right to be idle, whoever he be or wherever he lives. He is bound to go forward and take an honest share in the general work of the world.”
His approach to global issues after World War I exemplified his worldview. The unprecedented horrors of that war and the destabilizing peace treaties of Paris—which he blamed on weak leaders who followed the misdirected passions of the masses—shattered Churchill’s golden age of the prior century with its boundless advance of progress. He now feared that civilization would cease its upward climb, the chief threat being the 1917 Russian revolution and Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks, Churchill believed, represented a return to barbarism, rejecting that which Victorian Britain had stood for: “the laws and customs of centuries,” the “whole structure—such as it is—of human society,” as Churchill put it.
As secretary for air and war from 1919-1921, his preeminent priority—and he always rigidly ranked priorities and relentlessly pursued them—was to destroy the nascent Bolshevik regime through active support of the White Russians during the Russian Civil War. As he wrote in 1920: “I … judge world events and world tendencies from the point of view of whether they are Bolshevist or anti-Bolshevist.” He had taken the same determined attitude in World War I: “We must be unyielding and unflinching. We must do more than we have ever done before. We must find a way to win.” However, what became dubbed “Churchill’s War” against Russia was not fully supported by the leadership of the Conservative-Liberal postwar coalition government, and the effort failed. This misadventure reinforced Churchill’s reputation as a reckless buccaneer, the legacy of his almost career-destroying role in the Gallipoli debacle in World War I. But he was not concerned about the Russian venture’s unpopularity; he saw great value in the effort and felt a deep sense of obligation to British national security and civilization. As he privately remarked, “I cannot help feeling a most dreadful & ever present sense of responsibility. Am I wrong? How easy for me to shrug my shoulders & say it is on the Cabinet, or on the Paris [Versailles] Conference. I cannot do it.”
Churchill felt the same deep obligation in seeking to contain and destroy an even greater threat to civilization: the rise of Nazi Germany. He foresaw a major continental war shortly after World War I, a period he characterized in 1929 as “[e]xhaustion which has been described as Peace.” He feared that Germany, resentful of overly harsh peace terms, would ally with Soviet Russia, while France and countries that had emerged from the collapsed Hapsburg and Russian empires were weak and weary. Already in 1931, he considered Britain to be “suffering from a disease of the will.” It was in this context that Adolph Hitler rose to power.
Churchill considered Nazism vile and barbaric, a rejection of civilization in every way, despite his respect for the German race. He was particularly offended by its anti-Semitism, which made Nazism, in some ways, worse than communism. As he perceived the Soviet Union turning inward, he argued that Nazi Germany’s growing power was now the greatest threat to Britain and civilization. He sought to enlist fascist Italy and Soviet Russia in a grand alliance against Germany. But, in the mid-1930s, Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin dawdled while Germany rearmed. As Churchill famously put it, “So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, believed an appeasement strategy would dull Hitler’s appetite; Churchill blasted this policy as well, alienating his Conservatives colleagues further.
Even after Hitler violated the Munich peace agreement of 1938 and conquered all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax adamantly opposed a pact with Soviet Russia. They fundamentally misunderstood Hitler, had too much sympathy for Germany and too much contempt for Soviet Russia, and feared war too much to adjust policy. They were not as intellectually imaginative, strategically discerning, or obsessively determined to face threats as Churchill. But Churchill’s standing in the Conservative Party and the nation at large was very low in the mid- to late 1930s, and his warnings went unheeded. A rousing speech delivered by Churchill following Nazi Germany’s annexion of Austria in 1938 was considered by one prominent Conservative to be “the usual Churchillian filibuster; he likes to rattle the sabre and he does it jolly well, but you always have to take it with a grain of salt.”
All that changed after Germany attacked Poland in 1939. Further wartime reversals catapulted Churchill to head a coalition government with Labour in May 1940. He later wrote, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” He knew what he had to do; as he wrote Halifax a couple months before: “Public men charged with the conduct of the war should live in a continual stress of soul. Faithful discharge of duty is no excuse for Ministers: we have to contrive & compel victory.” That involved rallying the British people to act heroically; as he pronounced in 1940, they were “doing their utmost night and day, giving all, daring all, enduring all, to the utmost, to the end.” He underscored to the nation the historic significance of defying the Nazis by explaining that victory against Germany meant that “all Europe may be free.” Failure meant that “the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.” Or, as he put it a month later, “We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.” And he challenged Britons: “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.’” The British nation met his challenge. As the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote, Churchill “idealized them [Britons] with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them.”
Churchill was clearly the indispensable man of the moment in 1940, whom destiny summoned to change the course of history. His overwhelming love of country and civilization, grave sense of obligation to protect and improve on all the good the ages had produced, romantic view of the world, and keen understanding of how history had reached a vital point, made him realize why he and Britain had to battle relentlessly, regardless of the odds. His firm conviction that individuals can overcome great adversity, his belief that great leaders can redirect global forces, and his uplifting oratorical abilities, allowed Churchill to shape the thoughts and feelings of his countrymen and save his country and civilization.
Michael Makovsky is Foreign Policy Director of the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of the Churchill's Promised Land (Yale University Press).