[Steve Pauwels/Opinions Editor: With the recent release of the World War 2 drama Darkest Hour attention is suddenly refocused on Winston Churchill. Does the film present an accurate account of his early efforts and attitudes against Nazi Germany? Does it unflatteringly portray him as indecisive and faltering? Or is the Churchill of the movie a historically defensible rendering of a great man struggling with fateful decisions? Below, for those who are unaware of some of the varied aspects of the famous British prime minister’s life, personality and career, several insightful thoughts by a family member of mine who has closely studied him:]
Churchill was a very complex person who changed political stripes several times over his long career. He had several indisputable failures along the way in terms of both political alignment and leadership decisions in various capacities. He was acutely aware of history and of his own part in making it. He was an exceptional and prolific historian and his perspectives on historical events and the change-makers who brought them about is the key to understanding his world view. (I have an original set of his definitive six-volume work Second World War which is simply outstanding.)
He was uniquely creative. For example, one key to his success, which also fueled his creativity, was being surrounded by an eclectic, but loyal, group of forward-thinking friends who constantly exchanged ideas on all sides of various problems. He was most certainly stubborn and difficult and despite having had the courage or political savvy to change his political view from time to time, he could also become entrenched to the point of being immovable.
He could be savage at dealing with adversaries and he did not suffer fools gladly. Recall when a woman MP accused him of being drunk, he famously responded, “Yes, I’m drunk, but you are ugly; and tomorrow I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”
He was a staunch defender of the British way of life, or some would say a privileged way of life, and often overlooked the suffering of the working class. But there were notable exceptions wherein he was their champion. As I said he was complex.
He had an extremely close and special relationship with his wife, but there were certainly times of strain, mostly due to his personality traits and financial pressures. He certainly tried to maintain an extravagant lifestyle, as was a custom of the time, especially for someone in his class and stature. He was undoubtedly difficult to live with. He was by most accounts not a particularly good father.
He loved his home Chartwell deeply and was able to really be himself when he was there. He liked to think of himself as a handy man and he certainly kept his hands on many projects and hobbies like painting, gardening, tending to fish ponds and ducks, etc.
One important thing to remember about Winston is that he was raised in a majestic time for England, but then came of age in an extraordinary time of change throughout the world — witnessing the decline of monarchies and the rise of nationalism, fascism and socialism during a period of complete transformation from agrarian to manufacturing societies. The history he personally witnessed and experienced was extraordinary.
He was definitely a hands on risk taker who seemed to embrace the idea of always putting on a brave face, stiff upper lip and all of that to the point where he and those around him were forced to believe it. This proved to be a disaster at times (the Dardanelles) but of supreme importance during WWII.
I can tell you also that he certainly had political struggles before, during and, shockingly, after the war years. He was essentially an outcast in the decade prior to the war and it was quite fateful that he rose from the ashes to become PM.
One fact I always found interesting was Churchill’s exposure to Hitler before the war. He was writing a book about his family –Duke of Marlborough– and visiting battle sites in Germany in the early 1930s when first exposed to Hitler. They were supposed to meet but Hitler was a no show. I recall the circumstances left Churchill with a bad “gut” feeling and high level of distrust in Hitler from the get go.
What is clear to me in reading his life’s story is that he was a man of destiny and the right man for the moment.