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Churchill: As good as we think?

Sir Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill's place in the pantheon of British history is assured. Or is it?

The essayist Christopher Hitchens once wrote that Churchill "was not a figure in history so much as a figure of history". And it cannot be denied that Churchill stands alongside Shakespeare, Newton and Queen Victoria as a towering presence in the British story.

Today, exactly 70 years after Britain declared war against Germany, the debate still continues as to whether he was truly great. Churchill's vast reputation rests not only on his well-documented and long life but also on his own voluminous, self-penned, memoirs.

The latest in a long line of Churchill biographers includes historian Sir Max Hastings, whose new book - Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 - presents a positive version of the Churchill story. But another work - Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked - by the Cambridge academic Dr Nigel Knight, lays out a more critical view.

The controversy surrounding Churchill and his legacy is widespread. But here are just a few areas of contention.


• Churchill's rhetorical powers set him apart from all other politicians. Often imitated, never bettered, his delivery and phraseology sparked the adjective "Churchillian" And who could deny the potency of lines like "we shall fight them on the beaches", "blood, sweat and tears" and "their finest hour"?

• During his "wilderness years" in the late 1930s, Churchill was one of the first to warn against Britain's appeasement of Hitler, arguing that defence spending should be increased to combat the Nazi threat.

• Churchill's belief in democracy - nurtured in his beloved House of Commons - led to the Anglo-American "special relationship", forged in the Second World War and remaining a important alliance even today.

• A man of exceptional personal courage, Churchill was also able to make difficult political decisions. This was shown in his order to attack and destroy the French fleet, not then an enemy, at Oran in July 1940 in order to prevent it from falling into German hands.


• In 1915, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was a prime mover behind the Gallipoli campaign, a disastrous attempt to land troops on the shores of the Dardanelles strait prior to capturing Istanbul and forcing route through the Black Sea to Russia. In nine months of fighting the Allies sustained 140,000 casualties and the ensuing defeat damaged Churchill's political career.

• Churchill's Budget of 1925 has become infamous for returning Britain to the gold standard, at a fixed rate of $4.80 to the pound. The aim was to restore Britain's position at the centre of the world's financial system. Many now argue that this high exchange rate made British industry uncompetitive and prolonged the slump.

• The spring of 1940 saw Churchill, once more First Lord, back the disastrous invasion of Norway. Intended to prevent the country from being occupied by Nazi Germany, the operation's failure saw a German invasion and led to the downfall of prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Churchill's predecessor in Downing Street.

• At the Yalta conference in 1945, Churchill acquiesced to Stalin's demand for control over eastern Europe in return for a guarantee that Greece would not fall into the Soviet sphere of influence. This, critics say, effectively sealed the fate of countries including Poland, Hungary and Romania, which only regained their independence in the late 80s and early 90s

So, where do you stand on the Churchill debate. Was he the national saviour or a dangerous liability?

In the General Election of 1951 the total vote for Labour Party candidates exceeded that for Conservatives by nearly quarter of a million - 13,948,385 to 13,724,418. Yet, due to the first past the post system, Conservatives gained the most seats and formed the next government - obviously contrary to the wishes of the majority of the voting public. As far as I am aware, Churchill showed no misgivings about gaining power in this way (through a democratic minority vote) and no inclination to reform the voting system. A great democrat?
Mark Bowden, Plymouth

How very comfortable for the analysts. They sit back in their safe studies with the benefit of knowing what the future outcomes were for decisions that Churchill made. There are no perfect leaders in this world. I don't hear anyone saying that we should have instead had a leader such as... No. I think the reality is that we couldn't have asked for a better leader at a time like that. Surely that is the real point. It is difficult to imagine anyone else having done a better job.
Nigel, Norwich

Churchill will always be judged by the Second World War and although we were not the winners, we were certainly the heroes with Churchill as our leader. Under any other less worthy man, our fate would have been that of the other European nations and Churchill's belief that we would prevail resulted in the downfall of both the German empire but the eventual collapse of communism forty-five years later. We all need heroes and he is ours.
Tim Hale, Sherborne

A truly great man, a giant among others of his day. Yes, his Dardanelles campaign was flawed, however let us remember that many other flawed attacks took place in those four years. Was his any worse? Were 140,000 casualties any worse than the Somme or Ypres?

It is not to much to say that without his leadership in 1940 we would now be speaking German, if indeed any of our great nation had survived.
Ian Earl, Bournemouth, Dorset

On a lighter note, he wasn't quite the linguist he thought he was. When addressing the French National Assembly he tried to compare his life to that of French history. He said "Quand je regarde mon derriere je vois qu' il est divise en deux partier", which translates as "When I look at my behind I see it is divided into two parts". Had de Gaulle falling off his chair.
Les Leckie, Cheadle, Cheshire

Churchill ruthlessly exploited India and had the audacity of calling Hindus as a foul race deserving extinction despite thousands of Indians dying for England in both the world wars. His ruthless antics united Indians in breaking away from Britain, who till then, were quite divided over whether to seek limited autonomy or independence.

He regarded any non-Western civilization as sub-human. Also his contribution in defeating Nazis is overrated. WWII was mainly won by the US and Russia. De Gaulle was not like Churchill but still ended up on winning side. In such a situation Britain would have ended up on winning side even under Chamberlain.
Dev, London

Dardanelles? Good idea but didn't it fail as the delay between naval bombardment and landing of troops too great? First time it had been tried but a lesson later learned for the D-Day. Temporarily accepting peace terms - of course Hitler would have allowed us to gain strength to free Europe later on?? Terror bombing? The only way we could attack Germany and something each side did to the best of its abilities? Before you say Dresden - Dresden was an important rail junction that the Red Army specifically asked us to bomb to hinder the flow of reinforcements to the eastern front. Don't you just love revisionist historians?
Neil Burke, Essex

What an incredibly lame article. This is sub-GCSE history stuff, perhaps OK for primary school history part of the BBC website, but not for serious debate on the Today website.

All great people of history succeed and fail. But the impact of great peoples' successes outweigh those of their failures, and Churchill is no different. Find me a great figure for whom this is not true. Even Jesus, on the cross, doubts God, crying out, "why have you forsaken me?". But his status as "great" is hardly in doubt.
GW, London

As a statesman and leader with a keen eye for strategic opportunity, even though not all his plans and ideas were successful, he at least understood that the key to Britain's ability to exert political and diplomatic leverage on the global stage, and military power when required, was derived from Britain's maritime power. This crucial strategic insight is far too often lost on today's collection of party first politicians, short-term thinkers and self-serving senior bureaucrats.
Spike, London

Of course Churchill had to concede to Stalin over Eastern Europe - Roosevelt refused to back him up, so he had no alternative. By the time the Americans realised that Stalin wasn't everybody's favourite "Uncle Joe", it was too late. The fate of Poland was Churchill's bitterest regret.
John Rogers, Bristol, England

Churchill was unquestionably a national saviour, without whom we would perhaps even now be part of the Nazi empire. He was one of the few politicians who had troubled to read Mein Kampf and understood Hitler's true intentions. He tirelessly warned of the need to stand up to Hitler.

By force of personality he cajoled firstly the King and Parliament, and then the people as a whole, to do just that at enormous cost. The world is a better place for being rid of Hitler and Churchill, whatever his faults, was the leader who led while others succumbed.
Bill, Glasgow, Scotland

We often hear of Saddam using poison gas on the Kurds and Iranians, but the first one to advocate the use of poison gas in Iraq was Winston Churchill, who said: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes."
Beng Tang, Bracknell, UK

Ask Australians what they think of Churchill and you will find much criticism. Turkey in the first war, Singapore in the second. Churchill considered the colonies and their soldiers his term) were expendable.

It took a really great war time leader (who incidentally died in office before the end of WW2) Australia's PM, John Curtin to stand up to the bully Churchill and demand Australian troops return to defend Australia from the Japanese and even then Churchill tried to turn the troop ships around!
Stan, London

I was almost 10 years of age when we declared war on Germany and living at the south coast seaside town of Seaford next to Newhaven, Sussex. I remember vividly being bundled off the beach when we spotted literally dozens of boats on the horizon. Fortunately not invading Germans but our troops being evacuated from northern France when the French capitulated.

I was evacuated to South Devon near the River Exe where, some 4 years later, we saw parts of the Mulberry harbour pontoons moored. We had no idea what they were for until they disappeared when we received news of the allies landing in France. The main thread of this period was that we were all (including my very Socialist parents) behind our charismatic, intelligent, fearless leader, Mr Winston Churchill.

Without his leadership and his friendship with the USA's leaders we would almost certainly have become part of the German Empire. Of course he made mistakes during his very long political life but they were far outweighed by !the good he did.
Gerald Sandles, Malaga, Spain

France didn't fight anyone in WWII and they ended up on the winning side. Did this make De Gaulle a better politician than Churchill?
Tim Butler, Oxford UK

He was the right man in the right place at the right time. He said what people wanted and needed to hear. The right leader in wartime.
Rhona Barnett

Through out history great men have made decisions that in hindsight are deemed mistakes. Even today, in spite of research and analysis, policies lead to the brink of disaster; our current situation is a prime example.

His skill as an orator and at times his curmudgeonly demeanour united democratic peoples. No one is perfect. How many of us are able to withstand the stress that he willingly shouldered?

He knew that while thousands of lives were being lost daily his was also at risk if his stand against the Axis Powers failed. Churchill was a man of history within history, this can be seen by his determination to allow Greece to remain free. Greece being seen as the birthplace of democracy. With this in mind he gave the world a last bastion if Stalin's ambitions took on a more active role.

Democracy had been brought to the brink of destruction, and like all good commanders, knew that a line had to be drawn from which to make a stand. Twice in its history Germany's political policy had devastated Europe and none of the Allies wanted to allow this to occur again. So it was deemed better to squeeze Germany between them, giving no room to a further recurrence.

While Eastern Europe languished under a similar totalitarian regime to that which had been defeated neither side relished another war on a scale unprecedented in human history. Flawed and perhaps misguided Churchill may have been in some areas, it is because of the likes of Churchill that we can have this discussion at all.
Ray, Vlissingen, Holland

Churchill's high reputation rests almost exclusively on his wartime leadership. He was lucky to be the right man at the right time. The rest of his career was a failure. The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster. He moved between political parties, trusted by neither. He didn't understand economics and he overestimated the power of words, on which he was frequently drunk!
Eric Evans

Depending where you stand and which part of history you focus on Churchill was either a great leader or a failed politician! Pre WWII he was a poor chancellor and an uncritical friend of imperial control over India. Post WWII he held on to power to long and then passed power to Eden who was or, by then, was not up to the job! However his leadership of the country in WWII was generally superb.

Alliances were made and decisions taken that ensured the UK survived and then was able to contribute to an Allied victory. Eastern Europe was in the Soviet sphere of influence the second Russian tanks drove through it. That Greece did not go the same way might be seen as a plus in the Churchill story from a historical perspective. Churchill was a flawed hero! But what hero does not have flaws?
David James, Oxford

Max Hastings is right. Churchill made mistakes as did all war leaders but without his wonderful rhetoric in our darkest hour, we would surely have gone under.
Pamela Lott, Southampton, England

Whereas Churchill was a great war leader it was his pre-war policies that put Chamberlain in the situation he was in and is now condemned for. It is long-forgotten that many of the policies he blamed Chamberlain for were in fact his own. A bad politician but the right man at the right time. Obviously the opinion of the British public who voted him out of power after the war.
Nick Boardman, York UK

By far the greatest Britain. Enigmatic, stoical and passionate about his country. Pity we don't have anyone similar today.
Chris , Perthshire

Thank goodness for Nigel Knight!
Stephen, Avranches, France

Churchill was not perfect and he made some mistakes, but many of these so-called 'mistakes' (like at the Yalta conference) were done for the benefit of Britain, at a cost to other nations, but that was his job. To argue he was not the greatest ever Englishman is just flawed, he ensured we are what we are now, although if he saw the make-up of Britain now he would be very saddened.
David, St Albans

Like most of the other great figures in History, Winston Churchill's supposed 'greatness' owes much more to myth, to propaganda and to the people's need for 'Heroes' than it does to any of his accomplishments during life. The British nation's fascination, obsession with and glorification of the Second World War is the main reason for Churchill's popularity. After all, many people's understanding and attitude towards world affairs, politics, the EU and 20th century history virtually begins and ends with that conflict.

The Germans are still viewed as 'Nazis.' The French are still perceived as 'collaborators.' We have no strong feelings towards the Spanish because they were Neutral during that conflict. And because of that fact, they would remain under the rule of the 'not quite' fascist dictator, Generalisimo Franco until his death in 1975. And likewise, we still long to view ourselves as "The Plucky Little British Underdogs" who defeated Hitler and 'Saved the World.'

To this end, Churchill has become a symbol of our defiance, our resilience and our National 'Stiff Upper Lip.' So rather than not knowing the truth about Churchill, the fact is that we simply don't WANT to know.

Like the Americans' refusal to face up to the truth about Washington, Lincoln and their respective wars because it would shatter their noble delusions, facing up to realities of Churchill's life and career would destroy our 'National Pride.'

It's no accident that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during our last 'Great War;' our last 'Great Victory' and our last independent action as a true 'World Power' before we became America's lapdog is now perceived as being the 'The Greatest Britain.' In fact, any man or woman who'd led the country during that conflict would now enjoy Churchill's place in history. And just as we've done with Churchill himself, we would shout that person's accomplishments from the rooftops, whilst ignoring, downplaying, and making excuses for his failures and his crimes.

"We shall wipe them out, every single one of one them, men, women and children, there shall not be a single Japanese left on the face of the Earth." Winston Churchill.
James Uscroft, Stoke on Trent

Despite Churchill's often mistaken belief in his own strategic ability, he - unlike Hitler - generally deferred to military advice, albeit after some furious rows.

Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, often bore the brunt of this and was fiercely critical of Churchill in his diaries. Yet Alanbrooke, whose contemporaneous judgement is surely the pinnacle of informed opinion, wrote this of Churchill in his diary entry for 10th September 1944: "Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again".
Nick Pope, London

Churchill's standing in the history of the UK should never be diminished. He alone had the political courage 70 years ago to stand up to the threats to these islands. His rhetoric lifted the spirits of every man woman and child in this country during the bleakest period of history.

His dealings at Yalta may have temporarily sealed the fate of Eastern Europe but they probably saved thousands of lives. These countries are free today and the Soviet Union is no more - for almost 20 years. This is history which the hand of Churchill helped fashion. The Dardanelles and Narvik campaigns were disasters but it meant that enemy troops were tied up defending those positions and lessons were learned.

A lesson not learned, however, was the attempts to maintain the global position of the UK during the great depression and after the WW2. The high exchange rate in 1925 and the mismanagement of the Marshal aid by the Labour government of 1945 were examples of bad advice taken. But they did not endanger the country. The 70 years since the outbreak of war has seen this country have many ups and downs but the most important element, its people, are in the main content and still dynamic and above all things - free. These are Churchill's legacy.
Bob Allen, Ipswich

National saviour yes, and in many ways saviour of the free world. Churchill in his younger days was also a liberal and a promoter of social reform, but he was also human, suffering depression as his reference to the 'black dog' illustrates. Was he a great man? undoubtably, did he have failings? yes, but this makes him all the more impressive for being human, for being one of us.
Brian Mathew, Yatton

All great men make mistakes. Its there ability to work through these to reach a solution. In Churchill we had a man who new that he would be called upon one day. If he had not been there who would? and what would the world be like now. Its the old "what if" question.
Roy Sutton, Solihull, UK

Not only was Churchill a hero of his day but many of his speeches are just as relevant today. Churchill warned against the dangers of 'Islamisation' back in the 1890s. He predicted problems with multi-culturalism long before Powell.

He also predicted that the next time fascism reared its ugly head it would be called 'anti fascism'. In short, today he would also be a hero for speaking the truth, but he would probably find himself on the receiving end of today's 'hate speech' laws!
Martin Scotchmore, Huddersfield, UK

Churchill made some very difficult decisions. He was fully aware Coventry was going to be bombed thanks to the allies breaking the Enigma Code but couldn't warn them as it would give away the fact that the allies had access to their intelligence.

What I feel is Churchill's lowest hour is giving Poland to the Russians at Yalta when he was promising them throughout the war we were fighting for their liberation. How can we as a nation declare war on a common enemy because they invade a Country only to then give that Country to another invader - Russia?
Sean Evans, Lincolnshire, England

I'm no patriot but Churchill is one of the few icons of 'Britishness' that make me swell. What people need to remember though is that he was human. There's no such thing as a saint, least of all when one considers their heroes. Only that last 'con' really stands up here but he had one hand tied behind his back negotiating that one.

The bombing of Germany towards the end of the war raises further questions, and his prime ministership during peace time wasn't up to much - the Boer war and imperialism are concerns. But he was interesting, clever and brave. He was like the Brian Clough of politics and I'm all for that.
James, Twickenham

Churchill's disparaging comments about Clement Attlee (who was chosen by a poll of academics as the best UK Prime Minister of the 20th century) only serves to enforce his imperfect political judgement. That said, he WAS the man of the moment during the dark period of British history from 1940 - 1945. He was NOT, however, the man Britain needed to win the subsequent peace.
Shaun Crowther, Barnoldswick, UK

No-one who lived through the 2nd World War can seriously think of Churchill as a 'dangerous liability'. He warned of the dangers of Germany throughout the decade of the 30s when many argued for appeasement. He had that indefinable quality of leadership and his oratory supported the country's morale. How simple to criticise 70 years later with perfect hindsight!
Dr Daphne Pearson, Redbrook, UK

Churchill certainly did make some big mistakes - though name me a politician who hasn't. However, he did more or less carry Britain forward single-handedly for the first few years of the war, when there was little real hope of success, or even of survival. That is far more important than the things he got wrong.
Peter, Newbury, UK

That Churchill made some decisions that seem unwise with hindsight shows only that nobody can predict the actions of others reliably. Churchill's great gift was to inspire a nation with a belief in its victory and in the justice of its cause.
Chris Comer, Friedrichshafen, Germany

Of course he is great - he must be to have so many pubs named after him.
Henry, Oxford

Cometh the hour cometh the man. Churchill's defiant manner , great oratory and single mindedness undoubtedly held the country together during the bleak summer of 1940 when Britain stood alone against the all conquering German army and this is when he won his deserved reputation but as the war progressed he could well have prolonged the war or even have lost it by his continual intervention in military strategy and his appointment of commanders who were personal favourites but unfit for the post appointed to them.

Like many other aspects of life it is the 'team effort' rather than just a good captain. Thankfully we had the best military commander of either side in Field Marshal B L Montgomery who actually delivered the victories over the German Army. He is not given his full credit for doing this!
Alan Cooper, Newport , South Wales

At last! Nigel Knight articulated a thesis I've had since doing a history degree in the 1980s. Churchill was probably the worst possible option as PM. Everything he did was a disaster veering between vaccilation and impetuous death or glory adventures which all too often resulted in death for those involved and ironically still brought him glory from Norway to Arnhem.

By not accepting peace terms (temporarily) after Dunkirk (Hitler never had any intention of invading and knew it was impossible) he subjected us to two years of the Blitz and the 'Battle' of the Atlantic when we could do nothing to hit back except sacrifice bomber crews flying what were effectively suicide missions in redundant aircraft.

This, according to Max Hastings, was his masterstroke to bring the US into the war to save poor little Britain. Following Pearl Harbour Churchill immediately declared war on Japan - leading to the worst disaster in British military history at Singapore - but the U.S. did not reciprocate... Hitler declared war on them!

Terror bombing (dropping 18 times the amount of bombs on defenceless German civilians as were dropped on us) was a war crime and we are in denial over this in a way we criticise Holocaust-deniers for being.
Dave Bull, London

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