This article is from the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ, which will be available on newsstands Tuesday, November 16th, 2010. Visit the HistoryNet store to order your copy today!
“Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity,” writes Paul Johnson in the first sentence of his slim, perceptive biography Churchill (2009). “No man,” he continues, “did more “to preserve freedom and democracy.” It is a brash assertion, even for a British writer: Many would argue that Franklin D. Roosevelt, by leading the United States into and through World War II, did as much or more to quash the Axis threat and save humanity.
But that line of argument loses sight of the role Churchill played in ensuring the war did not end in 1940 with Britain’s defeat, which would have allowed Adolf Hitler to concentrate on, and likely defeat, the Soviet Union. For Churchill, nearly alone, recognized the true threat the Nazi führer posed in the early 1930s. He was one of the few Western leaders who had read Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, in which Hitler stated his clear intention to conquer Eastern Europe and outlined his views on “the Jewish peril.” Although the two volumes also suggested that Britain and Italy would team up with Germany against Russia and France, Churchill knew that among those nations most imperiled by Hitler’s ambitions was Britain itself.
How could he know? The roots of his foresight lay in a young adulthood steeped in war. As John Chettle points out in the first of our two cover stories on Churchill, by the time he was 25, Winston had already seen four different conflicts firsthand. In the Sudan and in Afghanistan he had witnessed fanatical aggression and the power of raw hatred. Forty years later, he was certain there could be no compromise when it came to the Nazis, that “without victory there is no survival.”
Certainly, he was quixotic and overconfident in his abilities to run military campaigns, as Rod Paschall makes clear in his feature on Churchill’s disastrous 1940 Norway campaign. But even there, he can be forgiven the sense of moral certitude that drove him to confront and, in that one instance, underestimate Hitler. For it was Churchill’s lifelong commitment to Britain—and to striving unremittingly to preserve freedom and democracy—that inspired an entire nation to fight on alone against seemingly overwhelming odds, and in the end stave off the Nazi threat.
Few men in any century can be deemed the “most valuable to humanity.” But Winston Churchill is an extraordinarily strong candidate.