Seventy years ago, in the summer and fall of 1940, Western civilization teetered in the balance as
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
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
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
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
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
Even after Hitler violated the Munich peace agreement of 1938 and conquered all of
All that changed after Germany attacked
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