The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester(Little, Brown and Company, Boston: 1988)
Sometimes, when the need is greatest, God raises up a mighty man, a giant, for our deliverance. One such man was Winston Churchill.
As Christians, we can see God’s providence at work. In 1931, while on a visit to New York, Winston Churchill was hit by a car and nearly killed. I believe God preserved him for a special purpose. As Churchill wrote, eight grueling years later, when that purpose became known, “[I felt] as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial” (p. 681).
Alone is the middle volume of William Manchester’s monumental biography of this monumental man, The Last Lion. It’s been in print for a long time and may be found in many public libraries. I review it now because it offers striking parallels with our own time, in 2017.
Alone covers, in great detail, the eight years, 1932–1940, which were the run-up to World War II. It’s aptly titled. For those eight years Churchill stood virtually alone, a political exile, warning—dare I say prophetically?—of the disaster that was to come and trying to change the doomed and practically insane policies that were bringing it closer by the day. It’s a sobering tale, but also an epic one.
As Brendan Bracken, a Member of Parliament and one of Churchill’s few steadfast allies, wrote in a letter to Bernard Baruch, “Winston has won his long fight … No public man of our time has shown more foresight, and I believe that his long, lonely struggle … will prove to be the best chapter in his crowded life” (p. 420).
“Fake News,” 1930s Style
One of the parallels with our own time that leaps out at the reader with a roar is the corruption and the bald dishonesty of the British news media throughout the 1930s. Although the foreign correspondents of the major newspapers and the BBC faithfully filed accurate reports of what was happening in Europe, their editors and publishers deliberately distorted, through rewrites, or suppressed, by simply killing the stories, the unwelcome news of Nazi brutality and Hitler’s feverish preparations for aggressive war. Sir John Reith, president of the BBC, denied Churchill, and anyone who might agree with him, access to the airwaves (p. 245).
The biggest offender was Geoffrey Dawson, editor-in-chief of London’s The Times. Rigidly committed to the government’s policy of appeasing Germany, Dawson pioneered what we in 2017 have learned to call “fake news.” To cite just one of many examples:
When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought “peace in our time” by selling out “a faraway country,” Czechoslovakia, to Hitler in 1938, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Alfred Duff Cooper, resigned from the cabinet in furious disgust. He gave an impassioned speech to Parliament, which The Times reporter on the scene duly reported—a speech which stirred Parliament and might have given the British public serious second thoughts about the wisdom and decency of that betrayal. But when The Times came out the next day, there was only a small article—written by Dawson, who had killed the original report—describing the speech as inconsequential and Parliament’s reaction as dismissive. The reporter resigned in protest (pp. 366–367).
Dawson wasn’t alone. The Spectator, for example, called Adolf Hitler the “hope of a tormented world” (p. 119).
Fed a steady diet of what can only be called lies, the public may be forgiven for disregarding Churchill’s warnings. They were in no position to know better. But the same cannot be said of Britain’s government and media lords.
Churchill and his allies took great pains to set up an intelligence network in Britain, France, and even Germany, where those who provided it with information would have been killed if caught. Elsewhere, Churchill’s informants risked prison terms and the destruction of their careers. Because they wished to prevent a world war, and believed in Winston Churchill—he was the man who stood in the breach for all of them—they accepted those risks; and the information Churchill received from them was timely, accurate—and classified.
Why did they concede to Hitler rearmament, (in violation of the Treaty of Versailles), the Rhineland demilitarized zone, and then Austria and Czechoslovakia? Why, when France and Britain together, or either one of them alone, had the power to stop him in his tracks and topple him from his leadership of Germany?
For the people of Britain and France, the trauma of World War I, the loss of those millions of lives, was a deep wound very slow in healing. They couldn’t face it happening again. They clung desperately to the hope of peace.
The motives of the Western leaders were more complex than that, and much less likely to inspire sympathy. I quote at length from Manchester’s summing-up, lest the reader underestimate their opposition to Churchill’s truth-telling.
“But in those shabby years His Majesty’s Governments believed that there were some things the country ought not to know, and that their policy of duplicity—which at times amounted to conspiracy—would be vindicated in the end. Chamberlain would be the scapegoat of appeasement … but he was only one of many … The appeasers had been powerful; they had controlled The Times and the BBC; they had been largely drawn from the upper classes, and their betrayal of England’s greatness would be neither forgotten nor forgiven by those who, gulled by the mystique of England’s class system, had believed as Englishmen had believed for generations, that public school boys governed best. The appeasers destroyed oligarchic rule which, though levelers may protest, had long governed well. If ever men betrayed their class, these were they.
“Because their possessions were great, the appeasers had much to lose should the Red flag fly over Westminster … It was also the driving force behind their exorbitant fear and distrust of the new Russia. They had seen a strong Germany as a buffer against bolshevism, had thought their security would be strengthened if they sidled up to the fierce, virile Third Reich. Nazi coarseness, anti-Semitism, the Reich’s darker underside, were rationalized; time, they assured one another, would blur the jagged edges of Nazi Germany. So, with their eyes open, they sought accommodation with a criminal regime, turned a blind eye to its iniquities, ignored its frequent resort to murder and torture, submitted to extortion, humiliation, and abuse until, having sold out all who had sought to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and keep the bridge against the new barbarism, they led England herself into the cold, damp shadow of the gallows…” (pp. 688–689).
Britain’s ruling class, fearful of the spread of communism to their own shores, and the threat of revolution, looked to Hitler’s Nazi Germany as a powerful counterweight to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was wishful thinking with a vengeance, and it led them into betrayal of their own nation’s vital interests and security.
To this day the sting of that betrayal lingers, and Britain has acquired a permanent socialist taint. To survive, the Conservative Party, the Tories, had to shift far to the Left—so far, we wonder what they can possibly be conserving. British socialists in the 1930s were every bit as committed to appeasement as the Tories, if not more so; but as the party in power, Neville Chamberlain’s Tories will forever be blamed as the architects of disaster. Having their home cities bombed day and night by Hitler’s Luftwaffe is not something that the British people can forget. The ruling class that led them into it has never been forgiven.
“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization,” Churchill declared to Parliament (p. 686). He frequently, in his public speeches and radio addresses, appealed to God and never expressed anything but certainty that God would acknowledge the justice of the Allies’ cause and give them victory over their enemies.
But we cannot make him out to be a deeply devout Christian. “King and country, in that order, that’s about all the religion Winston has,” Churchill’s personal physician said (p. 230). Like so many men of his class and of his time, his was a more-worldly orientation, with Christianity pretty much taken for granted.
He passionately believed in his country, its traditions, its history, its pre-eminent place in world events and the responsibilities—“the mission” is not too strong a word for it—which that place entailed.
He believed passionately in himself: in his unique abilities, his fitness for and deserving of high office. In an argument with one of his staff, he once defended himself by exclaiming, “But I am a great man!” (p. 36) There was in him a touch of childlike naivety; but this towering self-esteem proved a source of strength to him during tribulations that would have crushed a lesser man.
For the Lord our God does not always choose devout religious men and women to carry out His will in history. Cyrus, King of Persia, was such a man in ancient times. “Thus saith the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates, and the gates shall not be shut. I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight … For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou has not known me” (Isa. 45:1–2, 4).
This is something for us to remember today when we are called upon to choose our nation’s leaders.
God Intervenes in History
Today we in America and Europe face one crisis after another: nothing, I would say, as acute as World War II, but certainly nothing to take lightly.
Winston Churchill was finally recognized in Britain as the one man who just might save his country. When he at last became Prime Minister in 1940, Germany had conquered most of Europe, Britain’s strongest ally, France, had fallen, and the British forces in France, battered and defeated, were just barely rescued and brought home from Dunkirk, minus most of their equipment. America was still officially neutral. Britain, as Churchill himself had done for eight years, stood alone; and the prospects of survival could hardly have been bleaker. Many believed it was already too little, too late.
We believe God intervenes in history. How else would anything decent survive in a fallen world so full of sin and folly? Churchill’s career, and the final triumph of the Allies, strongly display the reality of God’s providence.
And Manchester’s book, if we let it, ought to be an inspiration to us all.
Topics: World History