The Battle for History: Can We Always Take Pride in 'Great Men' and 'Good Wars'?

When I accepted the position as President of the Winston Churchill Society of Vancouver Island it was for three reasons.

First, the organisation although small was well served by its existing Board members all of whom knew what they wanted to contribute and were doing so, leaving me the luxury of staying out of the way.

Second, the organisation was looking for someone who was happy to go out and talk about Churchill, and as many of you know, I have no difficulty in talking; getting people to listen is another issue.

Finally, a lot like the reason I became a donor to  as this was the only I way I was likely to  my name on a list with Margaret Atwood, the Churchill brand was one I was very happy to be associated with.

My father, a Canadian (born 1930) who spent the terrible years leading up to the beginning of the Second World War and all the war years in a safe and distant middle class home in Toronto, introduced me to the Churchillian narrative that began in the early 1930s with Churchill warning about Nazi Germany, wound through the awful spring of 1940 as France fell and the Britain stood alone stiffened by Churchill’s oratory, and largely ended on V-day with the Nazi threat extinguished.

My mother, British (born 1932) had few memories of the years leading to September 1939 but over many childhood dinners – at the prodding of my sisters and me – told us of the harrowing times of being bombed as her home was near Croydon airfield, and particularly of being stuffed into a backyard air raid shelter with her mother and older sister that has left her with a lifelong problem of being in small spaces like elevators.

The day I was to accept the role as President of the Society, and in preparation for a few words of acceptance, I called my mom to ask her memories of Churchill, like the wartime speeches and the heroic vision, assuming she also thought the brand very special.

Alas none of that resonated with the once young girl of a family that barely got out of the Depression, suffered on the civilian front line of the Battle of Britain, and then lived through the decade of depravation that followed the war.

Instead, reminding me of her family’s poverty and deep Labour roots, said that she never heard any of Churchill’s speeches because her family did not have a radio until years after the war, and that her mother thought that Winston was a “war monger”.


What follows is a quick introduction to an important broadening in scholarship about Winston Churchill, the moral certainty of the allied participation in the Second World War, and the complications of history captured in the tremendous article from the New York Times below.

Of course with books like Slaughter House Five (1969) the moral ambiguity of the war on our side has always been open to question but there are a spate of recent books that gives this topic new focus particularly as we fight on in Afghanistan and hunt down Qaddafi.

Attached are various articles that reflect this theme.

Yes Virginia, history is murky. Thanks to Dad of Holland Landing for sending this in whose celebratory view of Churchil, like mine, needed a little brushing up. And also Paul of Victoria for telling me honestly what many people from India of my parents' age think of Churchill.

New York Times – The Battle For History
In February, the last surviving American veteran of the First World War died.

New York Times – Two Churchill’s
Winston Churchill is remembered for leading Britain through her finest hour — but what if he also led the country through her most shameful one?

Winston Churchill Society – The Bengali Famine
The editors of Finest Hour wish to bestow their 2008 Utter Excess Award on MWC (“Media With Conscience”) News in Vancouver for its November 18th editorial by Gideon Polya, charmingly entitled, “Media Lying Over Churchill’s Crimes”.

The Asian Review of Books – Gandhi and Churchill by Arthur Herman
The world's seemingly insatiable fascination with the two very different characters of Gandhi and Winston Churchill is stoked by the huge number of books that have been, and continue to be, written about them.

Wall Street Journal – Clash of Civilisations, Collapse of Empire
The rivalry between Winston Churchill and Mohandas ("Mahatma") Gandhi could hardly have been played for higher stakes. The future of British India, the "brightest jewel in the Imperial Crown" -- and thus the fate of 300 million people living on the Subcontinent -- hung upon the outcome of their 20-year struggle.

New York Review of Books – Did Churchill Let Them Starve?
The Bengal famine of 1943, which extinguished as many as three million lives in pre-partition British India, was the last (but hardly the first) such social catastrophe to erupt under the Raj.

New York Review of Books – How Great was Churchill?
Code word “Cromwell”—the warning that German invasion was imminent—was communicated to British army units on September 5, 1940.


youtube -- Max Hastings / Finest Years, Churchill as Warlord 1940-45
Winston Churchill was the greatest war leader Britain ever had. In 1940 the nation rallied behind him.

youtube -- Christopher Hitchens on Winston Churchill and the Cold War

youtube -- History of Britain, episode 11: The Wrong Empire, Chapter


For the record, the lesson I draw from histories dominated by a Churchill, or a Hitler, or a Roosevelt, or a Stalin, or a Mao or a Truman is that we are better off when our ‘present’ is not dominated by one person because that likely means that we have fallen into desperate times where someone’s blind spot or outright insanity brings down a blanket of unhappiness on some unsuspecting group of people even as part of the price of doing good.

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Twin Virtues: Inequality of Outcomes & Equality of Opportunity©

Twin Virtues

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