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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

hot air and circumstances

Harper’s has a review of some recent Churchill books. Churchill has become the bloated Macy’s balloon of the neo-con legions. In some ways that is appropriate: the neo-cons are invariably attracted to frauds and swindlers (re the Chalabi romance) and Churchill was often fraudulent. The funniest thing about the review is the raking over of Churchill’s sham Augustan prose – as Evelyn Waugh labeled it. In the fifties, Churchill’s history of the Second World War was received with awe – one reviewer speaks of the hush of greatness – but in actuality, this was committee work on a scale that would have embarrassed Dumas:

“In fact, Churchill had long used ghostwriters. He was paid enormous sums by newspapers and there was nothing he wouldn't stoop to if the money was right, in a way that a professional journalist must find endearing. At one point in the 1930s, he wrote a series of "Great Stories of the World Retold," potted versions of everything from The Count of Monte Cristo to Uncle Tom's Cabin-except that "wrote" meant he would farm out the actual work to someone like Sir Edward Marsh, his sometime private secretary and a fastidious man of letters, who would be paid rather less than 10 percent of Churchill's fee. Since Churchill collected the modern equivalent of $17,500 for each piece and Marsh received $1,300, everyone was happy.

With The Second World War, this principle operated on a far larger scale. The Syndicate, as Churchill's team of researchers and writers was called, was headed by William Deakin, an Oxford don who had been Churchill's wartime emissary to Tito (Deakin died in great old age in January of last year), and Sir Henry Pownall, a former senior army officer. They would draft whole chapters, using the first person, to which Churchill would then apply his finishing touches, some in that shamAugustan prose, some inimitable-whether it's the laconic ending that marks the departure from London in 1938 of the German ambassador, "This was the last time I saw Herr von Ribbentrop before he was hanged," or the delightful admission, "All I wanted was compliance with my wishes after a reasonable period of discussion." No member of the Syndicate could have written those.

Nor would they have contributed the tendentious slant. ... many more pages are devoted to the North African campaign than to the Eastern Front, where the Germans had about fifty times as many divisions engaged and where the war against the Third Reich was in reality decided. The treatment of the other great and historically decisive conflict of 1941-45, between the United States and Japan, is just as cursory, and secondhand at that.

This also led to a most embarrassing charge of plagiarism. The cursory account of the Pacific war was cobbled together by the Syndicate; Churchill scarcely looked at it. When the eminent American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who had written the classic History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, read these chapters he felt "a keen sense of déjà vu and then mounting indignation" at the wholesale purloining of his work. But he did not want to be seen taking the great hero to court, and the matter was smoothed over with the addition of a fulsome tribute to Morison's work.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the reviewer, also quotes a moving tribute to Neville Chamberlain, who – in the cartoon version of history beloved by conservatives – gets to play to appeasing wimp compared to Churchill’s Cato like warnings about Nazi Germany (although, alas, I don’t think such warnings were supposed to allow Britain to intervene on the Republican side in Spain. That, after all, would be premature anti-Fascism). Appeasement, we are meant to think, is always the same – it is always a Hitler being appeased. Hitlers are, in reality, extremely rare. Most nations that have suffered losses in the millions in a war are not eager to start new ones. Stalin, as much of a murdering tyrant as Hitler ever was, tried to keep the Soviet Union out of any major war -- and failed. He tried to keep the Soviet Union out of a major war because he remembered vividly World War I. At the end of which, as you will recall, Russia's supreme leader, the Czar, was shot in a basement. In fact, the implausibility of the here a Hitler, there a Hitler stance of the pro-war party in this country would be funny, if it weren't so utterly successful as a propaganda ploy. Here’s what Churchill said at Chamberlain’s funeral:
“It is not given to human beings, happily for them for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.

...It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was the faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.”

The sham Augustan is certainly there, but Churchill’s judgment of the Chamberlain’s motives is surely just. And the idea that the most highly armed and dangerous nation in the world, the U.S., which spends a trillion dollars on the military every three or four years, is in any danger of falling into appeasing anybody (instead of finding outlets for its addiction to the political economy of war) is one of the funnier delusions of our time.

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