Counterpunch Demolishes Some Churchillian Myths

There’s a very interesting piece by Louis Proyect over at this weekend’s Counterpunch, The Churchillian Myths of 1940, where he takes a well-observed aim at two of the recent films about the Second World War. One is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the other is the forthcoming biopic about Winston Churchill’s battle against the appeasers in the British cabinet in 1940, The Darkest Hour. This hasn’t been released yet, and is set to come out on December 21st (2017). It stars Gary Oldman as Churchill, and is directed by Joe Wright.

Dunkirk’s already attracted much criticism because of its historical inaccuracies. I think it’s been accused of racism, because it ignores the large numbers of the British forces, who were Black and Asian. But Proyect also draws on a critique of the film by Max Hastings of the Telegraph to show how the film presents a very mythical view of Dunkirk. The film has it that the British troops are under constant shooting and bombardment by the Germans, and that they are saved by the flotilla of small vessels that went over there to rescue them. In fact, according to Hastings, the Germans largely left the retreating British alone. As for being saved by the small ships, 2/3 of the troops were rescued by the fleet of big ships that were sent by the navy. There were 37 of these, but six were sunk. Proyect also criticises a scene where the sailors aboard a sinking ship discuss how they are going to get to the surface without being mown down by the Germans. He compares this unfavourably to the Poseidon Adventure, producing the quotes by the critics to show that this is actually a far superior film.

More serious is the way the film deliberately omits atrocities committed on the civilian population by the retreating British. Proyect states that at the time the British squaddies were under immense physical and psychological stress. They responded by shooting anyone that moved, including old women and nuns. This is historical fact. Proyect cites and describes one of these incidents. The trooper had been told to take no prisoners, except for interrogation, and so blazed away accordingly.

As for the Darkest Hour, Proyect draws on an article by Clive Ponting on the Churchill Myth. Older readers of this blog will remember that Ponting was the civil servant Maggie tried to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act because he leaked two documents about the sinking of the Belgrano to the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Ponting was acquitted, because the jury weren’t about to be told what to do by Maggie.

He points out that in fact the difference of opinion between Churchill and the appeasers, like Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, was actually much smaller than most people realised. At the time, Churchill was in favour of making peace with Germany, and had sent feelers out to see what their terms were. Where he differed from Halifax and Chamberlain was that they were in favour of making an immediate peace, while he wanted to fight on for a few more months.

The film does show Churchill hesitating at one point, and Proyect states that this would have been unthinkable a few years ago, as the official archives were still closed and the only source material available were Churchill’s own self-aggrandising writings. In which he portrayed himself as the resolute warrior.

But this ignores just how pro-Nazi Churchill had been, as well as anti-Semitic. What! Churchill pro-Nazi? The very idea! But he was. In 1937 Churchill wrote of Hitler

Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.

As for Leon Trotsky, Churchill reviled him with all manner abuse, not just because he was a Bolshevik, but also because Trotsky was Jewish. He quotes Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a revision history attacking the notion of World War II as ‘the good war’, from which he also took the above quote about Hitler from Churchill. Baker writes

Churchill also included a short piece on Leon Trotsky, king in exile of international bolshevism. Trotsky was a usurper and tyrant, Churchill said. He was a cancer bacillus, he was a “skin of malice,” washed up on the shores of Mexico. Trotsky possessed, said Churchill, “the organizing command of a Carnot, the cold detached intelligence of a Machiavelli, the mob oratory of a Cleon, the ferocity of Jack the Ripper, the toughness of Titus Oates.”

And in the end what was Trotsky? Who was he? “He was a Jew,” wrote Churchill with finality. “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.” He called his article “Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein.”

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/08/the-churchillian-myths-of-1940/

I am not surprised by Proyect’s description of Churchill’s highly equivocal attitude to Nazi Germany. Churchill himself was very authoritarian. He had visited Mussolini’s Italy, though he had not been impressed when the Duce compared the Blackshirts to the Black and Tans, and privately remarked that Musso was ‘a swine’. But he did like General Franco. The historian Martin Pugh, in his book on British Fascism between the Wars, states that Churchill’s opposition to Nazi Germany did not come from any deep ideological view, but simply because he was bitterly suspicious of Germany and believed that it would block British interests in the North Sea. Pugh points out that he didn’t seem concerned that a bloc of Fascist states in southern Europe could do the same to British interests in the Mediterranean.

It would be interesting to know what Peter Hitchens thinks of all this. Hitchens is deeply Conservative, but he is a fierce critic of the Second World War as ‘the good war’, and has absolutely no love of Churchill. Indeed, in his book taking aim at New Atheism a few years ago, The Rage Against God, he attacked the cult of Churchill as a kind of ersatz religion, put in place of Christianity. It’s a bit of stretch, as it wasn’t quite an exercising in God-building that the Soviets tried. In the former USSR there was a brief movement after the Revolution to create a kind of atheistic religion, centred around great revolutionary heroes, to harness religious sentiments for the cause of Communism. The cult around Churchill isn’t quite like that. But nevertheless, to some Churchill is almost a sacrosanct figure, against whom you must not utter a single word. You can’t, after all, imagine Dan Snow on the One Show, striding around what remains of Churchill’s office and papers, telling the world how ‘Winnie’ at one time looked approvingly on Hitler and was very nearly ready to make peace. Or that, when it suited him, he was viciously anti-Semitic.

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