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Who was Winston Churchill? In 2017 he was portrayed both as an irascible, tub-thumping, cigar-chewing maverick by Gary Oldman in the film Darkest Hour and as a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown wracked by guilt over his role in the First World War by Brian Cox in the movie Churchill. Both films are perhaps revealing of what contemporary audiences want to see; a loner who defies the establishment and a leader who develops through a redemptive arc, suffering a crisis of conscience only to have his resolve stiffened through contact with ordinary people before re-finding his voice. It makes for great drama, but it is not history.
The figure who emerges from these pages is a product of his class and age, but one who was intensely driven, hardworking and unafraid to court fame or controversy, who led from the front and relied on his own eloquence to sustain his career, fund his lifestyle and shape his legacy. He embraced technological change but there were always clear limits to his radicalism, even in the early Edwardian period, and like many he seems to have become more conservative as he got older, reacting to perceived threats to the world of his youth from socialism, communism and independence movements throughout the British Empire. The aftermath of the First World War had a profound impact, challenging many of Churchill’s certainties about British power and stability. His opposition to Indian autonomy and German expansionism shared some common roots, and both brought him much criticism at the time.
This chapter looks at how and why Churchill has become such a divisive figure. It opens with a description of recent debates in the public discourse and on social media. It then briefly discuses Churchill’s reputation during his lifetime before recounting the role that he played in shaping his own legacy through his words, written and spoken, and through the creation of his archive and official biography. The authors then examine the long and complex historiography of Churchill, highlighting some of the most significant challenges to the dominant Churchillian narrative. Particular attention is paid to the more recent politicising of Churchill as a result of debates over Brexit, empire and race.
Churchill has become the archetypal embodiment of the modern war leader, in part as a result of his own writings, but this chapter strips away the layers of hindsight and looks in detail at the challenge he faced in 1940 and the actions he took in response. By making himself minister of defence, he united the civilian and military administrative machines and established a streamlined decision-making process at the heart of government. He led from the front, both through the projection of his image and through his distinctive oratory. His strategy was to weather the immediate crisis and then to find means of taking the fight to the enemy, even if it meant prioritising the Mediterranean over the Empire in Asia, while also courting the United States and seizing the opportunity of the Soviet alliance. The strain undoubtedly took a toll on his health and, as the war progressed, his room for manoeuvre became more limited and fractures began to emerge over the future, both within his government and in his relations with his key allies.
Viewed by some as the saviour of his nation, and by others as a racist imperialist, who was Winston Churchill really, and how has he become such a controversial figure? Combining the best of established scholarship with important new perspectives, this Companion places Churchill's life and legacy in a broader context. It highlights different aspects of his life and personality, examining his core beliefs, working practices, key relationships and the political issues and campaigns that he helped shape, and which in turn shaped him. Controversial subjects, such as area bombing, Ireland, India and Empire are addressed in full, to try and explain how Churchill has become such a deeply divisive figure. Through careful analysis, this book presents a full and rounded picture of Winston Churchill, providing much needed nuance and context to the debates about his life and legacy.
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