Subscribe now and receive weekly newsletters with educational materials, new courses, interesting posts, popular books, and much more!
On War: Churchill, Thucydides and the Teachable Moment
As with everything he did, Churchill’s historical writing about the two World Wars was shaped by his volcanic personality and robust views. The strong personal and idiosyncratic features of these works led some to make gentle jabs. Former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour described The World Crisis, Churchill’s account of World War I, as “Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe.”1 Even Maurice Ashley, who worked closely with Churchill as a research assistant on Marlborough, felt compelled to begin his treatment of The World Crisis not only with praise but with a question: “But is it history?”2 Ashley asks the question primarily because of the personal nature of the reflections contained therein and the judgments of the author on both people and events: “Is the book disqualified as history because of the personal explanations and judgments it contains?”3 Others have been more aggressive, claiming that, when recording events in which he was involved, as in The Second World War, Churchill was so consumed by self-justification that he twisted the historical record.4
Those who have viewed Churchill’s historical works positively have often sought a comparable figure of recognized greatness at whose side to place him. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta, Athens, and their allies in the fifth century B.C., has been a frequent choice. T.E. Lawrence remarked upon reading The World Crisis: “I suppose he recalls that he’s the only high person, since Thucydides and Clarendon, who has put his generation imaginatively in his debt.5 Frank Harris, Churchill’s early literary agent, wrote that it was “…a book which will be as Thucydides said of his own history ‘a possession forever,’ something that even this English public will not willingly forget.”6 Oliver Locker-Lampson reviewed The Eastern Front, the final volume of The World Crisis, in 1931. He wrote of Churchill: “No greater writer of the English language exists today. Mr. Churchill is our modern Macaulay; or rather today’s Thucydides.”7
Such comparisons invite speculation as to what lies behind the pairing. Churchill’s known familiarity with and admiration for Thucydides may have been a leading factor. Very likely he read the History of the Peloponnesian War at Harrow or Sandhurst, and several instances in his later career indicate knowledge and appreciation of that work.8 The discerning eye will note that there are also similarities of understanding between the two authors.9 And there are similarities of form and purpose which, once glimpsed, are difficult to deny.10
Thucydides and the Purpose of History
Like Churchill, Thucydides has not been immune from attack upon his historical method and presentation.11 These criticisms are often based upon the charge that Thucydides is not concerned with events themselves, but with seeking behind events some unchanging and eternal truth—some fixed law of human behavior. Herein lies the most instructive of the parallels.
Thucydides makes the explicit claim that he wrote his history to teach. He claims that it is meant to be an everlasting possession—that he does not mean it to merely win the applause of the moment, but to be kept as something useful for all time:
The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.12
There is no reason to think that the lessons Thucydides seeks to glean from history would be classified by him as unchanging rules of human behavior on the level either of metaphysical principles or determinative scientific laws. Rather, the lessons Thucydides sees in history are the probable connections between, character, action, and consequence. The value of history lies in providing examples of human action, presenting to the reader prudential landmarks by which he may be guided through the basically consistent landscape of human existence. Thucydides intends that his work will be a guide to future action.
Churchill as Teacher
Churchill also intends that his work will be a guide to future action; he intends to teach through history. This intention is perhaps most evident in The Second World War. The giving of a moral to The Second World War shows that Churchill sees his work as accomplishing more than a recitation of facts. The moral Churchill provides is a kind of catalogue of attitudes one should exhibit amidst the experiences of human life; hence, it is also a general guide to the kinds of actions one should take and, above all, the kind of character one should have:
IN WAR: RESOLUTION
IN DEFEAT: DEFIANCE
IN VICTORY: MAGNANIMITY
IN PEACE: GOOD WILL13
A moral implies a teaching and, what is more, a moral only makes sense if you are able to make choices–choices which are good or bad, right or wrong either simply or given the circumstances. A moral is meant to provide guidance, a way of proceeding in the world—what is, in the author’s understanding, the best way. And, it must be noted, if the moral is meant to provide meaningful guidance for any length of time, it assumes a fundamental stability in the course of human affairs.
That Churchill’s categories of human experience revolve around peace and war is not surprising–his whole life was devoted to such questions; and he is, after all, writing the story of a war. But the story Churchill has to tell is not limited in scope to this war, nor is it contained solely in this work. It is to be found also in his speeches, in his other writings, in his career, and in his life. Nor is the moral limited to The Second World War alone. It is intended for human life in general. This intention of Churchill’s finds no surer proof than his own adherence to this guide throughout his own life; indeed, one could not think of words any truer to the essence of the man.
The most prominent feature of Churchill’s preface to the first volume of his history of the Second World War is the repetition of his intention that his work should be of service to the future. The variations on the theme of laying “the lessons of the past before the future” sound the somber notes of both remembrance and warning. Churchill regards his telling of the Second World War as but the continuation of the story of the First World War.14 The two tales are halves of a whole.
The First World War was a horror of unspeakable mechanized slaughter, but the second war, while also greater in scope, was really the greater tragedy because, in Churchill’s view, it could have been so easily avoided. The theme of the first volume, The Gathering Storm, is a solemn rebuke and a sorrowful reflection:
HOW THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES
THROUGH THEIR UNWISDOM,
CARELESSNESS, AND GOOD NATURE
ALLOWED THE WICKED TO REARM.
The rebuke is conveyed by the title and the content of the first chapter, “The Follies of the Victors.” Here begins the sad tale of how the hard-won peace was squandered: “After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence.”15 Instead, the victors “lived from hand to mouth and from day to day, and from one election to another, until, when scarcely twenty years were out, the dread signal of the Second World War was given…”16 It is not only the remembrance of past agonies that adds the touch of sorrow to Churchill’s words and work, but the reflection that the good are particularly prone to the follies that allow wickedness to take shape and grow again–and that this story has no end in this world.
Moved by a historically rich and vivid vision of human life, Churchill did not remain content to survey the events of his own experience, and of his own time. Indeed, the world has seen few men whose imaginary eye was more attuned to the shades and colors of the past, whose view of earlier ages was at once so panoramic and so personal. For the reflective, an intimate walk with history invites contemplation on the human condition as such. Churchill was no exception. His writings on this topic convey the impression of human life as sacrifice and struggle. It is clear that the story of the world wars was, for Churchill, not so much a discrete tale as it was a chapter in the larger story of human existence—a story which has always told mostly of war. Like Thucydides, Churchill sets his subject within the larger story of humanity.
It is true that in Churchill’s understanding the stage for World War II was set in the mishandling of the final act of World War I. It is also true that he saw the second war as a culmination of the whole history of man. In various inter-war writings, Churchill gives a kind of mythic account of the beginnings, an echo of the “Archaeology,” as the opening of the Peloponnesian War is known.
Thucydides characterizes the earliest ages as plagued by motion and unrest, constant transplantations and movements which resulted in violence, fear, and poverty.17 Like the Thucydides’ account, Churchill’s story is one in which man knows no rest: “The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending.”18 Churchill goes on to describe how every era of human existence has been a scene of struggle, each more destructive and far-reaching than the last until sheer exhaustion stands in for peace: “The world lifted its head, surveyed the scene of ruin, and victors and vanquished alike drew breath.” The pause gives humanity a chance to take stock, “an opportunity to consider the general situation.” The naked truth that must meet the world’s weary eyes is that worse lies ahead. Whole populations will now take part in war; states will stop at nothing to ensure their own survival, employing means that admit no mercy: “It is probable—nay, certain—that among the means which will next time be at their disposal will be agencies and processes of destruction wholesale, unlimited, and perhaps, once launched, uncontrollable.” Man stands at the pinnacle of his destructive power and lives in a moment of supreme danger:
Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils of the past have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverize, without hope of repair, what is left of civilization. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now–for one occasion only–his Master.
Humanity has not improved, Churchill says, except in its ability to destroy. Its self-control has not been augmented along with its destructive power. All of the old spurs to conflict still prick the human breast. The world enjoys but a brief respite, perhaps only a moment of rest, before it plunges back into the flood: “Let it not be thought for a moment that the danger of another explosion in Europe is passed. For the time being the stupor and the collapse which followed the World War ensure a sullen passivity, and the horror of war, its carnage and its tyrannies, has sunk into the soul, has dominated the mind, of every class in every race. But the causes of war have in no way been removed…”19 The exhaustion will pass, the stupor will clear, old horrors will cease to deter; the eyes of man will turn outward again, his inward heart unchanged.
Churchill believes that he is writing in that brief moment of opportunity when the exhaustion which still clings to the limbs of Europe offers to the nations “a final chance to control their destinies and avert what may well be a general doom.” It is now that the effort must be made: “Surely if a sense of self-preservation still exists among men, if the will to live resides not merely in individuals or nations but in humanity as a whole, the prevention of the supreme catastrophe ought to be the paramount object of all endeavor.”20 But the effort was not made; it was shirked or went awry. And another war came.
Grave Events and Solemn Warnings
Both Thucydides and Churchill participated in the wars they write about. Both authors saw their respective conflicts as great teaching moments because of their scale and what was at stake. Thucydides’ calls the Peloponnesian War “the greatest movement yet known in history.” This claim involves the assertion that the wars of the past were not so great. The weakness of ancient times did not allow for conflicts to take on the same scale that increased technology and cooperative activity would later allow.21 Yet Churchill makes a similar case for the Second World War. Earlier ages could not measure up to the twentieth century in terms of the powers within humanity’s grasp.
Of course, the Peloponnesian War was nothing compared to the destructive forces unleashed in 1939, let alone man’s capability today. Modern science has given war the potential to consume all mankind, unleashing destructive potential plans never before contemplated and reducing past butcheries “to pigmy proportions.” As long ago as it now is, the Second World War saw prodigies of wickedness, Churchill wrote: “…every bond between man and man was to perish. Crimes were committed by the Germans under the Hitlerite domination to which they allowed themselves to be subjected which find no equal in scale or wickedness with any that have darkened the human record.”
But for Churchill like Thucydides before him, the material and moral dimensions of the war make it a profound teaching moment: “We have at length emerged from a scene of material ruin and moral havoc the like of which had never darkened the imagination of former centuries.”22
Following these characterizations, Churchill writes of his intent:
It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous….how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster. 23
Thucydides is nowhere so explicit about the lessons he wishes to convey. But the two authors share the understanding that conflict is a constant in human life—and the writings of both convey the truth that peace mishandled is but a prelude to renewed war. When Thucydides defends counting years of intervening treaty peace in his numbering of the years of war, he argues that an unstable peace that has not resolved underlying conflicts does not deserve the name: “Only a mistaken judgment can object to including the interval of treaty in the war. Looked at in light of the facts it cannot, it will be found, be rationally considered a state of peace….”24 This theme, which Churchill stressed with great force and regularity in the inter-war years, may perhaps be summed up in his approving quotation in The Gathering Storm of a similar view: “When Marshall Foch heard of the signing of the Peace treaty of Versailles he observed with singular accuracy: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.”25
Churchill’s Enduring Lessons
It is significant that the last volume of The Second World War is entitled Triumph and Tragedy. The end of the war was a moment of triumph. But, for Churchill, the tragedy was that the old story was beginning again or, rather, was following its wonted course. The theme of the last volume of his history is but a continuation of that of the first:
HOW THE GREAT DEMOCRACIES
AND SO WERE ABLE TO RESUME
WHICH HAD SO NEARLY
COST THEM THEIR LIFE.26
It was tragic that, after all the bullets and blood, with the wreckage of war strewn over the continents of the world, there was still no rest for man:
The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, We still have not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted. It is my earnest hope that pondering upon the past may give guidance in days to come, enable a new generation to repair some of the errors of former years and thus govern, in accordance with the needs and glory of man, the awful unfolding scene of the future.27
Even when reflecting on the moment of triumph, Churchill sounds the grim note of warning. War may come again, he writes. Indeed, it probably will—unless mankind can learn from its mistakes, unless it pays heed to the lessons of the past, lessons which Churchill, in speech and written word throughout his long career, strove to lay before the future.
The Teachability of Mankind
Churchill’s desire to teach lies at the core of his statesmanship. To convey what should be done, how it should be done, and why it should be done is the essence of political leadership. Churchill found in history many guides for answering these questions relative to contemporary political problems. He believed that the past could serve as a kind of treasury of human experience from which one could draw counsel for present decisions. This is especially true when considering questions of war and peace because the consequences of a misstep can be very heavy indeed; and thus the lessons, as if marked in bold print, easier to read. War is a violent teacher. Churchill strove always to be a good student and to pass on what he learned. Yet he sometimes expressed a belief that history’s lessons were never absorbed–as he said in 1935 under growing frustration with mounting German air power and British unpreparedness:
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.28
By Churchill’s own telling, the peoples of the world failed to learn the lessons of the First World War and so were condemned to another. But he never took this difficulty as an excuse for giving up. When danger again threatened in the wake of the second war, Churchill again offered counsel, again he tried to convey the lessons of history.
Justin D. Lyons is Associate Professor of Political Science at Cedarville University in Ohio, and author of “Churchill on Statesmanship: Pope Innocent XI,” “Churchill, Shakespeare, and Agincourt.” In 2015 he published Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés: Ambiguous Legacies of Leadership.
*Certain reflections herein derive from the author’s “Thucydides, Churchill, and the Writing of Political History,” Citizens and Statesmen, Volume IV (2009), pp. 98-129.
1 Quoted in David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing The Second World War (Random House, 2005), 7.
2 Maurice Ashley, Churchill as Historian. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 69.
3 Ashley, Churchill as Historian, 72.
4 Manfred Weidhorn, Churchill’s Rhetoric and Political Discourse. Exxon Education Foundation Series on Rhetoric and Political Discourse, ed. Kenneth W. Thompson, no. 17. The White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987), 9.
5 Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, Vol. 11 (Hillsdale College Press, 2009), 1014.
6 Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, Vol 3 (Hillsdale College Press, 2007), 464-66.
7 Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, Vol. 12 (Hillsdale College Press, 2009), 368.
9 See Paul A. Rahe, “The River War: Nature’s Provision, Man’s Desire to Prevail, and the Prospects for Peace” in James W. Muller, ed. Churchill as Peacemaker. Woodrow Wilson Center Series. (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1997).
10 For a survey of Churchill’s exposure to Thucydides and the Greek historian’s influence on his writing, see Oliver Schelske, “Thucydides as an Educational Text” in Christine Lee and Neville Morley, eds. A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides (Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 82-90.
11 See, for example, R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946).
12 Robert Strassler, ed. The Landmark Thucydides. Translated by R. Crawley (Chicago: Free Press, 1996), 16 (1.22).
13 These words stand in the opening pages of each volume of Churchill’s war memoirs under the heading: “Moral of the Work.”
14 Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm, Vol. I, The Second World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), iii: “I must regard these volumes as a continuation of the story of the First World War, which I set out in The World Crisis, The Eastern Front, and The Aftermath. Together, if the present work is completed, they will cover an account of another Thirty Years War.” See Schelske for this and other parallels of presentation and understanding between Thucydides and Churchill.
15 The Gathering Storm, 3.
16 The Gathering Storm, 18.
17 See, for example, Thucydides, 3, (1.2): “Without commerce, without freedom of communication by land or sea, cultivating no more of their territory than the necessities of life required (for they could not tell when an invader might not come and take it all away, and when he did come they had no walls to stop him)….”
18 Winston S. Churchill, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” in James W. Muller, ed. Thoughts and Adventures: Churchill Reflects on Spies, Cartoons, Flying, and the Future (ISI Books, 2009), 259.
19 “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”262.
20 “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” 265.
21 Thucydides, (1.1-1.19), 4-15.
22 The Gathering Storm, 15-16.
23 The Gathering Storm, 16.
24 Thucydides, (5.26), 316.
25 The Gathering Storm, 6.
26 Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, Vol. VI , The Second World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953), ix.
27 The Gathering Storm, iv-v.
28 “Air Parity Lost” May 2, 1935 in in Robert Rhodes James, ed. Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963. 8 vols. (London: Chelsea House Publishers, 1974), VI 5592.