The two Churchills who defeated Hitler: TV historian David Starkey reveals how an ancestor inspired Winston to win the war
22:27 GMT, 6 April 2012
Back in September 1932, a distinguished British visitor was spending a few days in the German city of Munich.
His name was Winston Churchill MP: one-time cabinet minister, now just a backbencher. So this was not an official trip, but nor was Winston simply a tourist.
He was in the city to carry out field research for the book he was writing: a biography of his ancestor, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Britain’s greatest general, whose famous victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 had taken place about 40 miles away, and whose influence on his famous descendant is the subject of my new three-part TV series.
Churchill's ancestor John John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, depicted in 1702
In 1932 Germany was in turmoil, destabilised by the Great Depression. There were four million unemployed, and a new political party, the National Socialist Workers Party, was making rapid electoral strides. Its ‘Fhrer’, Adolf Hitler, was clearly the coming man of German politics. At his hotel, Winston was introduced to one of Hitler’s financial backers, a German-American art dealer with the memorable name of ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl. Putzi turned out to be good company.
‘He went to the piano and played and sang in such a remarkable style that we all enjoyed ourselves immensely,’ Winston later wrote. ‘He said that Herr Hitler came every day to the hotel at five o’clock, and would be very glad indeed to see me. I had no national prejudices against Hitler at this time. He had a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose.’ And so Putzi arranged a meeting between the two.
That meeting is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history. For Hitler failed to turn up, apparently feeling it was not worth the effort. ‘After all, what part does Churchill play’ Hitler told Putzi. ‘He is in opposition and nobody pays any attention to what he says.’ That, of course, was a misjudgement. Churchill would return to power, to be the Fhrer’s nemesis. And, curiously, his biography of Marlborough helped to pave Winston’s way to Number 10.
I am sure it was his absorption in the
world of the late 17th century that enabled Churchill to understand the
Nazis better than his contemporaries, and faster
We tend to think of Winston Churchill as a politician and an orator. We sometimes forget he was also an aristocrat, a soldier, a writer and a historian. His greatest work of history, apart perhaps from his insider’s account of World War II, is undoubtedly Marlborough: His Life And Times. It’s a massive work, over a million words published in four volumes between 1933 and 1938.
One hesitates to use a word like magic when talking about something as sober as history, but with this book there is repeatedly a sense that you’re not quite sure which century and which tense anything is referring to. It’s a book about a man who led a coalition of Allies in a war to prevent the domination of Europe by an aggressive hegemonic power, written by another man who would, after he set down his pen, take up the same role in another global conflict. Studying his ancestor’s struggles against Louis XIV turned out to be the best possible preparation for Winston’s duel with Hitler.
Like Hitler, Louis XIV was territorially aggressive, constantly striving to extend the borders of France through conquest. And also like Hitler, Louis waged a brutal internal war against a religious minority: not Jews, but French Protestants, the Huguenots. Winston’s description of Louis as ‘the curse and pest of Europe, petty and mediocre in all except his lusts and power’ could apply to the preening Nazi dictator, except it was written before Hitler came to power.
Churchill's account of World War II, Marlborough: His Life And Times is over a million words and was published in four volumes between 1933 and 1938
When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 – through completely constitutional means – many people in England thought he was a man they could do business with. But Churchill was astonishingly quick to recognise the true nature of the regime, warning Parliament in April about the ‘grim dictatorship’ forming in Germany.
I am sure it was his absorption in the world of the late 17th century that enabled Churchill to understand the Nazis better than his contemporaries, and faster. But at first the publication of the Marlborough volumes, which were serialised in the Sunday Times, reinforced the view that Winston was an old-fashioned warmonger.
In 1930s Britain, scarred by the
slaughter of the Great War, pacifism was pretty much universal.
Everybody, from the Royal Family to the wildest fringes of the left,
agreed that Britain must never fight another European war. We must
disarm. There must be peace. Yet here was this man writing about the
wicked old Europe and apparently glorifying war.
As the decade wore on, and the threat from Germany became ever more obvious, people began to read each new volume about Marlborough differently. It became clear that Churchill was the only serious politician of the front rank who had thought about war; who had contemplated what has to be done in war; who really understood it.
Marlborough is part of the reason the nation turned to Winston when war came. Among those who were impressed by the book was the American President, Franklin Roosevelt. When we were filming in the US for my new series, we found three different inscribed copies in his study at his estate in New York. Roosevelt, like Churchill, was a man steeped in history, and the book became a kind of currency in their relationship, the subject of private jokes.
That was just one way in which Marlborough helped Winston win the war. But to me the real lesson is the value of history itself. Today our politicians are schooled in the social sciences, with their pseudo-scientific generalisations about human behaviour. They would do better to be guided by history, which deals with people as they really are, not as we would like them to be. I fear that until we have politicians who are formed in the same way as Churchill, we will continue in our wilderness.
The Churchills is coming soon to Channel 4.