President Obama’s palpable excitement over the phone call he had with the president of “the Islamic Republic of Iran” — Obama bows verbally even when he can’t execute his 90-degree dive in person — put me in mind of Winston Churchill’s failed meeting with Adolf Hitler. It’s a story I’ve mentioned here before and ask your indulgence in mentioning again as the occasion seems to warrant.
Among the many qualities that made Churchill a man out of joint with his times was this one: He frequently wrote and spoke favorably of the Jews and in support of the creation of a Jewish homeland. In his book Eminent Churchillians, the prominent historian Andrew Roberts pauses in his chapter on Churchill’s politically incorrect statements on race to observe:
Not all Churchill’s racial characterizations were negative…He believed the Jews to be “the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.” He felt an instinctive affinity for their genius as well as a historian’s respect for their trials, and he supported Jewish aspirations wherever they did not clash with those of the Empire. He may have inherited his philo-Semitism from his father, but he certainly gave it new lustre in his own life.
(Roberts’s quote derives from Churchill’s famous essay “Zionism versus Bolshevism.”)
One striking example of Churchill’s sympathy for the Jews derives from Churchill’s work on his monumental biography of the Duke of Marlborough during Churchill’s “wilderness years.” In 1932 Churchill’s research on the Marlborough biography took him to the European battlefields on which his ancestor had staked his claim to greatness. Churchill continued to Munich and a possible meeting with Adolf Hitler. Martin Gilbert tells the story, but prefaces the story with this revelation:
Every biographer tries to find the key to his subject’s personality, and above all the flaws and weaknesses which are an indispensable part of any biographical presentation. I remember how pleased, actually thrilled, I was some twenty-five years ago, talking to one of those who had been close to Churchill in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. He said to me: “You have to understand, Gilbert, that Winston did have one serious fault.” As a biographer, my ears pricked up and my pen was poised to record and then to follow this up. This gentleman continued, “He was too fond of Jews.” Whether this was a serious fault for some of his contemporaries, for his biographer it was an extraordinary window into his life.
Then the story:
When in November 1932, shortly before Hitler came to power, and Churchill was in Munich doing some historical research about the First Duke of Marlborough,…an intermediary [Putzi Hanfstaegl] tried to get him to meet Hitler, who was in Munich at the time and had high hopes of coming to power within months. Churchill agreed to meet Hitler, who was going to come to see him in his hotel in Munich, and said to the intermediary: “There are a few questions you might like to put to him, which can be the basis of our discussion when we meet.” Among them was the following question: “What is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?”
This may seem a simple sentiment to us now, but how many people, distinguished people from Britain, the United States and other countries, who met or might have met Hitler, raised that question with him? So surprised, and possibly angered, was Hitler by this question that he declined to come to the hotel and see Churchill.
Gilbert retells this story in Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship. Churchill relates it himself as “a personal digression in a lighter vein” over two pages in The Gathering Storm and comments: “Thus Hitler lost his only chance of meeting me.”