Churchill’s Death, 50 Years On

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Winston Churchill. The most moving account of the scene comes from the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs, who traveled from the U.S. to London to attend. It was originally published in The American Spectator years ago (but seemingly unavailable online) and then subsequently included in his fine book, Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian.

The Los Angeles Times, of all publications, noted this anniversary last week at some length, calling him “the greatest Briton,” but mostly dwelling on today’s Churchill-related tourist attractions.

A more substantive reflection comes from historian Andrew Roberts, writing last week in The Telegraph that Churchill’s death was “the day the empire died.”

Yet it did seem a historically significant moment, coming at a time when the Labour government was considering withdrawing all troops from east of Suez and so closing down the last remnants on the British Empire. “Now Britain is no longer a great power,” said Charles de Gaulle when he heard the news.

Many commentators in the British press agreed with him, and saw in the ceremony at St Paul’s the end of the era of British greatness. With the uninspiring Harold Wilson in Downing Street – about as un-Churchillian a figure imaginable – wrestling with recurrent economic problems that were soon to force the government into a humiliating devaluation of sterling, it was natural to fit Churchill’s death into an overall narrative of decline and malaise.

“The day of giants is gone for ever,” the historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote in the Illustrated London News. Churchill’s own detective agreed, saying: “If the king dies you can say ‘Long live the king’, but now Sir Winston’s gone, who is there? There’s no one of his stature left.” A L Rowse, the Oxford don, was equally pessimistic, writing: “The sun is going down on the British Empire.”

The whole article is very much worth reading. A recollection wouldn’t be complete, however, without a highlight reel. This seven-minute clip culminates with the cranes of the docks bowing to the barge carrying Churchill’s body up the Thames—an extraordinary gesture, Lukacs thought, from a unionized industry that generally opposed Churchill.

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