Getting Churchill wrong

I am familiar with Geoffrey Wheatcroft as a respected British journalist and author with a stint in editorial positions on Britain’s Spectator included on his résumé. I am therefore grateful to have Andrew Roberts send up a warning flare on Wheatcroft’s new book, Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill. The headline of Roberts’s Spectator review poses the question “A Churchill character assassination too far?”

Let us remove the question mark and posit that all character assassination is by definition “too far.” But we can fairly ask whether the book is a bad joke. Take this, for example:

Abusing Churchill in print is thus a well-trodden path, but most of those earlier authors tried to stick to facts, whereas Wheatcroft has generally ignored them.

He claims, for example, that ‘Churchill was never really a well-traveled man’, when in fact he visited America 16 times and Canada nine times, crossing both from coast to coast. He served for years in India and Afghanistan, fought in Cuba, South Africa, the Sudan and on the Franco-Belgian border, honeymooned in Italy, holidayed in France, Italy, Florida, Monaco, Madeira, Morocco, Bahamas and Spain, mountaineered in Switzerland, twice visited Stalin in Moscow, held conferences in Cairo and Tehran, watched army maneuvers with the Kaiser in Germany, cruised the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and also visited Palestine, Iceland, Turkey, Cyprus, Uganda, Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), Mozambique, Kenya, Bermuda, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Malta, Holland, Trinidad, Jamaica and Greece.

Wheatcroft cannot have read Churchill’s book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria if he believes that he viewed Afrikaners ‘fondly’. Although Churchill admired their fighting spirit, and liked some individual Boers, such as Jan Smuts, that book is full of distaste for the Afrikaners’ ill-treatment of the Hottentots, Xhosa and other native tribes.

I enjoyed Roberts’s review in its entirety, capped off by Roberts’s conclusion:

Churchill dies in chapter 17, and the last four chapters constitute a sustained diatribe against anyone who has sought instruction or inspiration from his life and career. Attacking what he calls ‘the Churchill cult’, Wheatcroft’s (almost exclusively conservative) targets include Ronald Reagan, Charles Moore, Niall Ferguson, Nigel Farage, Benjamin Netanyahu, ‘the egregious Boris Johnson’, who runs ‘an utterly incompetent government’, Michael Gove, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, Donald Trump, Sir Martin Gilbert, the International Churchill Society, all Brexiteers, members of the Churchill family and your reviewer (I’m proud to say). This covers more than 100 pages, and contains even more factual errors than the previous 400.

As all objective biographers fully acknowledge, Churchill made a large number of serious blunders in his long career. But he tended to get the big issues right, and did so early on and regardless of opposition. In the acknowledgements of this book, in which almost every living Churchill detractor is thanked, the author quotes Voltaire: ‘To the dead we owe nothing but the truth.’ With this relentlessly sneering and deeply misleading book, Geoffrey Wheatcroft has signally failed to discharge that debt.

The Spectator has kindly made Roberts’s review freely accessible at our request this morning. If you enjoy seeing justice administered, I strongly recommend the whole thing.

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