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Hitler & Churchill: Secrets of Leadership
Andrew Roberts
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
£18.99, xxxiii-202 pages, ISBN 0297843303.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Andrew Roberts is well known among the educated public for his provocative columns in the Sunday papers, and the present reviewer has clear memories of his regular controversialist presence in the leader pages of the Sunday Times a few years ago. He speaks of his revisionist colleagues as people ‘attempting simply to épater les Churchilliens’, but he himself often seems to have nothing against épater le bourgeois who reads the Murdoch or Conrad Black press.

His Holy Fox (1) established him as a ‘serious’ political historian, a reputation which was enhanced by his Eminent Churchillians (2) and his Life of Lord Salisbury (3). Receding further into the past, he recently wrote a book on Wellington and Napoleon (4), but the blurb on the dust jacket of Hitler & Churchill indicates that he is reverting to the contemporary period since he is currently engaged in writing a biography of Henry Kissinger.

The book under review seems to be a mixture of all these genres, since it attempts to blend biography, history, intellectual controversy, current affairs, popular anecdotes and psychological speculation. The sub-title, Secrets of Leadership, is hopelessly ambitious and titillating—but of course it was probably imposed by audience-rating considerations emanating from the BBC, the book being a ‘tie-in’ to a series of that name shown on BBC2 Television.

For all these reasons, the academic reader approaches the book with all sorts of reservations—and a prima facie negative opinion. The structure of the book—no more than a succession of vignettes, in fact—reinforces him in his view. And yet, the vignettes are often of considerable interest, so that the book cannot simply be dismissed as a ‘popular’ pot-boiler.

The long Introduction (eighteen pages) attempts to establish the relevance of the undertaking, revolving around the central question which opens the discussion, ‘How can one hundred people be led by a single person?’ What Roberts will try to show in the book, he tells us, is the difference between the ‘charismatic leader’ (Hitler) and the ‘inspirational leader’ (Churchill). The range of opinions which he calls upon for his examination of the issue, from Aristotle and Confucius to T.S. Eliot, is extremely impressive, but irritatingly Roberts does not resist the temptation of alluding to current affairs, with a disquisition in journalistic (sensationalist?) style on September 11 and ‘[u]ndoubtedly the greatest criminal of our own times, Osama bin Laden’. This is probably the weakest part of the book, with preposterous questions which ruin the high historico-philosophical tenor of the essay, like:

If bin Laden’s leadership style is essentially Hitlerian in its vernacular and antecedents, and George W. Bush and his senior advisers look to Churchill for their inspiration, might not the War against Terror be legitimately seen as a re-fighting of the Second World War by proxy?

Then follow the two main parts of the book, ‘Hitler and Churchill to 1939’ and ‘Hitler and Churchill from 1940’, derived from the existing literature on Hitler and Churchill, with which the author seems to be thoroughly familiar. In the first part, Roberts examines the differences and the similarities between the two men, starting with their contrasting attitudes to food and drink and ending with their common ‘superbly counterintuitive form of leadership’, as ‘[b]oth Hitler and Churchill demanded great acts of sacrifice from their countries’. The second part does not really rest on that ‘compare-and-contrast’ motif. Instead, it provides a re-examination of Churchill’s conduct of the war, starting with the agonising decisions which had to be made in May and especially June 1940. Here of course, Roberts can draw on the expertise which he acquired on the period when doing research for his Holy Fox. This part of the book is really a series of essays, notably on Churchill’s relations with his aides and the General Staff, on the importance of Intelligence, on the action of the Political Warfare Executive. The main parallel examination of Hitler during the war period bears on the German concept of Mission Command, which gave Guderian so much leeway in 1940—with devastating results for the Anglo-French Alliance—a concept which Hitler repudiated to his cost after the Battle of Normandy was lost in 1944. Even though many of them often take us very far from the central theme of the book, these vignettes make an interesting read, especially for readers curious of the idiosyncrasies of famous people.

The Conclusion offers another variety of essays, this time mostly on Churchill’s place in history (5)—and the parallel with Hitler is completely absent. Much of it is devoted to a refutation of the revisionists’ arguments, which, he argues, are pointless anyway:

In the popular, non-academic sense at least, Churchill-revisionism is redundant. Like other national icons such as Lincoln, Washington and Napoleon—or his own antagonists Gandhi and de Gaulle—Churchill is so well-bunked that no amount of debunking books will have any appreciable effect on his standing. They continue to be written, of course, but they have the same impact on public perceptions as does a drawing pin stuck into the hide of a huge pachyderm. What in Great Contemporaries he called ‘the grievous inquest of history’ has sat in judgement on Churchill and has found that he has no case to answer. Only in certain historical and journalistic and outré academic circles is that verdict considered unsafe.

Then Roberts gives the academic reader a series of very enjoyable attacks in the best scholarly tradition of no-holds-barred intellectual disputation (6). He begins by taking care of ‘the ideologists’ (Clive Ponting (7), David Irving (8))—with a superb coup de grâce inflicted on Irving for his claim to have found evidence ‘in Box Number 23 of Lord Monckton’s papers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford’. ‘I recalled from my own work on Monckton that that particular box has never been open to historians’, he writes. ‘Sure enough, the Bodleian Library officially confirmed to me that David Irving had not so much as seen the box, let alone opened it’. He then turns his attention to ‘American libertarian and isolationist circles’ (Patrick Buchanan (9), Robert Raico (10), ‘the professional contrarian Christopher Hitchens’ (11)). Hitchens’ critique is equally swiftly disposed of:

When the writer then states of the Oran attack (12) that Churchill’s ‘chroniclers prefer to skate over it or, where possible, elide it altogether’, he is—unusually for so intelligent a polemicist—writing demonstrable rubbish. The episode has been discussed by Sir Martin Gilbert (in no fewer than twenty-seven pages) (13), Roy Jenkins (14), John Keegan (15), John Lukacs (16), John Charmley (17), Joseph Lash (18), Philip Guedalla (19), Basil Liddell Hart (20), William Manchester (21), John Ramsden (22), Geoffrey Best (23), Norman Rose (24), A.L. Rowse (25), the present author, and, of course, by Churchill himself in the second volume of his memoirs (26).

After discussing the ‘highly influential source of Churchill revisionism provided by the press’, since ‘[n]ewspaper editors will readily affirm that Churchill stories make great copy, especially since the dead cannot sue for libel’, he devotes over four pages to a refutation of the most dangerous revisionists in his eyes:

By far the most cogent criticisms of Churchill’s career, and the ones most capable of scratching the outer paintwork of the edifice of what is now an untarnishable reputation, are those that have been voiced by Dr John Charmley, Professor Maurice Cowling (27), and the late Alan Clark (28), who loosely make what might be called the British Tory nationalist critique.

Their thesis is well known: Britain should not have gone to war in 1939, or at least it should have negotiated a treaty with Germany in 1940 or 1941, since ‘winning’ the war left Britain bankrupt and the Empire in a process of dislocation. Roberts has no time for their talk of ‘a palpably ignoble peace’ whose ‘only domestic political winners would have been the Communist Party and the British Union of Fascists’, and the book ends on a denunciation of ‘the unrelenting efforts of his [Churchill’s] revisionist detractors’.

There is no denying that Roberts’ sense of publicity (29) and his image as a flamboyant ‘media personality’ can be irritating for the more sedate academic community and there is also no denying that, like the sub-title, the claim on the flap of the dust jacket, ‘Roberts forces us to re-examine the way that we look at those who take decisions for us’ would be in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act if it applied to books. And yet there is something in the book that forces the reader’s attention: perhaps the masterly blend, à la Roberts, of popular anecdote, impeccable historical research (30) and personal conviction?

The book is not recommended reading for undergraduates, who would rightly find it confused (in its lay-out) and confusing (in its mixing of genres) (31)—but it is required reading for advanced specialists of twentieth-century British history and also, of course, for all Churchill devotees (this reviewer cannot speak for Hitler devotees).

(1) Roberts, Andrew. The Holy Fox: A Biography of Lord Halifax. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991.

(2) Roberts, Andrew. Eminent Churchillians. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 199.

(3) Roberts, Andrew. Salisbury: Victorian Titan. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999. 

(4) Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon and Wellington: The long Duel. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001.

(5) The sub-chapter, ‘Churchill’s place in history’, seems to be a revised and expanded version of two earlier articles which are available on the Internet:
‘Churchill and the revisionists’. History Today March, 1997 (‘Andrew Roberts defends Britain's war hero against his detractors, in our Longman/History Today Awards Lecture.’)
‘Churchill and his critics’, 26 March 2000

(6) As he says in the concluding lines of his History Today article, ‘The Churchill debate will doubtless continue so long as the, in his own phrase, “English-speaking peoples” survive and take an interest in their past. Now that’s what I call job security.’

(7) Cf. Ponting, Clive. Winston Churchill. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

(8) Cf. Irving, David. Churchill’s War: (1) The Struggle for Power. Bullsbrook (Western Australia): Veritas, 1987. (2) Triumph in Adversity. London: Focal Point, 2001.

(9) Buchanan, Patrick J. A Republic, not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1999.

(10) Raico’s lecture apparently remains unpublished.

(11) Hitchens, Christopher. ‘The medals of his defeats’. Atlantic Monthly (April 2002): 118-137. On line on :

(12) British action against the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir, July 1940.

(13) Cf. Gilbert, Martin. Winston Churchill. London: Heinemann, 1966-1988 (vol. 6: Finest Hour, 1939-1941).

(14) Cf. Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Macmillan, 2001.

(15) Cf. Keegan, John. The Second World War. London: Hutchinson, 1989; Keegan, John [Editor]. Churchill’s Generals. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991. NB: Latest publication, not used by Roberts: Churchill: A Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.

(16) Cf. Lukacs, John. The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler,10 May-31 July 1940. London: Bodley Head, 1990; Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2002.

(17) Cf. Charmley, John. Churchill: The End of Glory – A Political Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.

(18) Cf. Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941: The Partnership that saved the West. London: Deutsch, 1977.

(19) Cf. Guedalla, Philip. Mr Churchill: A Portrait. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1941.

(20) Cf. Liddell Hart, (Sir) Basil . History of the Second World War. London: Cassell, 1970.

(21) Cf. Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill. Volume 2: The caged Lion, 1932-1940. London: Michael Joseph, 1988. (Original American Edition, Boston: Little, Brown, 1988 has a different title: Alone, 1932-1940).

(22) Cf. Ramsden, John. Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his Legend since 1945. London: HarperCollins, 2002. Review in Cercles:

(23) Cf. Best, Geoffrey. Churchill: A Study in Greatness. London: Hambledon, 2001. Review in Cercles:

(24) Cf. Rose, Norman. Churchill: An Unruly Life. London: Simon & Schuster, 1994 (Churchill: Unruly Giant. New York: Free Press, 1995).

(25) Cf. Rowse, Alfred L. ‘Churchill’. In The English Spirit: Essays in History and Literature. London: Macmillan, 1944 (Revised Second Edition, 1966); ‘Churchill considered historically’. Encounter (January 1966): 45-50.

(26) Churchill, Winston . The Second World War. (2) Their Finest Hour. London: Cassell, 1949.

(27) Cowling, Maurice. The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy 1933-1940. Cambridge: University Press, 1975.

(28) Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

(29) Cf. for instance his website:, notably the unashamedly commercial invitation:

To be told of my future publications, please click the link below. 
My e-address for any communication is  
To buy any of the books on the site at a discount, please click on the amazon link on each page, or visit  
If you do this from here it costs you nothing extra, but I am rewarded financially by Amazon for introducing you, so whenever you want to buy any books - not just mine - at a generous discount, do please come via this site.
Agents: Capel & Land, 29 Wardour Street, London W1V 3HB (tel) 020 7734 2414 (fax) 020 7734 8101 
Publishers: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion House, 5 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (tel) 020 7240 3444

(30) Though the erratic presence of footnotes is annoying. In some cases, the reader would like to know the source—not because he distrusts Roberts, but because he would like to read more about a particular incident. Two examples are Churchill’s extreme financial difficulties in 1918:

His financial situation was so precarious at the time of his wife Clementine’s fourth pregnancy in the summer and autumn of 1918 that it is thought that she even offered to put up her baby for adoption by General Sir Ian Hamilton’s wife after it was born.


‘He laid down the precise number of apes that should occupy the Rock of Gibraltar [twenty-four]’.

Footnotes would have been welcome here, but there are none.

(31) Also, when Roberts writes about ‘British official recognition of Soviet guilt over the massacre of Polish officers in the forest of Katyn’ as one element which attracted criticism of Churchill, the wording would be extremely misleading for an undergraduate, who would not easily detect Roberts’ intended meaning. The only date of publication, 1971, given in the Bibliography for Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace would not be helpful either for the same undergraduate. And Philip Guedalla (correct) in the text becomes ‘Guedella’ in the Bibliography.


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