Hitler & Churchill: Secrets
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
£18.99, xxxiii-202 pages, ISBN 0297843303.
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 titillatingbut 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 reservationsand a prima facie negative opinion. The structure of the
bookno more than a succession of vignettes, in factreinforces 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 Ladens 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 Churchills 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 Churchills 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 1940with
devastating results for the Anglo-French Alliancea 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,
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 Churchills
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 Napoleonor his
own antagonists Gandhi and de GaulleChurchill is so well-bunked that
no amount of debunking books will have any appreciable effect on his standing.
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 Moncktons
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 Churchills chroniclers
prefer to skate over it or, where possible, elide it altogether, he isunusually
for so intelligent a polemicistwriting 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 Churchills career, and the ones
most capable of scratching the outer paintwork of the edifice of what is now
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
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 [Churchills] 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 readers attention: perhaps the masterly blend, à la
Roberts, of popular anecdote, impeccable historical research (30) and personal
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,
(3) Roberts, Andrew. Salisbury: Victorian Titan. London:
Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
(4) Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon and Wellington: The long Duel. London:
Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
(5) The sub-chapter, Churchills 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
peoples survive and take an interest in their past. Now thats
what I call job security.’
(7) Cf. Ponting, Clive. Winston Churchill. London: Sinclair-Stevenson,
(8) Cf. Irving, David. Churchills 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 Americas
Destiny. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1999.
(10) Raicos 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,
(13) Cf. Gilbert, Martin. Winston Churchill. London:
Heinemann, 1966-1988 (vol. 6: Finest Hour, 1939-1941).
(14) Cf. Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Macmillan,
(15) Cf. Keegan, John. The Second World War. London:
Hutchinson, 1989; Keegan, John [Editor]. Churchills 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
Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.
(18) Cf. Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941: The Partnership
that saved the West. London: Deutsch,
(19) Cf. Guedalla, Philip. Mr Churchill: A Portrait. London:
Hodder & Stoughton,
(20) Cf. Liddell Hart, (Sir) Basil . History of the Second World War. London:
(21) Cf. Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill. Volume
2: The caged Lion, 1932-1940. London:
Michael Joseph, 1988. (Original American
1988 has a different
(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
(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:
(29) Cf. for instance
his website: www.andrew-roberts.net,
the unashamedly commercial