Posted by: Chris | August 29, 2010

Churchill

The New Yorker has a great profile, centered around his 1940 speeches, but ranging wildly.  I really liked this section, despite its simplistic interpretation of history:

For Churchill always thought in terms not of national interest but of a national character that could trump interest. The Germans “combine in the most deadly manner the qualities of the warrior and the slave,” he said firmly. “They do not value freedom themselves and the spectacle of it in others is hateful to them.” Or, as he put it more succinctly, “They are carnivorous sheep.” We do not think this way anymore. (Except during the World Cup, when we do.) As an intellectual exercise, defining Germans seems perilously close to defaming Jews. Churchill did not see it this way. Germans for him are disciplined, servile, and dangerous when their servility meets a character out of Wagner; Russians are sloppy, sentimental, and brutally effective in the long haul; the French are brilliant, gallant, but prone to quick collapses through an excess of imagination and blind, vindictive self-assertion—these are the clichés of European history, but they are Churchill’s touchstones. The Germans were trouble because they needed a nanny and they had got a nihilist. “This war would never have come,” he said, after it was under way, “unless, under American and modernising pressure, we had driven the Hapsburgs out of Austria and Hungary and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones.”

This habit of thinking about peoples and their fate in collective historical cycles, however archaic it might seem, gave him special insight into Hitler, who, in a Black Mass distortion, pictured the world in the same way. Both Churchill and Hitler were nineteenth-century Romantics, who believed in race and nation—in the Volksgeist, the folk spirit—as the guiding principle of history, filtered through the destinies of great men. (It is startling to think that, even in the darkest depths of the Second World War, J. R. R. Tolkien was writing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which contains, with the weird applicability available only to poetry and myth, the essential notion that the good gray wizard can understand the evil magi precisely because he is just enough like them to grasp their minds and motives in ways that they cannot grasp his.) Of course, Churchill and Hitler were, in the most vital respects, opposites. Churchill was, as Lukacs insists, a patriot, imbued with a love of place and people, while Hitler was a nationalist, infuriated by a hatred of aliens and imaginary enemies. But Churchill knew where Hitler was insecure and where he was strong, and knew how to goad him, too.

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