What did Winston Churchill do

Pathos was second nature to Churchill

On December 10, 1953, the Swedish Academy awarded Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill "for his mastery in historical and biographical presentation and for the brilliant eloquence with which he emerges as a defender of the highest human values" with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If the British television voters voted their famous statesman the “Greatest Briton” last year, it was certainly not because of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The honor is also not mentioned in many biographies. As the most prominent adversary of Hitler and a victorious war premier, Churchill was so famous that the Nobel Prize threatened to go under with the many awards with which he was showered. Contemporary critics could not help but get the impression that the neutral Swedes were only looking for an excuse to honor Churchill for his statesmanship and at the same time to side with the victors. A deceptive, if understandable, impression, especially since Churchill himself had his doubts. “I very much hope,” he said in his acknowledgment, “that you did the right thing.” After all, he only had a detour to fiction, an adventure novel written at a young age (“Savrola”) that did not receive too much criticism had been graciously received.

The Swedish Academy, however, well justified its decision by honoring Churchill for his "masterful art of historical and biographical representation as well as for his brilliant rhetoric in connection with the defense of noble human values". So his speeches in 1940, unsurpassed in their patriotic pathos, in which he conjured the spirit of resistance of his compatriots, were also included in the evaluation. In fact, in no statesman in the 20th century has the great deed manifested itself so much in word and in writing. Churchill was probably the last politician who formulated all his public statements himself, and did so with great linguistic and editorial care. Added to this was the linguistically elaborate account of his actions in the two world wars - the Academy deliberately waited until the last of six volumes of his memoirs on the Second World War were available. Churchill knew how to wrap his thoroughly subjective account of events in the guise of objective historiography. It is said that he adopted the language of the great historians Gibbon and Macaulay, who followed the tradition of the Whigs (the liberals): England as the champion of political freedom and civilizational progress. The preference for superlatives, however, applies to Churchill himself even more than to his father Randolph Churchill or his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, whom he recommended to posterity in comprehensive biographies, real heroic epics. He has basically outperformed them all, although he only sought to be their equal.

Churchill was self-taught, had not studied, but trained as a cavalry officer at Sandhurst. He had an almost premodern, naive-heroic conception of the soldier's profession: as a child, his passion was his tin soldiers, as a young man he took part in the last cavalry attacks, in the First World War the naval minister reported to the front only to suggest improvements to the war minister bombing, as a sidelined politician, he traced the battles of Marlborough with devotion, in World War II he concentrated all his forces on warfare, down to the most insignificant aspects of the home front. Yet Churchill would much rather have gone down in history as a peacemaker than a war premier.

Although a late Victorian aristocrat by birth and upbringing, he was always ahead of his time. Soon after the victory over “the two evils to be exterminated” (“Prussian Militarism and Nazi Tyranny”), he had pleaded for Germany's return to the European family of peoples and identified the new jailer in the Soviet Union of Stalin, yesterday's ally. But after Stalin's death in 1953, it seemed to him that the time had come to attempt to overcome the Cold War, which was so threatening by the nuclear arsenal. Recent research has shown that, to the great horror of Adenauer, he was even ready to meet Russia's need for security by neutralizing a reunified (!) Germany. Again he was ahead of his time. Convinced that only the really powerful were able to make far-reaching decisions, he set his hopes on bringing the new Kremlin rulers to reason through the West's skilful summit diplomacy. But President Eisenhower and his Foreign Minister John Foster Dulles, who wanted to tie the young Federal Republic firmly to the West, were not up for this initiative. Even Anthony Eden, his own foreign minister and designated successor, thought the prime minister's attack on the summit was an old man's obsession. This explains why Churchill was unable to accept the Nobel Prize himself on December 10th: Eisenhower had recently invited the three western war allies to a summit conference in Bermuda. Churchill could not and did not want to evade this, also because he hoped to be able to persuade the allies to launch a large-scale peace offensive. After the conference, which was disappointing for him, he wanted to relax a little in order to recover completely from the consequences of a stroke which had overtaken him just a few weeks after the exciting coronation celebrations for the young Elizabeth II at a state banquet for the Italian Prime Minister in Downing Street. So he was represented in Stockholm by his wife and daughter Mary. The address of thanks read by Clementine sounded as if the aging statesman had indeed been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not the Prize for literature. Against the background of the nuclear threat, he asked "the anxious question: have the problems of the world slipped out of our control?" ...

Dr. Lothar Kettenacker

November 20, 2003

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