Winston Churchill and the Finest Hour

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

Winston Churchill, from his speech at the onset of the Battle of Britain

The audience has gathered in the Boston Garden for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Convocation. With standing-room only, a packed house eagerly awaits the tribute to Winston Churchill, Britain’s hero and a symbol of the resistance against Nazism. The rifles are still smoking, the war just recently ended, and everyone wants to hear the words of the monumental British figure.

The dean gives an introductory address for the honoree. He speaks about how he sees the world fulfilling its ages-old dream: A perfect society in which science and technology have already managed to control all aspects of human beings, their intelligence and their affections. One that is finally poised to create a civilization that could never give rise to Hitler, or Nazism, or any sign of violence. A society that would essentially function like a huge factory built according to a solid plan.

Churchill stepped up on the podium, expressed his gratitude for the tribute, and, referring to the dean’s introductory comments, declared:

—I shall be very content if my task in this world is done before that happens[1].

This was a man who had begun his political career at the height of colonialism under Queen Victoria; who had fought in the First World War, the deplorable fallout of early 20th century nationalism; who had enjoyed the optimism of the Happy Twenties; and who, in his finest moment, had stood up as the last bastion against Nazi Germany.

Well before this speech, Churchill had already coined the expression Iron Curtain to refer to countries under Soviet influence. He had been a strong supporter of sending British troops during the Russian Civil War, to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle.” Thus, he was fully aware of the danger that the USSR posed to the world.

But above all he was aware of the danger of any ideology; of the modern ideal of creating a perfect society. Millions and millions of casualties later, Churchill was more than immune to the utopian delusions of any ideology, be it scientific, nationalist, sociological, etc.

Churchill could be considered a firm apologist of imperfection. Legend has it that in a tribute to Montgomery, after defeating Rommel at El-Alamein, the field marshal declared: —I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t mislead, and I’m a hero.

Then Churchill boasted in response: —I smoke, I drink, I mislead, and I’m his boss.

Whether or not the anecdote is actually true, it perfectly exemplifies the psychology of a man who embodied simplicity and realism. Throughout his life, he would aspire to be a better serviceman, politician, leader and citizen. But he would never fall into the false aspiration of being the best serviceman, politician or citizen. Despite the honors and recognitions, he remained a fervent defender of democracy even though it was at the heart of the greatest setbacks he ever suffered. For instance, immediately after the war, the English people did not reelect him as prime minister. Churchill himself would eventually realize that the best man for wartime was not necessarily the best man for peacetime.

Perhaps it was because of these very setbacks that Churchill did not fall into the same messianic trap that so many other ideologues have. Too many failures, too much colliding head-on with human limitation. Too much effort to fight against his nemesis—depression—for much of his life. However, after such failures and struggles, a person is either destroyed or strengthened; sunken or hopeful; disoriented or wiser.

Churchill carved out his persona (metaphorically, not literally), and his stature as the most important British statesman in history. The most decisive, the most celebrated, and perhaps the one most aware of his own limitation. An excellent speaker who struggled for years to overcome stuttering, he never lost sight of where he came from, the limitations he faced, or the black precipice (depression) he walked along his entire life.

It is precisely these facts that give us the most insight into his character. Born politicians, without a blemish in his career like Chamberlain, they were unable to stop the bravado of Hitler. Only Winston Churchill, with his reclusive and disobedient manner (he switched parties twice in his career), found the courage to stand up, alone, to the beast of Nazism.

It was this realism, and something more. An element that is always present in great human beings, and often absent in fanatics: a sense of humor. He would never lose that, no matter how dark the situation. Perhaps this is one of the keys to his greatness: The ability to laugh at himself, to be immune from delusions of grandeur. A person can be truly heroic only if they can face their demons with a smile, as if they were old friends.

In summary:

  • Realism and a sense of humor are the most effective firewalls against egomania, dictatorship and fanaticism.
  • The greatness of a leader does not come from their perfection, but rather their sense of service.
  • That greatness allows for all personal defects and misery, as long as the person looks at him or herself and the context with benevolence and a sense of humor.

[1] Alberto Savorana, Luigi Giussani su vida