Mark Weber — Institute for Historical Review April 2018
“Darkest Hour” – a portrayal of Winston Churchill during grim days of World War II – is a box office success and an inspiration for jaded and hero-hungry viewers. For his outstanding portrayal of the wartime British leader, Gary Oldman has justly earned an Oscar. But while it’s an artistic achievement and grand entertainment, “Darkest Hour” is badly flawed history.
The film’s story unfolds over a few weeks in the spring of 1940. Following the stunning German success against British and French forces in Norway, parliament has lost faith in the ability of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to continue leading the nation. Churchill, who is well known for his fierce hostility toward Hitler and Germany, is called on to head a new and more broad-based government. In spite of grave misgivings about his judgment and temperament – shared by the King and many colleagues, including leaders in his own party – Churchill becomes prime minister.
On the battlefield things quickly go from bad to worse. German forces overwhelm the British and French on the European mainland, and the remaining hard-pressed British troops are forced to retreat across the Channel from Dunkirk. With the country facing a military disaster without parallel in modern history, key members of his own inner circle press Churchill to open peace talks with Germany before their negotiating position weakens further.
Not entirely sure of what to do next, Churchill seeks to understand the mood of ordinary citizens, above all to gauge their willingness to endure much greater suffering and hardship if Britain keeps fighting, including the horrors of a possible invasion.
In a key episode of the film, and one that is entirely fictional, he abruptly gets out of his chauffeur-driven car on a busy street to descend – for the first time in his life – into an Underground station to meet with ordinary Londoners. The people he speaks with unanimously express their determination to carry on the fight, no matter what. Fortified by this supposedly representative sampling of the public spirit, Churchill then delivers his famous “We Shall Never Surrender” speech to a cheering parliament, a masterful oration that concludes the film on a rousing note.
In fact, Churchill had little respect for public opinion. Throughout his career, his views on the great issues of the day were often at odds with those of most citizens, or even most members of his own Conservative Party. He was justifiably regarded as a maverick.
When Chamberlain returned from Munich in September 1938 after concluding a settlement of the “Sudetenland” crisis with the leaders of Germany, France and Italy, most Britons welcomed him home with feelings of gratitude and relief. The public overwhelmingly approved what most regarded as a reasonable settlement of a crisis that had threatened to set off a new European war. Churchill’s outspoken scorn for the Munich agreement and, more generally, for Chamberlain’s “appeasement” policy toward Hitler’s Germany was sharply at odds with the general mood. It was precisely because his zealous hostility toward Hitler and Germany had been so drastically out of step with the attitude of most members of his own party that he was chosen to replace the less belligerent Chamberlain as prime minister.
Perhaps the most humiliating expression of just how out of touch Churchill was with the concerns and hopes of most Britons came in July 1945, some weeks after the end of the war in Europe. In the first general elections since before the outbreak of war, British voters decisively rejected Churchill and the Conservatives in a surprising upset that put the Labour Party into power.
“Darkest Hour” reinforces the widespread belief that Churchill’s speeches played a crucial role in sustaining British morale. A scholar who has carefully looked into the matter has found that this view is largely a myth. After examining government documents and surveys, as well as contemporary diaries of ordinary people, professor Richard Toye of the University of Exeter concluded that there is “little evidence” that Churchill’s oratory was important in bolstering British wartime resolve.
“Churchill’s first speeches as prime minister in the dark days of 1940 were by no means universally acclaimed,” says Prof. Toye. “Many people thought that he was drunk during his famous ‘Finest Hour’ broadcast, and there is little evidence that they made a decisive difference to the British people’s will to fight on.” As he explains in his book, The Roar of the Lion, Toye was surprised by the results of his research.
He also examined Home intelligence reports and mass observational archives to learn what people thought of Churchill’s speeches at the time compared with what they later remembered, or thought they remembered. His famous “Never Surrender” address in parliament was never broadcast, but people convinced themselves they heard it. “It was never broadcast, though it was reported on the BBC by an announcer and quoted in the press,” Prof. Toye points out. “However, people claim to remember having heard this famous speech from June 1940, even though they hadn’t. It was recorded for posterity along with others of his wartime speeches nine years later.”
Churchill’s reputation as a great orator is based on a handful of often-repeated passages from just a few of his many addresses. While those memorable phrases are undeniably stirring, they are also exceptional. All too often his speeches were verbose, meandering, difficult to understand, and sprinkled with misrepresentations and factual errors.
The rousing “Never Surrender” speech that concludes “Darkest Hour” is pure theater. In fact, Hitler never asked for or sought, Britain’s capitulation. He only wanted Britain to cease its war against Germany.
As one who for years had voiced great admiration for the British, Hitler as chancellor worked for German-British friendship. He was immensely pleased when the two countries concluded an important naval agreement in 1935. When Britain declared war against Germany in 1939, he was shaken and dismayed. Still, he continued to reach out to Britain’s leaders, both in public and through diplomatic channels, to somehow bring an end to the fighting.
After the spectacular German victory over French and British forces in May-June 1940, and French acceptance of an armistice, Hitler made a bold effort to end the war. In a major address that was broadcast on radio stations around the world, he dramatically appealed to the leaders in London, and to the British people, for an honorable end to the conflict. It was Churchill who insisted on continuing, as he put it, to “wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might” in pursuit of “victory at all costs.”
In the historic address that concludes “Darkest Hour,” Churchill rouses support for his war policy by suggesting that peace with Hitler would mean swastika banners flying over London. This is nonsense. Even in countries that were allied with Germany during World War II, such as Finland and Bulgaria, swastika flags never waved over their cities.
Churchill had been contemptuous of his predecessor’s conditional appeasement policy toward Germany. But after he became prime minister, Churchill adopted his own policy of even more far-reaching appeasement – this time toward the Soviet Union. Although Churchill told the world that Hitler could not be trusted, he repeatedly proclaimed his whole-hearted trust and confidence in Soviet dictator Stalin.
When Britain declared war against Germany in 1939, leaders in London claimed that they were obliged to do so because the Hitler regime threatened Poland’s independence. But after five and a half years of war, and in keeping with Churchill’s policy of collaboration with Stalin, Poland’s independence was stamped out, this time by the Soviet regime.
“Darkest Hour” reinforces the widely held impression, which Churchill himself encouraged, that an honorable or lasting peace with Hitler was simply not possible. But as he himself later acknowledged, that’s simply not true. In a confidential message of Jan. 24, 1944, Churchill wrote to Soviet premier Stalin: “I am sure you know that I would never negotiate with the Germans separately … We never thought of making a separate peace even in the years when we were all alone and could easily have made one without serious loss to the British Empire and largely at your expense.”
Especially in 1940 or 1941, a British leader could readily have reached an agreement with Hitler whereby Britain would have kept its sovereignty, its great naval fleet, and its empire. To be sure, this would have meant acknowledging German hegemony in eastern Europe. But at the end of the war, Britain accepted Soviet Russia’s harsher and more alien dominion over this region.
Given Hitler’s respect for the independence and neutrality of Sweden and Switzerland throughout the war years, he certainly would have respected the sovereignty of the much more solidly defended Britain. As it was, Britain emerged from the death and destruction of World War II not so much a victor, but rather as a subordinate ally of the real victors – the United States and the Soviet Union.
The British leader’s famous “We shall never surrender” speech was little more than “sublime nonsense,” says British historian John Charmley. “In sharp contrast to all those admirers who have strenuously denied that an honourable peace could have been made in 1940 or 1941,” Charmley explains, “Churchill knew better. Peace could have been made. It would not have depended upon ‘trusting’ Hitler, but rather upon the presumption that he would be bound to come into conflict with Stalin.”
Alan Clark — historian and one-time British defense minister – has given a similarly harsh verdict of Churchill’s war policy: “There were several occasions when a rational leader could have got, first reasonable, then excellent, terms from Germany … The war went on far too long, and when Britain emerged the country was bust. Nothing remained of assets overseas. Without immense and punitive borrowings from the U.S., we would have starved. The old social order had gone forever. The empire was terminally damaged. The Commonwealth countries had seen their trust betrayed and their soldiers wasted …”
British journalist and author Peter Millar affirms this assessment: “… The accepted view that his [Churchill’s] ‘bulldog breed’ stubbornness led Britain through its ‘finest hour’ to a glorious victory is sadly superficial … In no sense, other than the moral one, can Britain be said to have won. She merely survived. Britain went to war ostensibly to honour an alliance with Poland. Yet the war ended with Poland redesigned at a dictator’s whim, albeit Stalin’s rather than Hitler’s, and occupied, albeit by Russians rather than Germans. In reality, Britain went to war to maintain the balance of power. But the European continent in 1945 was dominated by a single overbearing power hostile to everything Britain stood for. Britain, hopelessly in hock to the United States, had neither the power nor the face to hold on to her empire … The ‘evil genius bent on world conquest’ that most Americans believe Hitler to have been, is a myth. The evil genius had more precise aims in eastern Europe. A Britain that would have withdrawn from the fray and from all influence in Europe to concentrate on her far-flung empire would have suited him admirably.”
Given all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Churchill later reflected with some chagrin on the war’s outcome. A few years after the end of the fighting, he wrote in this memoirs: “The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted.”