The Importance of Being Winston

The Importance of Being Winston

Mini Teaser: The British Bulldog's unique ability to win Stalin's respect and trust in August 1942 proved that great national leadership matters.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

The most important, nay, the decisive matter we can state about Churchill in Moscow, about Churchill and Stalin: it is impossible to imagine that any other British public figure could have appeared in Moscow and impressed Stalin as he did. For Stalin, the dominant matter was Churchill’s character. So much so that it is maybe easier to grasp what the secretive and crafty Stalin thought of Churchill than what the voluble and sometimes loquacious Brit thought of the Russian. The latter had some respect for Churchill before their first person-to-person meeting, but then this congealed rapidly during and after that initial encounter. Whatever the British armed forces did or did not do, Churchill was a fighter. And beneath all the ceremony of those days and nights ran the slow, steady, crude flow of Stalin’s temperament: his despising weakness of any kind, and his respecting (and even admiring) strength—including in those who stood up to him.3

Churchill’s assessment of Stalin, on the other hand, was primarily historical. Hence his seemingly (but, at least to me, only seemingly) contradictory views, perceptions and opinions of the man. They were sentimental, too; but also profound. Churchill is often accused of a certain hypocrisy: he needed Stalin in the war, so he was more than willing to overlook the brutalities of this Communist dictator. In other words, the Churchill who argued and fought so bitterly against appeasing Hitler was ready to go long miles in the company of Stalin. But Hitler—for Britain and Churchill (indeed, for Western civilization)—was more of a threat than Stalin. Hitler was ready to rule all of Europe; Stalin, the eastern half—and half of Europe was better than none. That was the essence, and the consistency, of Churchill’s historic and strategic vision.

Russia had been Russia, Russia was Russia, Russia will be Russia and that was that. Here was the difference between Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s views about Stalin’s Soviet Union. The American president saw it as a rough, pioneer empire, thinking that eventually Russian and American democracy might be reconcilable. Churchill saw and thought otherwise. What the Soviet Union represented was not a rough, pioneer experiment toward the mass democratization of the world. Russia was not forward, it was backward. Its strength welled up not from its vision of the future but from the atavistic traditions of its people. Churchill was convinced of that, sometimes perhaps even too much so. Hence some of his faults; his speaking and writing about Stalin in flowery phrases on occasion, attributing to Stalin wisdom that Churchill hoped would govern his war leadership and their alliance. He did not think that Stalin’s motives and purposes had much, if anything, to do with Communism. But he also knew that Stalin would employ Communists and other fellow travelers for his imperial purposes, when and because such people were unquestionably subservient to him.

Churchill saw Stalin as the czar of Russia, a new kind of czar, a peasant czar, but a czar nevertheless. He saw Stalin as a great national leader. There was a romantic and sentimental and traditional British element, Kiplingite as well as Lawrenceite, in Churchill’s vision of Stalin: an appreciation of the masculine bravery of certain Eastern chieftains, their cruelties notwithstanding, a warrior’s wisdom. This may have been—as almost always in such inclinations of the British—exaggerated. But it helped to draw the two men together.

In August 1942, Churchill left Moscow with some satisfaction: “A relationship was established,” he said and wrote; and Stalin’s personality was largely what he had hoped and suspected it would be.4 The impression Churchill in turn made on Stalin led to the maintenance of an alliance that secured the Allies’ victory in the Second World War.


THAT MUCH we know—or, at least, ought to know. In 1918, Britain and France and the United States defeated Germany even after Russia had dropped out of the war. In the Second World War this was no longer possible. No one understood this better than Winston Churchill. That explains everything of his assessment—and estimation—of Stalin that survived the war. In that war, the structure of world history was such that the personal relationships of great leaders mattered at least as much, and sometimes even more, than the material power of their states. Since then, the very structure of politics and of international relations may have changed. But we ought not be quite certain about that.


John Lukacs is a historian. His most recent books are The Legacy of the Second World War (Yale University Press, 2010); Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); and the forthcoming The Future of History (Yale University Press, Spring 2011).

1 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 4, The Hinge of Fate (New York: Mariner Books, 1986): 432.

2 Unlikely that Stalin had said that to his English visitors on that occasion. Now he “retold” this to Churchill in order to please him. The following night, during their last meeting, he told yet another, even more unlikely, story. This was that when Molotov was in Berlin in November 1940, the British sent planes over the city for an air raid. When Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, declared that Britain was “finished,” Molotov, walking down to the air-raid cellar, said that if that was so, then why were they going to the shelter and whose bombs were about to fall? From what we know about Molotov (and November 1940), he would have never spoken (or even thought) this. Churchill recorded these “anecdotes” in his war memoirs, though without comment.

3 In this he was the very opposite of Hitler, whose hatreds grew against people who opposed him, such as the Poles and the British, thwarting his plans. Many evidences of this exist throughout his life.

4 The British and Canadian experimental invasion of the German fortifications in Dieppe, France, took place on August 19, 1942. For a long time it was thought that, however small, this was a demonstration of Britain’s willingness to try a second front, in order to impress the Russians. This was not so: the plans for Dieppe had been made months before and the attempt had been postponed several times. (The raid on Dieppe, too, was a failure rather than a success.)


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