Comeback Kid: How Winston Churchill Went from Oblivion to Glory

The statue of Britain's former Prime Minister Winston Churchill is silhouetted in front of the Houses of Parliament in London.

Comeback Kid: How Winston Churchill Went from Oblivion to Glory

In Oblivion or Glory, David Stafford persuasively depicts 1921 as a pivotal year for Winston Churchill’s political fortunes.

Churchill not only redeemed himself in the Middle East, but he also played a key role in negotiations with Ireland. Sinn Fein leaders had declared a separate Irish Republic in Dublin following a big election victory in 1918. As Secretary of War, Churchill had created the vicious Black and Tans in 1920 to crush the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence. But his move boomeranged. The British public wearied of the conflict and international opprobrium, especially from America, was intense. Churchill, who was, among other things, intent on forging as close a relationship with Washington as possible, sought a negotiated end to the hostilities with Sinn Fein. 

Churchill sat across the Cabinet table from Michael Collins—the Irish revolutionary leader of what he had often decried as “the Murder Gang.” The negotiations ground on for eight weeks. An agreement reached in December ended up vouchsafing Ireland almost the same status within the British Empire as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Collins wrote a close friend that the establishment of an Irish Free State dependent on an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown would not end well for him personally: “I tell you this—early this morning I signed my death warrant.” Opponents of the treaty shot and killed him in August 1922. Churchill had made the case for the treaty in Parliament. He acknowledged that the treaty represented a compromise but that it was imperative to terminate the conflict for a variety of reasons, above all to put an end to the “fanatical quarrels” that were a recipe for further misery and bloodshed.

PERHAPS EVEN more worrisome for Churchill were developments in the center of Europe. In June, Churchill spoke at a luncheon for Manchester’s Chamber of Commerce. He asked whether the Great War really had solved anything at all or whether a fresh repetition of the horrors that Europe had recently experienced was more likely. Disturbances in Upper Silesia, where Germany was feuding with Poland and France, had alarmed the British. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had awarded the region to Poland, but after German protests the Allied victors had held a plebiscite allowing inhabitants to decide whether they wanted to belong to Germany or Poland. This was a recipe for further trouble. German residents began flooding back to the region even as the Poles resisted their return. British battalions had been rushed in to quell the disturbances. No one was more apprehensive about the recrudescence of nationalism in the center of the continent than Churchill. “You may be sure,” he warned, “that deep in the heart of Germany, certainly in their universities and in those powerful forces dethroned by the war, there must be lurking ideas dangerous to the peace of Europe.” How right he was.

Jacob Heilbrunn is the Editor of The National Interest.