For many years now, Hillsdale College has been engaged in the mammoth task of publishing every significant original document relating to the life and career of Winston Churchill. It is a stupendous work of scholarship that will comprise some 20 million words. The present volume is the 21st, and it covers the period in 1945 from New Year’s Day to July 31. It ends with Churchill having lost the general election and his premiership.
The astonishing size of this volume—2,149 pages—is explained by the extraordinary amount of work that Churchill squeezed into each day. Given his naps and lunchtime alcohol, one does not immediately think of Churchill as a workaholic, yet he very clearly was, relishing his task of looking into every aspect of the prosecution of the war. Although Volume 21 opens with the Battle of the Bulge still under way, it was clear by this point that the Allies were going to win the war. And so Churchill was already worrying about what sort of Europe would be left from the continent-wide funeral pyre.
The reaction of Allied leaders to the liberation of the Holocaust extermination camps might be summed up in a letter to Churchill from his chief of staff, Hastings “Pug” Ismay, on April 19. “The German concentration camps which have recently been overrun by the Allied armies are even indescribably more horrible than those about which General Eisenhower spoke to you yesterday and of which photographs have appeared in the press today,” Ismay wrote. “General Eisenhower emphasised that the time factor was most important since it was clearly impossible to leave these indescribable places in their present condition for very long. The American delegation might be too late to see the full horrors, whereas an English delegation, being so much closer, could get there in time.”
This book also provides new proof for those who argue that the bombing of Dresden in February 1945—long characterized solely as an act of revenge for the raids on London—was justified in part by the need to keep German forces from using their railway nodes to transport troops westward. As a Joint Intelligence report to Churchill on July 25 puts it: “The degree of success achieved by the present Russian offensive is likely to have a decisive effect on the length of the war. We consider, therefore, that the assistance which might be given to the Russians during the next few weeks by the British and American strategic bomber forces justifies an urgent review of their employment, to this end.…Such attacks might even have a political value in demonstrating, in the best way open to us, to the Russians a desire on the part of the British and Americans to assist them in the present battle.” The Dresden bombing was not a massacre for its own sake, as Churchill’s detractors allege.
The continued bad relations between Churchill and Charles de Gaulle even after the German surrender are evident from this volume. Even as late as June 16, the prime minister was writing to Sir Alec Cadogan, the head of the British Foreign Office, that “the arrangements should be cancelled for the decoration of French officers at the [British] Embassy on 20th June and thus the risk avoided of a refusal for them to attend by General de Gaulle.” That same day, Churchill’s attention to detail was illustrated by a memo that he wrote to Food Minister Lord Woolton, complaining, “What is the point of bringing 500 tons of fish per day to London, if only one-half of it is edible? To what use is the other half put? If there is no use for it, could not the salting be made at the place of delivery? Who pays for the inedible fish?” This book is packed with examples of Churchill’s insistence on knowing about everything his government was doing.
In a thoughtful preface, Larry Arnn points out that although there were “increasing signs that Churchill’s energy and stamina were not what they were, he was still a dynamo.” Arnn’s preface is titled “Triumph and Tragedy,” in an echo of the title of the last volume of Churchill’s war memoirs—for although the triumph of defeating Nazi Germany was obvious, the tragedy of so much of Europe slipping into the Stalinist maw was clear to Churchill but to far too few others in the West by July 1945.
“The misery of the whole world appals me,” Churchill had written to his wife Clementine on February 1, “and I fear increasingly that new struggles may arise out of those we are successfully ending.’” Yet people were no more willing to listen to his warnings about Stalin after the war than they had been those about Hitler before it. These pages contain nothing to support the left-wing conspiracy theory that Churchill started the Cold War, and much to sustain the truth that he was one of the few to foresee it early and clearly.
Churchill told his private secretary, Jock Colville, in the aftermath of the Yalta Conference at which the postwar structure of Europe was agreed on with Stalin: “I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with the Russia.” But cheated he was, not least because the Roosevelt administration had no intention of supporting him to the extent of going to war. These documents prove that Churchill was not duped at Yalta, as so many historians have claimed. Rather, they show he recognized early on that Stalin had been lying over Poland and Eastern Europe, but Churchill could do nothing about it with millions of Red Army troops stationed on Polish soil.
Arnn and his team of experts, including the indefatigable Richard Langworth and Soren Geiger, have only a few more volumes to go before they reach Churchill’s death in 1965. This venture will stand as the greatest act of collaborative secular publishing since Vivant Denon’s magisterial Description of Egypt of 1802–22. Until then, in Churchill’s own phrase, they must “keep buggering on.”