Who was the real Winston Churchill?

I’m thinking about this now because my friend Richard Browning wrote a startling piece about Churchill that appeared in The Missourian’s opinion pages last week.

Richard likes to shock people into thinking so they will look beneath the veneer of life for the raw material at the core.

He and I have had discussions about Churchill. Even though he sees me as a good thinker, he worries that I tend to glamorize Churchill, whom he sees as something of a villain.

“There can be more to villains than just the meanness,” I once said to him in a telephone conversation. “Even Hitler gave us the Volkswagen, a car for every man.”

“Yes,” Richard answered. I could hear the smile in his voice. “And the Autobahn, which Eisenhower saw after World War II and recreated as the U.S. interstate highway system.”

I admit I am an avowed Churchill fan, but I could always see that he was a master at making troubling decisions, like sinking the French fleet during World War II to keep the ships out of the hands of the Germans.

I was only truly troubled by one line in Richard’s Letter to the Editor. He said Churchill could have ended World War II and failed to do so. I cannot imagine what Churchill could have done to stop Hitler and end World War II.

But you never know.

According to his grandson and namesake, Winston Churchill, the elder Churchill had an opportunity to have a private visit with Hitler once. In 1934, he was in Berlin researching his book on his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough.

According to the younger Winston, Hitler learned Churchill was in Germany and made an appointment to meet him at a restaurant. The younger Winston said that Hitler walked up to the door of the restaurant, looked in and saw Churchill sitting at a table, then enigmatically turned and walked away. He didn’t go in.

Young Winston’s take on this bit of family lore was that his grandfather’s reputation completely intimidated Hitler.

I’m not sure if that story is true, but there are some things we know for sure about Churchill.

He was a wordsmith, who crafted notable phrases and could deliver them in memorable speeches.

He wrote 15 books. Thirty books of his speeches were published. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about him.

Like his grandson, young Winston, and my friend, Richard, views of Churchill tend to be polarized. Biographers either loved him or hated him.

I have to tell you . . . in this one man who had the good fortune to be born in the bosom of English aristocracy and lived to a ripe old age caught up in the machinations of world change, it is possible to see some conflicting traits that trapped him in the throes of good and evil.

Politically, he was to the right of Louis the XIV, or Attila the Hun for that matter. He believed absolutely that the monarchy was the lynchpin of British culture, and of course, he was its publicist.

He believed that as British secretary of state for the colonies he had the responsibility and the authority to divide up the Middle East in spheres of influence to be managed by England, France and Russia. And the world is living with the outcome of those actions to this day.

When in 1943, in the throes of World War II, a disastrous famine hit a section of Bengal, Churchill forced India to export its rice to the war effort rather than to the starving Bengalese.

He hated Mahatma Gandhi because he (Churchill) saw India as a rightful province of Great Britain. And he never forgave Lord Louis Mountbatten for overseeing the withdrawal of British rule from that country.

He hated Hitler and began lobbying the British government against the man he already saw as the German dictator in the early 1930s.

Above all, he loved England, which he described as “our little island.” At the height of the blitz, when German bombs rang down on London every night, with his famous V sign and his constant speechifying, he rallied Londoners to keep their heads up and, if necessary, be prepared to fight on the beaches.

So Richard is not wrong to suggest that to truly know this guy we have to take a careful look at the man that his fellow countrymen recently voted the greatest Englishman of all time.

Churchill said it himself. He wanted to be remembered exactly as he was, “warts and all.” So maybe Richard is doing what the great man would have wanted.

Whoever he was, though, I hold onto the notion that Churchill was a great man.