Thursday, July 15, 2010

Churchill on the English

In between bouts with the Ordinatio I've been reading Churchill's Marlborough: His LIfe and Times, in many ways a great book, and even greater when considered in the context of its author's life and place in history. This passage struck me as particularly ironic, or even prescient:

[The English] rejoiced in peace and clamoured for freedom. The dangers were past; why should they ever return? Groaning under taxation, impatient of every restraint, the Commons plunged into a career of economy, disarmament, and constitutional assertiveness which was speedily followed by the greatest of wars England had ever waged and the heaviest expenditure she had ever borne. This phase has often recurred in our history. If fact, it has been an invariable rule that England, so indomitable in peril, should at the moment when the dire pressures are relaxed and victory has been won cast away its fruits. Having made every sacrifice, having performed prodigies of strength and valour, our countrymen under every franchise or party have always fallen upon the ground in weakness and futility when a very little more perseverance would have made them supreme, or at least secure. Now after Ryswick, as at Utrecht, as at Paris in 1763, as after the Napoleonic wars and Waterloo, and as after Armageddon, the island mainspring of the life and peace of Europe broke; and England, amid a babel of voices, dissolved in faction, disbanded her armies, and sought to repay the spites and hardships of war-time upon the men who had carried her through.

She was, indeed, though she could not know it, in an interval between two deadly wars . . .

When this was written, in the early 1930s, England was again of course in an interval between two deadly wars, and almost the only one who knew it was Churchill, who could see it in part because of the history he was studying and writing. The parallels here are tremendous. Just as John Churchill participated in the first of the earlier set of wars but was to be the supreme and victorious leader in the second, so his descendant participated in World War One but was to rise above all the world in World War Two. He could already see the war coming; could probably see the part he was to play; and could already see how it would end and what the aftermath would be. And indeed, more or less as soon as WWII was over England, having performed prodigies of strength and valour, cast away the fruits of victory and cast out of office the man who had carried her through. Twenty years after his Marlborough book Churchill could entitle the last volume of his memoirs of WWII Triumph and Tragedy: How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life. The later chapters are filled with unhappy reflections on how Russia was allowed to dominate the post-war map and snatch up the spoils England had fought so hard to keep from the Nazis, producing the Cold War.

No comments: