You and whose army, Mr Charmley?

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be wrong, of course, to condemn a book merely because Mr Alan 'Bongo-Bongo' Clark admired it. Mr Clark loves robust debate about the Second World War much as he loves the Rottweiler he calls Eva, after Hitler's mistress. Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who called Mr Clark a 'goon' last week - Sir Nicholas is well placed to identify goonishness in others - may disagree. The rest of us must judge John Charmley's book, Churchill, The End of Glory as dispassionately as we can.

Mr Charmley, DPhil, is himself unbiased, being only 37 and so unhampered by experience of the war years. He has preserved this crucial advantage by sticking only to written sources and choosing not to interview for his book anyone who did live through those years. Such people, however closely concerned with events are, he believes, almost all 'touched by the Churchill myth'. And Mr Charmley already knows what that is.

So Mr Charmley has concluded that Winston Churchill was not a national hero but a tyrannical 'living god', obsessed by war, who surrounded himself with yes men. He dismisses any criticism of his thesis by citing the power of that myth: 'Questioning the ancestral gods of any nation has never been an enterprise rewarded by anything save calumny . . .' Any criticism of his work is accounted for by the strength of that myth. Churchill blundered, he believes, by failing to undermine Hitler's position by backing potential alternative leaders of Germany such as Goering. He failed to see his chance to pull out of the war when Hitler invaded Russia. He preferred instead to kow-tow to America - losing the British Empire in the process and delivering the nation to Socialism in 1945.

Because of his ban on communication with the living, Mr Charmley did not, naturally, talk to Sir Frank Roberts, who was acting head of the German desk at the Foreign Office in the early years of the war. Then, and after, he saw a good deal of Churchill at work. He went with him to Yalta. He was Deputy Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office from 1951 to 1954, while Churchill was prime minister, before becoming an ambassador. His view of events and the man is rather different from that of Mr Charmley. But then Sir Frank is not 37 but 85, and, presumably, in Mr Charmley's terms, touched. He sat down in an armchair, a slight figure, a little frail, perhaps, but acute as ever, and pondered Mr Charmley's thesis. Living god? The stuff of tyrants?

'He wasn't a tyrant at all,' he said, sitting stiffly upright. 'He was a leader of Britain in war. Of course he had to show great authority, but certainly he consulted and took advice. I was a relatively junior official. But I was consulted. Sometimes he would get angry. Sometimes I would leave the room, shouted at in a blaze of Churchillian oratory. But the next time we met - he wouldn't exactly apologise - but he would say 'Ah, Mr Roberts, I value your advice very much, it's a great pleasure to see you'. Which, I may say, was very unlike de Gaulle's approach if he had been given advice he didn't like.'

In the Times Mr Charmley had said there should have been 'better diplomacy' during the war, that Churchill should, after Germany's invasion of Russia, have made it clear to Germany that 'the main obstacle to peace was Hitler'. 'Non-ideological' Nazis, such as Goering, could have been 'cultivated' instead. Sir Frank looked polite but perplexed. 'I don't see how it was to be carried out, this skilful diplomacy,' he said. 'There was very little opposition to Hitler inside Germany. As for Goering - I was handling our contacts with Goering, through a Swedish businessman, just before the war. He was a very tough Nazi who killed many people in his life. Goering wasn't considering toppling Hitler, and he was in no position to do it. Even the real German resistance - the diplomats, the generals, some bishops - couldn't get the country behind them. Even when Hitler was beginning to lose, they didn't get the army behind them.'

He smiled slightly. 'What were we going to do? Stop defending the Suez canal? Stop fighting in North Africa? Send a private message to Hitler saying 'Don't worry about us. You have a free hand'? How was this man with this record going to be a reasonable chap to come to terms with? Because he had in the past admired us as fellow Aryans? Because we were, perhaps, he thought, quite good at running 'lesser races' in the Empire? It's a most immoral solution, and Churchill was not an immoral man.'

A short silence fell in Sir Frank's elegant drawing room while he contemplated this scenario. Mr Charmley's views are certainly a little unusual, if not original. A Daily Telegraph reporter asked him this week in Fulton, Missouri, where he is temporarily occupying a professorial chair dedicated to Churchill's memory, whether those views are inspired by left- wing political dissidence. Mr Charmley was amused. 'My friends in Norwich would fall about laughing at that idea,' he said. 'Most of them regard me as a Thatcherite.'

Those of Mr Charmley's Norwich friends who have read his book must be laughing even louder. How many left wingers would criticise a leader for losing the Empire? Or raise the question, even before dismissing it, of whether Sir Winston was 'a hired help for a Jewish lobby . . . determined to embroil the Empire in a war on their behalf?' Or defend the British Union of Fascists from unjust government treatment: '. . . actuated by an excess of patriotic spirit, it encouraged its members to go off and die for the country which was soon to imprison its leaders . . . Ironically it was the British Union of Fascists (rather than pacifist Communists) which was banned . . .'? However Mr Charmley was amusing himself between work for his first at Pembroke College Oxford in the mid Seventies, it is unlikely that he was selling copies of the Socialist Worker on the High.

In his Kensington flat, Sir Frank was now considering the accusation that Churchill, having criticised Chamberlain for accepting border changes to Czechoslovakia, hypocritically pressurised the Poles in 1944 to accept border changes 'which made the Munich settlement look like a simple frontier adjustment'.

'He didn't appease Stalin]' said Sir Frank. 'There was a great difference. By 1944 the Russian Red Army had occupied the whole of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Short of going to war, what could we do? At the time of Munich there had been no fighting at all.'

He rose and courteously showed me through a hallway filled with remembrances of times past, his time as Ambassador to the USSR and, later, to Germany itself. On the way out he paused for a moment. 'I wish I could find something on which I agreed with this man,' he said, searching for diplomatic balance. Another pause. He spoke again, in his measured way, his final word. 'You know, I do find what I have read of Mr Charmley's ideas very hard to take as seriously as I should.'

(Photograph omitted)