Category Archives: English History

Ineffective Peace Treaty

MagnaCarta

Dan Jones, Magna Carta:

The Birth of Liberty 

 

            The Magna Carta, a document dating from 1215 — a mere 802 years ago – is now regarded as the foundation for some of the most enduring Anglo-American liberties, among them trial by jury; the right of habeas corpus; the principle of no taxation without representation; and the notion that the king is subject to and not above the law.  Grandiose terms such as “due process of law” and the “rule of law” are regularly traced to the Great Charter. Yet, when we look at the charter from the perspective of 1215, we see a markedly different instrument: an ineffective peace treaty designed to end civil war between a loathsome English king and rebellious barons that brought about almost no cessation of hostilities; and a compact that, within a few short weeks of its execution, was condemned by the Pope in the strongest terms, when he threatened both sides with excommunication from the Catholic Church if they sought to observe or enforce its terms.

            Dan Jones’ Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty seeks to capture the perspective and spirit of 1215. In this compact, easy-to-read volume, Jones, a British historian and journalist who has published extensively on the Middle Ages, takes his readers back to the late 12th and 13th centuries to show the origins and immediate after effects of the Great Charter. To this story, fascinating in itself, Jones adds much rich detail about life in England and on the European continent during the Middle Ages — for kings and barons, to be sure, but also for everyday folks, those without titles of nobility. In Jones’ interpretation, the Magna Carta was the product of a struggle for control of the 13th century English feudal order between three institutions: the crown, the nobility, and the Catholic Church.

           The key characters in Jones’ story are King John I — “bad King John,” as I remember him described in school; approximately 200 barons, England’s’ most powerful nobles who, upon condition of pledging loyalty to the king, ruled over wide stretches of the realm like miniature kings; and Pope Innocent III, in Jones’ view one of the greatest medieval popes, a “reformer, a crusader, and a strict clerical authoritarian” (p.41) with an unbending belief in papal supremacy that was bound to clash with the expansive notions of royal prerogative which John entertained.  Yet, the two headstrong personalities enjoyed a brief period of collaboration that led directly to the Great Charter.

* * *

        Jones rejects recent attempts of historians to rehabilitate John’s reputation. “Bad King John” seems to summarize well who John was: a “cruel and unpleasant man, a second-rate soldier . . . slippery, faithless, interfering, [and] uninspiring . . . not a man who was considered fit for kingship” (p.28-29). Born in 1166, John was the youngest of five sons of the first of England’s Plantagenet kings, King Henry II, and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of the five sons, only John and his brother Richard survived to adulthood. Richard, known as “Richard the Lionhearted” for his “peerless brilliance as a military leader” (p.24), succeeded his father as king in 1189.

        Neither Henry nor Richard spent much time in England. Both were busy fighting adversaries in France and acquiring lands in Brittany, Normandy, and Western France.  Richard was also involved both in the Third Crusade to the Holy Land and in wars elsewhere on the European continent. On his deathbed, Henry learned that his son John had joined some of his leading French adversaries in plotting against his father. John repeated his treachery during his brother Richard’s reign: he provoked conflict with Richard’s royal administrators while his brother was away, attempting to seize control of government for himself. Without children, Richard died in battle in France in 1199 and John inherited the English throne.

         John began his reign fighting wars on several fronts in France. Within five years of his accession, he had lost “virtually the whole Continental empire that had been so painstakingly assembled and defended by his father and his brother” (p.33) — not without reason was he known as “John Lackland.” But John “never gave up believing that he was obliged – perhaps even destined – to one day return to the lands he had lost and reclaim them” (p.38). As he devoted the better part of ten years to reclaiming lost French lands, John needed to raise huge revenues. Wars in those days, as in ours, were expensive undertakings.

         John was relentless in exploiting familiar sources of revenue and spotting new ones. He sold immunity from lawsuits and charged aristocratic widows vast sums to forego his right to subject such women to forced marriage. He expanded the lands deemed royal forests, and imposed substantial fines on those who sought to hunt or collect firewood on them. He levied punitive taxes on England’s Jews. None of these measures were wholesale innovations, Jones indicates. What made John different was the “sheer scale and relentlessness with which he bled his realm. Over the course of his reign his average annual income was . . . far higher than [what] either his father or his brother had ever achieved” (p.38).

       But John was most ruthless in imposing taxes and fees upon England’s 200 or so barons, who officially held their land at the pleasure of the king. Pledging loyalty to the king and paying taxes and fees to him permitted a baron to live, literally, like a king in a castle, surrounded by servants who worked in the castle, knights who pledged loyalty to the baron, and serfs who tilled nearby land. Beyond basic rent, the barons were subject to a wide range of additional payments to the king: inheritance taxes, fees for the king’s permission to marry, and payments to avoid sending a baron’s knights to fight in the royal army, known as “scutage,” one of the most contentious sources of friction between John and the barons. John “deliberately pushed numerous barons to the brink of bankruptcy, a state in which they became highly dependent on royal favor” (p.50).

            As tensions between king and barons mounted over John’s “pitilessly efficient legal and a financial administration” (p.53), John also challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, the “ultimate guarantor” in 13th century England of the “spiritual health of the realm” (p.45).  In 1206, John found himself in direct confrontation with the church’s head in Rome, Pope Innocent III.  John objected vehemently to Innocent’s appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, an instance of an on-going struggle over ecclesiastical appointments, in which kings claimed the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms and popes resisted acknowledging any such right. Langton’s potentially seditious ideas alarmed John. The pope’s nominee condemned the “avarice . . . of modern kings” and criticized those who “collect treasure not in order that they may sustain necessity, but to satiate their cupidity” (p.40-41).

            To impede Langton’s appointment, John seized lands belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Innocent retaliated by placing an interdict upon England, forbidding most church services, a severe sentence on all of John’s subjects, placing in peril England’s “collective soul” (p.45). Later, the Pope excommunicated John — the ultimate 13th century sanction that a pope could impose upon an earthly being, foreclosing heaven’s everlasting grace and exposing the hapless soul to eternal damnation.  The stalemate ended in 1213 when John, facing the threat of an invasion from France, agreed to accept Langton as Archbishop, pledged obedience to the Pope and the Catholic Church, and vowed to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. Through this “astonishing volte-face,” John could henceforth claim “special protection from all his enemies as a personal vassal of the pope” (p.57).  For his part, Innocent had shown “remarkable moral flexibility,” blending seamlessly the “Christian principle of forgiving one’s enemies with a willingness to consort with almost anyone who he thought could help him achieve his heartfelt desire to smite the Muslims of the Middle East” (p.89).

          Having made his peace with Rome, John pursued his quest to retake previously lost lands in France.  He suffered a humiliating loss  in 1214 at the town of Bouvines in Northern France to forces aligned with French King Phillip Augustus.  After this catastrophic debacle, and with his “foreign policy and military reputation now severely tarnished,” John returned to England to find the “chorus of baronial anger at his high-handed brand of kingship louder than ever” (p.63). A group of barons, but perhaps not a majority, formally renounced their fealty to John, thereby “declaring themselves free to make war upon him” (p.105). Having “unilaterally defied their lord and freed themselves from the feudal oath on which their relationship and the whole of the structure of society depended,” the barons were henceforth “outlaws, rebels, and enemies of the realm” (p.105).  John’s kingdom was “teetering dangerously on the brink of civil war. It was a war he could neither avoid nor afford to pursue” (p.63).

       In a mutinous spirit, the barons demanded that John confirm the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation issued by King Henry I more than a century earlier, in 1100, that had sought to bind the King to certain laws regarding the treatment of nobles, church officials, and individuals.   John’s response was to hold a council in London in January 1215 to discuss potential reforms with the barons. Both sides appealed for assistance to Pope Innocent III. John’s reconciliation with the pope two years earlier turned out to be a “political masterstroke” (p.58). The Pope squarely took John’s side in the dispute, providing him with a key bargaining edge.

          From late May into the early days of June 1215, messengers traveled back and forth between the king and the rebel barons. Slowly but surely they began to feel out the basis for an agreement, with Archbishop Langton playing a key role as mediator. By June 10, 1215, the outlines of an agreement had taken detailed form, and John was ready to meet his rebellious barons in person. The meeting took place at Runnymede, a meadow in Surrey on the River Thames, about 20 miles west of London, a traditional meeting point where opposing sides met to work out differences on neutral ground. General agreement was reached on June 15, 2015.  Four days later, the barons formally renewed their oaths of loyalty to John and official copies of the charter were issued.

* * *

         The bargain at Runnymede was essentially an exchange of peace to benefit the king, for which the barons gained confirmation of many long-desired liberties. The Runnymede charter was “much longer, more detailed, more comprehensive, and more sophisticated than any other statement of English law or custom that had ever been demanded from a King of England” (p.141). The written document was not initially termed “Magna Carta”; that would come two years later.  It consisted of 4.000 words, in continuous Latin text, without divisions. Subsequently the text was sub-divided into 63 clauses. “Read in sequence,” Jones writes, the 63 clauses “feel like a great jumble of issues and statements that at times barely follow one from the other.  Taken together, however, they form a critique of almost every aspect of Plantagenet kingship in general and the rule of John in particular” (p.133).

          Buried deep in the document were Clauses 39 and 40. Clause 39 declared: “No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or disseized, or outlawed or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” (p.138). Clause 40 stipulates: “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice” (p.138-39). More than any other portions of the charter, these two clauses constitute the reason why the Magna Carta remained consequential over the course of the following eight centuries. The two clauses enshrine, Jones states, the “basic idea that justice should always restrain the power of government” (p.139). They contain in embryo form the modern notions of due process of law and judgment by equals.

     But these clauses were far from priorities for either side. The charter’s first substantive clause affirmed that “the English Church shall be free” (p.134), a clause inserted at Archbishop Langton’s urging to limit the king from interfering in church appointments. Although the Magna Carta is “often thought to be a document concerned with the secular rights of subjects or citizens,” in 1215 its religious considerations were “given pride of place” (p.135).   Subsequent clauses restrained the king’s right to impose taxes upon the barons.

      The charter explicitly limited the authority of the Exchequer – the king’s treasury, the “most important institution of royal government” (p.14-15) – to impose inheritance taxes, so that it could no longer “extort, bully and ruin anyone whom the king happened merely to dislike” (p.136). Scutage, the tax exacted as an alternative to service in the king’s armies, was to be imposed only after taking the “common counsel of the realm” (p.136), foreshadowing the notion developed later in the 13th and 14th centuries that taxes could be imposed only after formal meetings between the king and his subjects.

        Clause 61, known as the “security clause,” was arguably of greatest importance to the barons. It established a panel of 25 specially elected barons empowered to hold John to his word. If John were to “transgress against any of the articles of peace” (p.140), the clause entitled the barons to renounce their loyalty to the king and take appropriate action, including taking the king’s castles, lands and possessions.  The security clause was the first mechanism in English history to allow the “community of the realm to override the king’s authority when that authority was abused” (p.140). More bluntly, if John were to backslide on his obligations under the charter, the clause explicitly “allowed for licensed civil war” (p.140).

        Other clauses in the charter regulated bridge building; banned fish traps; established uniform weights and measures for corn, cloth, and ale; and reversed the expansion of royal forests that had taken place during John’s reign. There was also, Jones writes, much in the Magna Carta that remained “vague, woolly, or fudged. In places the document feels like frustratingly unfinished business” (p.139). Yet, beneath the host of details and specificities of the charter, Jones sees two simple ideas. The first was that the English barons could conceive of themselves as a community of the realm – a group with “collective rights that pertained to them en masse rather than individually.” Even more fundamentally, although the king still made the law, he explicitly recognized in the charter that he had a duty to “obey [the law] as well” (p.141).

* * *

          The weeks that followed the breakup of the meeting at Runnymede were, as Jones puts it “messy and marked by increasing distrust” (p.143). In the immediate aftermath of the charter’s confirmation, John was flooded with demands that he return land and castles he had confiscated in previous years. Prior to the end of June 1215, John was forced to make fifty such restorations to rebel barons. Seeing little advantage to the peace treaty he had agreed to, John convoked another meeting with the barons in July at Oxford. There, he sought a supplementary charter in which the barons would acknowledge that they were “’bound by oath to defend him and his heirs ‘in life and limb’” (p.144). When the barons refused, John wrote to Pope Innocent III asking him to annul the Great Charter and release him from his oath to obey it.

           Writing back with the “righteous anger that he could summon better than any man in Europe”(p.144), Innocent more than complied with John’s request. In words that left little room for interpretation, Innocent declared the charter “null, and void of all validity forever” (p.145). Under threat of excommunication, Innocent enjoined John from observing the document and the barons from insisting upon its observance. By the end of September 1215, roughly 100 days after its execution, the Magna Carta was, Jones writes, “certifiably dead” (p.145).

* * *

          But the Great Charter did not remain dead.  Although civil war between John and the barons erupted anew in the autumn of 1215, the charter received new life with the deaths of the story’s two protagonists the following year: Innocent died in July 1216 and John in October of that year.   After John’s death, the charter evolved from a peace treaty imposed by the king’s enemies to an “offering by the king’s friends, designed to demonstrate voluntarily the commitment of the new regime to govern by principles on which the whole realm could agree” (p.184-85). For the rest of the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta was “reconfirmed and reissued at moments of political instability or crisis” (p.184-85). Even where its specific clauses grew irrelevant and obsolete, “much importance was still attached to the idea of the Magna Carta as a bargaining chip, particularly in relation to taxation” (p.186-87).   By the end of the 13th century, a peace treaty that lasted just a few weeks more than eight decades earlier had become the “founding stone of the whole system of English law and government” (p.189-190).

       Into this story of political intrigue and civil conflict, Jones weaves detailed descriptions of everyday life in early 13th century England: for example, what Christmas and Easter celebrations entailed; the tenuous lives of serfs; and how life in London, already England’s largest city, differed from that in the rest of the realm.   These passages enliven Jones’ study of the charter’s origins and immediate afterlife.

           In a final chapter, Jones fast forwards several centuries, discussing briefly the Great Charter’s long afterlife: its influence on the rebellion against the Stuart kings in 17th century England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; how the charter underlay the rebellion of England’s American colonies during the following century; and its continued resonance in modern times.  The charter’s afterlife, Jones writes, is the story of its myth and symbolism becoming “almost wholly divorced from its original history” (p.5).  Jones’ lucid and engrossing work constitutes an invaluable elaboration of the charter’s original history, reminding us of the unpromising early 13th century environment from which it emerged to become one of the most enduring documents of liberal democracy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 23, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, Rule of Law

Managing Winston

Clementine.1

Clementine.2

Sonia Purnell, Clementine:

The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill 

            Biographies of political spouses run the risk of being overwhelmed by the politician once he or she enters the scene. Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by far the most comprehensive biography to date of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, does not quite succumb to that risk.  But Purnell, a freelance British journalist and historian, provides a fresh look at the familiar ups and downs in Winston’s career, recounting them from Clementine’s perspective, from the time the couple first met in 1904 and married in 1908 through Winston’s death in 1965.  Although comprehensive in its cradle-to-grave coverage of Clementine herself, the book shines in its treatment of the couple during World War II.  When Winston became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in 1940, Clementine functioned as her husband’s closest advisor. She was, Purnell writes, Winston’s “ultimate authority, his conscience and the nearest he had to a direct line to the people.”  Without Clementine sharing his burden, “it is difficult if not impossible to imagine [Winston] becoming the single-minded giant who led Britain, against almost impossible odds, to victory over tyranny” (p.391).

            But if World War II was the couple’s own “finest hour,” to borrow from Winston’s famous speech to Parliament in June 1940, many of the qualities that enabled them to survive and thrive during that trial can be traced to the testing they received during World War I.  War, it seems, served as the force that bound their marriage together.  We know a great deal about the workings of that marriage because the couple spent an extraordinary amount of time apart from one another. They corresponded regularly when separated, and even communicated frequently in writing when they were together under the same roof. By one count, the couple sent about 1,700 letters, notes and telegrams back and forth over the course of nearly six decades of courtship and marriage, many of which survive.

          The Churchills’ correspondence and the other portions of the record that Purnell has skillfully pieced together reveal a marriage that had its share of difficult moments, bending but never breaking. Both spouses had volatile and frequently volcanic personalities.  Although her husband was known for his bouts of depression, referred to informally as “Black Dog,” Clementine had an actual case of clinically diagnosed depression, and more than her fair share of mood swings and temperamental outbursts. Further, both spouses were surprisingly indifferent parents, more devoted to each other than to their children. Clementine, tormented that Winston might abandon her as her father had abandoned her mother, clearly placed Winston’s needs over those of her children. Yet, on more than one occasion she seems to have contemplated leaving the marriage.  Nonetheless, over the course of 57 years, the marital glue held.

* * *

         Clementine, born in 1885, had an unorthodox upbringing. Her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, of aristocratic origin but limited means, was trapped in a bad marriage to Colonel Henry Hozier, who left his wife and children during Clementine’s early childhood. To this day, historians debate whether Hozier was indeed Clementine’s biological father, and the matter is unlikely ever to be settled conclusively. Clementine’s two sisters, Kitty and Nellie, may have been her half sisters – their paternity has not been conclusively established either. After Colonel Hozier’s departure, the three girls lived a peripatetic life with Lady Blanche, who took her children frequently to Northern France and allowed herself to be pursued by a wide number of suitors. Kitty seemed to be her mother’s favorite among the three daughters, but she died a month before her 17th birthday and her mother “was never the same again” (p.21). Lady Blanche never provided Clementine with a steady, loving childhood, a loss which likely affected Clementine’s subsequent relationships with her own children.

         Clementine was first introduced to rising political star Winston Churchill at a society ball in the summer of 1904, when she was 18 and he was 29.  She was far from impressed with the “notorious publicity seeker” (p.29) who had recently defected from the Conservative Party to join the upstart Liberal Party over his opposition to a Conservative proposal to impose protective tariffs on goods imported into Britain.  Inexplicably, the usually gregarious and supremely self-confident young man clammed up, unable to make the requisite small talk. The next encounter occurred four years later, in 1908, when Clementine happened to be seated next to Winston at a dinner party. This time, Clementine “found his idealism and brilliance liberating” (p.31).  Winston was impressed that Clementine, herself more mature at age 22, knew “far more about life than the ladies of cosseting privilege he normally met, and she was well educated, sharing his love of France and its culture” (p.31). After a courtship conventionally aristocratic, if short, the couple married later that year (the courtship, marriage and Winston’s early political years, from 1900 to 1915, are the subject matter of Michael Seldin’s Young Titan, reviewed here in May 2015).

            The marriage was “never destined to be smooth” (p.54), Purnell writes. The man Clementine married was “demanding, selfish and rash” (p.54), emotionally needy, lacking in empathy, and a workaholic with a tendency to bully.  But Clementine could be “rigid and unforgiving” (p.4) and brought an “explosive temper” to the marriage, where the “slightest setback, such as cold soup or a late delivery, could send her into a fury” (p.53). Plagued throughout life by a pattern of “severe listlessness alternating with near-hysterical outbursts” (p.148), Clementine, not Winston, had the couple’s only case of clinically diagnosed depression. Throughout their first three decades of marriage, the couple was united in the goal of making Winston Prime Minister. But they pursued this goal at no small cost to their offspring.

            Between 1909 and 1922, the couple had five children, four daughters and one son. Daughter Marigold, born in 1918, died at an early age. The four surviving offspring — Diana, b.1909; Randolph, b.1911; Sarah, b.1914; and Mary, b.1922 – “saw little of either parent, even by the standards of British upper-class families of the period” (p.184). Winston outwardly adored his children. He gave them silly nicknames and, when available, enjoyed playing games and roughhousing with them. But he was only infrequently available.  Clementine in this account seemed to lack even this level of intimacy. She was distant and not particularly warm with any of her children, and also frequently absent, either traveling with her husband or away on recurring travel and adventures on her own.

          Randolph, Diana and Sarah went on to lead turbulent adult lives. Randolph drank heavily, gambled frequently and acquired a reputation for boorish behavior.  One of the book’s most surprising – indeed stunning – episodes occurred during his 1939 marriage to Pamela Digby, later Pamela Harrington. It was not a good marriage. Randolph was abusive in many ways, physically and otherwise.  In their troubled  marriage, Randolph’s parents plainly sided with their daughter-in-law over their son. After war broke out, with Randolph serving in the army and the couple living apart, Pamela pursued affairs with several leading figures from the United States, including famed journalist Edward R. Murrow and wealthy businessman Averill Harriman, whom she later married.

            In Purnell’s account, both Winston, by then Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and Clementine encouraged these romantic liaisons for their intelligence gathering potential in furtherance of the war effort. Pamela “fast became one of the most important intelligence brokers in the war” (p.275).   She provided information to her parents-in-law on “what the Americans were thinking” (p.274) and boosted Britain’s case for more American assistance.  Randolph never forgave his parents for condoning the liaisons, and it is not difficult to understand why. Randolph died of a heart attack in 1968, at age 57.

            Randolph’s sisters Diana and Sarah also struggled through adult life.  Diana had two bad marriages and suffered repeatedly from nervous breakdowns.  She likely took her own life from an overdose of barbiturates in 1963, at age 54.  Sarah had a moderately successful acting career, but was plagued throughout much of her adult life by alcohol abuse, “drinking herself to her grave by slow stages” (p.387). She married three times. Her termination of an affair with American Ambassador John Winant likely contributed to his suicide in 1947. With Sarah on the brink of filing for divorce from her second husband, he too committed suicide. Sarah died in 1982, five years after Clementine, at age 68.

            Only the youngest Churchill, Mary, “always the perfect daughter” (p.387), achieved something akin to normalcy as an adult.  She married but once, had five children, served in numerous public organizations, and wrote the first (and seemingly only other) biography of her mother.  In the 1960s, she was quoted as saying that, based on her own childhood experience, she “made a conscious decision to put my children first because I did feel something had been. . . yes, missing at home” (p.359).  Alone among the Churchill children, Mary lived to an old age, dying in 2014 at age 92.

            Purnell documents several points between the two wars, and after World War II, when Clementine appeared to be on the brink of exiting the marriage.  Bitter rows between the parents over Randolph’s behavior as a young adult led in the 1930s to hints that the Churchills’ “ever more regular separations might become permanent” (p.196). After the war, perfect daughter Marry sought to mediate the couple’s differences.  Worried that her parents’ marriage again seemed on the verge of falling apart, Mary acknowledged her mother’s “occasional yearning for ‘the quieter more banal happiness of being married to an ordinary man’” (p.354).

          Another sign of the marriage’s sometimes fragile character came in the 1930s, when Clementine, traveling without her husband on a four-month cruise of the East Indies, fell under the charms of Terence Philip, an art dealer with a reputation for “passing flirtations” (p.203).  Phillip was “tall, rich, suave, an authority on art and unburdened by driving ambition – unlike Winston, in fact, in almost every respect” (p.201). It is unclear whether Clementine’s relationship with Phillip was adulterous. Phillip was “thought not to be that interested in women sexually. . . Nevertheless his open and ardent admiration shook Clementine to her core” (p.203-04). Purnell also describes an incident where Winston was invited to take tea with his cousin’s fiancée, only to learn upon arrival at her apartment that the barely clad woman had a purpose other than tea in mind for his visit.  Upon discovering that purpose, Winston “insisted he had left immediately” and recounted the incident to Clementine, who “appears to have been surprisingly relaxed about the encounter” (p.132).

* * *

            Purnell neatly weaves these soap opera details of the Churchill family into the familiar story of Winston pursuing his political ambitions and the less familiar story of Clementine playing an indispensable role in that pursuit. Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Winston became Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order in the country.  In 1911, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, and held this position when Britain found itself at war in 1914.  In this capacity, he oversaw the failed 1915 attack on Ottoman Turkey at the Dardanelles straights, a calamitous failure for which Winston became the scapegoat, “held liable for one of the bloodiest British military failures in history” (p.81). Purnell suggests that Winston’s marriage saved him from self-destruction at the time of this grim setback. Only Clementine “could repeatedly tell him why he was deemed untrustworthy and why he had made so many enemies”(p.118).

             With Clementine’s support, Winston slowly crept back into politics. He lost his seat as a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1922. At a time when the Liberal Party was fading into irrelevance, he rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that capacity, he oversaw Britain’s return in 1926 to the gold standard, another decision that proved disastrous for him politically, resulting in deflation and unemployment and leading to the General Strike of 1926. With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Winston was out of politics and entered what he later termed his “Wilderness Years.” In the 1920s, he had earned a reputation as somewhat of a crank, railing incessantly about the Bolshevik menace to Europe.  In the 1930s, he shifted his rhetorical target to Germany and the threat that Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party posed, which the public perceived initially as little more than another example of his crankiness. But in May 1940, Winston became his country’s Prime Minister, charged with leading the war against Nazi Germany which had broken out the previous September.  Winston and Clementine’s “true life’s work” then began,  and she “would barely leave his side again until it was done” (p.234).

            By the time Winston became Prime Minister, Clementine was already an “amalgam of special advisor, lobbyist and spin doctor” — or, as David Lloyd George put it, an “expert at ‘managing’ Winston” (p.94). At each juncture in Winston’s career, Clementine developed an “astute judgment of the characters involved, the goals that were achievable and the dangers to be anticipated” (p.57). She closely reviewed drafts of Winston’s speeches and coached him on effective delivery techniques.   Campaigning for his seat in Parliament bored Winston, and he frequently sent Clementine to rouse his constituents as elections approached.   In a time before political optics and images were given over to full-time professionals, Clementine was Winston’s optics specialist. With her “surer grasp of the importance of public image” (p.3), she frequently raised questions that the more impulsive Winston hadn’t fully thought through about how a course of action would look to the voters or be perceived internationally.

            During World War II, Clementine assumed an unprecedented role as Winston’s aide.  It is unlikely, Purnell contends, that “any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power – albeit entirely behind the scenes.  She did not duplicate what Winston was doing, or cross it; she complemented it and he gave her free rein to do so” (p.246-47).  When Winston was in Teheran in December 1943 meeting with Roosevelt and Stalin, for instance, Clementine was busy putting out fires and easing tensions within Winston’s cabinet.  At the same time, she “reviewed reports on parliamentary debates, read the most secret telegrams, kept [Opposition leader and Deputy Prime Minister] Clement Attlee informed of the prime minister’s progress, dealt with constituency matters, and sent back to Winston digests of public reaction to the war “(p.314).

          Yet, paradoxically, Winston and Clementine did not see eye-to-eye on many of issues of their time, with Clementine’s instincts conspicuously more liberal than those of her husband.  Despite her aristocratic background and lofty position as a politician’s’wife, Clementine was unusually adept at establishing links and relations with average citizens. Her relatively impoverished childhood and limited work experience while unmarried “fostered in Clementine an instinctive sympathy for the worker’s point of view” (p.103).  Even before World War I, she was a fervent advocate of women’s voting rights, “just the first of many issues on which she would part ways with her husband’s more conservative political views” (p.56). Later she would champion co-education at Cambridge University’s Churchill College and abolition of the death penalty.

          During World War II, Clementine frequently visited injured military personnel and otherwise sought out everyday citizens to encourage them to continue to support the war effort.  She also prevailed upon her husband to create opportunities for women to serve in auxiliary military roles. Winston was “initially unenthusiastic at the idea . . . but Clementine persevered and he became one of the first to appreciate that the country could not win through the sacrifice of its menfolk alone” (p.241).

         A tale within the tale of World War II is Clementine’s relationship with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two met on several occasions during the war. Clementine did not care for Eleanor’s husband Franklin, who had taken the unpardonable liberty of calling her “Clemmie,” a “privilege normally reserved for the most deserving and long-serving friends” (p.310); and there was no love lost between Winston and Eleanor.  Eleanor felt Winston “romanticized war” (p.281), while Winston found Eleanor to be a busybody “who did not conform to [his] ideas of an ‘attractive’ woman” (p.285).  Nonetheless, the two women “enjoyed each other’s company” (p.296).  They were of a similar age and upper class backgrounds, and each had endured a difficult childhood.  Both demonstrated uncommon concern for the poor and their countries’ least favored citizens.  Each lost a child as a young mother, and had children who struggled through adult life.  Purnell notes that the four Roosevelt sons racked up 18 marriages between them, while Clementine’s four children blundered through a mere eight.

          But the Roosevelts were living almost entirely separate lives during World War II, with Eleanor reduced to the role of a second-tier political advisor, in the dark on most of the key war issues that her husband was dealing with.  She sometimes criticized or questioned her husband’s decisions or policies in a newspaper column she wrote. Such public airing of differences between Clementine and Winston was unthinkable for either spouse.  As Purnell notes, Clementine “never even hinted publicly about her private disagreements with Winston. But then [unlike Franklin Roosevelt] he kept nothing from her” (p.306).

          Roosevelt died in April 1945, less than a month prior to the end of Europe’s most devastating war.  A few short months later, Winston, himself in poor health, saw his Conservative party voted out of office, as Clement Atlee and his Labour Party won a general election in July 1945.  Improbably, Winston returned at age 77 as Prime Minister to lead the Conservatives from 1951 to 1955, his final and generally unsatisfactory years as government leader.  He remained a Member of Parliament until the October 1964 general election, and died just months later in January 1965.

* * *

         Purnell ends her substantive chapters with Winston’s death, covering Clementine’s final years as a widow, up to her death in 1977 at age 92, in an “Epilogue.” This was a period of “almost ethereal calm” (p.387) for her.  With Randolph’s death in 1968, she had outlived three of her five children. Her husband’s towering reputation across the globe was secure and, as Purnell puts it, “if her light was fading, so be it” (p.388).  Purnell’s thoroughly researched and highly readable work constitutes a major step in assuring that Clementine’s light continues to shine.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 4, 2017

 

9 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Uncategorized

Remarkable Life, Remarkably Sad Ending

Marx.1

Marx.2

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, A Life

     Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor, born in 1855, became the successor to her father as a radical analyst of industrial capitalism. But she was also an instrumental if under-appreciated force in her own right in the emergence of social democracy in Victorian Britain and internationally in the late 19th century. Her remarkable life, as Rachel Holmes writes in her comprehensive biography, entitled simply Eleanor Marx, A Life, was “as varied and full of contradictions as the materialist dialectic in which she was, quite literally, conceived . . . If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice” (p.xvi). Holmes, a cultural historian from Gloucestershire, England, who specializes in gender issues, characterizes Eleanor as the “foremother of socialist feminism” (p.xii).  She emphasizes how Eleanor supplemented her father’s work by defining for the first time the place of women in the working class struggles of the 19th century.

     But in conventional (Karl) Marxist thinking, the personal and the political are never far removed and they are ever so tightly intertwined in Holmes’ account, which focuses heavily on interactions within the Marx family circle. In the last third of the book, Holmes provides heartbreaking detail on how the three closest men in Eleanor’s life betrayed her: her father Karl; her father’s collaborator and Eleanor’s life-long mentor, Friedrich Engels; and her common law husband, Edward Aveling. The collective burden of these three men’s betrayal drove Eleanor to an apparent suicide in 1898 at age 43.

     Adhering to a chronological format, Holmes writes in a light, breezy style that, oddly, is well suited to bear the book’s heavy themes. Nearly everyone in the Marx family circle had nicknames, which Holmes uses throughout the book, adding to its informal flavor. Eleanor herself is “Tussy,” her father is “Möhr,” and her mother Jenny is “Möhme.” Eleanor had two sisters, Laura and Jenny, the latter referred to as “Jennychen,” little Jenny.  Jennychen died two months prior to father Karl in 1883. Two older brothers and one sister failed to survive infancy.

     The Marx family’s inner circle also included Engels, “the General,” and its long-time and exceptionally loyal servant, Helen Dumuth, “Lenchen.” Engels, the son of a rich German industrialist with substantial business interests in Manchester, was Marx’s life-long partner and benefactor and akin to an uncle or second father to Eleanor. Lenchen, whom Holmes describes as “history’s housekeeper” (p.342) and the keeper of the family secrets, followed the Marx family from Germany to Britain and shared the progressive values of Eleanor’s parents. Lenchen and Eleanor’s mother Jenny were childhood friends and remained remarkably close in adulthood.

    Lenchen had a son, Freddy, four years older than Eleanor, who “grew up in foster care with minimal education” (p.199). As Eleanor grew older, she gradually intuited that Engels was Freddy’s father, although Freddy’s paternal origins were never mentioned within the family, least of all by Engels himself, who always seemed uncomfortable around Freddy. Freddy resurfaced in the tumultuous period prior to Eleanor’s untimely death, when he became Eleanor’s closest confidant — almost a substitute for her two brothers whom she never knew.

* * *

    By the time Eleanor was born in 1855, her father Karl was already famous as the author of important tracts on the coming Communist revolution in Europe. Banished from his native Germany as a dangerous radical, Marx took refuge in Britain. The household in which Eleanor grew up, “living and breathing historical materialism and socialism” (p.47), was disorderly but still somehow structured. Father Karl was notorious for being unable to balance his family’s budget, and was consistently borrowing money. Much of this money came from Engels.

    Eleanor came of age just prior to the time when British universities began to admit women, and she was almost entirely home-schooled and self-educated. Yet, the depth and range of her learning and intellectual prowess were nothing short of extraordinary. With her father (and Engels) serving as her guides, Eleanor started reading novels at age six, and went on to teach herself history, politics and economics. She also had an amazing facility for languages. The only member of the family who could claim English as a native language, Eleanor mastered German, her parents’ native language, then French, and later other European languages, most notably Russian. She became a skilled translator and interpreter, producing the first English language translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

    By her early twenties, Eleanor had demonstrated exceptional organizing skills that her father lacked, along with genuine empathy for the plight of working families (which her father also lacked). The more pragmatic Eleanor seemed to be in all places where workers gathered and sought to organize. She supported dock and gas workers’ unions and their strikes. She became actively involved in London education policy, Irish Home Rule, the evolution of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, and the campaign in France for amnesty for the revolutionaries of the 1870-71 Paris Commune.

     Eleanor’s work in mobilizing trade unions provided impetus to the emergence of the Independent Labor Party in the early 1890s, Britain’s first democratic socialist political party. Her work clarified that for Eleanor and her socialist colleagues Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in the sense that it demanded that people think in boldly different terms about capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the workers who fueled the capitalist system.  But it was also a doctrine that rejected violent revolution in favor of respect for the main tenets of liberal (“bourgeois”!) democracy, including elections, parliamentary governance and the rule of law.  Her views crystallized as she and her colleagues battled with anti-capitalist anarchists, who did not believe in any form of government. Eleanor saw “no way of squaring anti-democratic anarchism with democratic socialism and its commitment to work within a representative parliamentary system” (p.397), Holmes writes. Eleanor Marx was more Bernie Sanders than Bolshevik.

     While involved in organizational activities, Eleanor maintained an abiding interest in the theatre.  Unlike her first class talent for organizing workers, her acting abilities were modest. Shakespeare and Ibsen were Eleanor’s particular interests among major playwrights, whose works contained messages for her on going organizing activities. Given her organizational skills, Holmes thinks that Eleanor would have made a brilliant theater director. But such a position was closed to women in her day. Instead, her “theatre for creating a new cast of radical actors in English art and politics” was the recently opened British Museum Reading Room, “its lofty dome a metaphor for the seat of the brain, workplace for writers and thinkers” (p.182). Here, in the aftermath of her father’s death in 1883, Eleanor wrote books and articles about her father, becoming his “first biographer and posthumous exponent of his economic theory” (p.195). All subsequent Marx biographers, Holmes indicates, have based their accounts on the “primary sources supplied by Eleanor immediately after her father’s death” (p.196).

     The Reading Room was also the venue where Eleanor first met Edward Aveling, an accomplished actor from comfortable circumstances who became a socialist and Eleanor’s common law husband. Aveling proved himself to be a monstrous villain whose malevolence and treachery dominate the last third of the book, with Aveling the central character in a story that has the intricacy of a Dickens plot coupled with psychological probing worthy of Dostoevsky,

* * *

      Holmes describes Aveling as an “attractive, clever cad who played a significant role in popularizing Darwin and steering British secularists towards socialism. It’s easy to see why his anti-establishment, anti-religious, anti-materialist turn of mind appealed to Eleanor” (p.195). But Aveling was also a con artist and the author of a seemingly endless series of scams, stunningly skillful in talking people — Eleanor among them — into loaning him money that was rarely if ever repaid. Eleanor “failed to recognize that his character was the projection of a consummate actor” (p.195), Holmes argues.

     Aveling was further a first rate philanderer, with a steady stream of affairs, most frequently with young actresses or his female students. Although these dalliances made Eleanor “emotionally lonely,” she came to accept them. Eleanor and Edward were proponents of what was then termed “free love,” but the freedom was all on Edward’s side.  The net result, Holmes writes, was that Eleanor took on the “aspect of conventional stoical wife and Edward of conventional philandering husband” (p.238).

    Marx and Aveling jointly published a seminal work on women in the social democratic movement, “The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View,” probably the only positive product of their relationship. “The Woman Question” made “absolutely clear,” Holmes writes, that the “struggle for women’s emancipation and the equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution” (p.262). Marx and Aveling aimed in their landmark essay to show that “feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement, and that sexual inequality was fundamentally a question of economics” (p.260). Aside from their genuine collaboration on “The Woman Question,” just about everything in the fourteen-year Aveling-Marx relationship was negative.

     Holmes documents how Eleanor’s family and friends privately expressed doubt about Aveling and his suitability for Eleanor. Toward the end of her shortened life, they were expressing these doubts directly to Eleanor. The couple did not marry because Aveling reported to Eleanor that he was still legally married to another woman who was “emotionally unstable, difficult, vindictive and refused to divorce him” (p.420).  In fact, Aveling schemed to preserve the marriage to inherit his wife’s estate should she die. When she died, Aveling hid this fact from Eleanor over the course of five years. Finally, Aveling simply walked away from Eleanor and the house they kept together, “without explanation, pocketing all the cash, money orders and movable values he could find” (p.415), to marry a young actress named Eva Frye.

     When Eleanor learned of Aveling’s marriage sometime during the final days of March 1898, she was “confronted by the fact that Edward, after all his fine words about free love and open unions being as morally and emotionally binding as marriage under the law, was simply a liar. And she was a gull, a fool who had willingly suspended her disbelief – because she loved him” (p.420). One of the books’ most puzzling mysteries is why Eleanor, with her keen awareness of women’s vulnerability and their potential for mistreatment from men in what she saw as a rigidly patriarchal society, stayed so long with Aveling. Holmes finds an answer in the deeper recesses of what she terms Eleanor’s “cultural ancestry,” which presented her with the:

questionable example of loyal, dutiful wives and mothers. The formative examples of her Möhme and “second mother” Lenchen, both utterly devoted to her father, shaped her attitude to Edward. Unintentionally, Tussy’s mothers were dangerous, unhelpful role models, ill-equipping their daughter for freedom from subordination to romantic illusions (p.227).

     Eleanor’s frentic final weeks were marked by  desperate correspondence with Freddy, Engels’s putative son. Realizing that a codicil to a will she had executed a few years earlier left most of her estate to Aveling, Eleanor wrote to Freddy that she was “so alone” and “face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was. And I want someone to consult with” (p.418).

     Eleanor executed a second codicil, reversing the earlier one and leaving her estate to her surviving sister, nieces and nephews. The codicil was in an envelope addressed to her lawyer, undelivered on the morning of March 31, 1898. That morning, after a vociferous argument with Edward, Eleanor sent her housekeeper Gertrude Gentry to the local pharmacist with a sealed envelope requesting “chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog” (p.431-32).  The prescription required a signature to be returned to the pharmacy.  Aveling was in the house when the housekeeper left to return the signature to the pharmacy, Holmes asserts, but when the housekeeper returned the second time, she found only Eleanor, lifeless in her bed, wearing a summer dress she was fond of.  Aveling had by then left the premises.

    What Aveling did that day and why he left the house are among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eleanor’s death. The death was officially ruled a suicide after a slipshod coroner’s hearing, the second codicil was never given effect, and Aveling inherited Eleanor’s estate. Many, including Aveling’s own family, were convinced that Aveling had “murdered Eleanor by engineering her suicide” (p.433). Calls for Aveling to be brought to trial for murder, theft and fraud followed  him for the following four months, but were mooted when he died of kidney disease on August 2, 1898.

* * *

      If Aveling’s duplicity was the most direct causative link to Eleanor’s apparent suicide, the revelation in Eleanor’s final years of an astounding betrayal on the part of her long-deceased father and Engels, at a time when Engels was dying of cancer, almost certainly contributed to Eleanor’s decision to end her life. But I will refrain from divulging details of the dark secret the two men had maintained with the hope that you might scurry to Holmes’ thoroughly-researched and often riveting account to learn all you can about this remarkable woman, her “profound, progressive contribution to English political thought – and action” (p.xi), and the tragic ending to her life.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 28, 2016

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Politics

Liberal Star Rising High, Falling Fast

churchill

Michael Shelden, Young Titan:
The Making of Winston Churchill

                  Michael Shelden’s Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill adds a significant slice of the life of Winston Churchill to the ever-growing body of Churchill literature. Shelden, author of highly-acclaimed biographies of George Orwell, Mark Twain and Graham Greene, treats Churchill’s earliest years in politics, roughly 1900 to 1915. The book is easy to read. Rather than digging deeply, the book seems to skim along the surface of British political and social life in the first decades of the 20th century and, as such, constitutes an enjoyable glimpse of Britain at what was arguably the apogee of its worldwide power.

              Churchill returned to England in 1901 at age 26, after making himself known to the British public at a very young age for his adventures, exploits and writing from places as diverse as Cuba, India and the Sudan. “Most dramatic of all,” Churchill survived “capture by the Boers in South Africa, and then [made] his escape across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory” (p.7). Thanks to a “torrent of prose in five books and many newspaper articles, almost everyone in Britain knew of young Churchill’s brave deeds on three continents between 1895 and 1900” when he had “lived the adventures of a storybook character” (p.7). Having made his reputation as a man of adventure, the supremely confident Churchill now sought to “earn respect as a man of learning. He regretted not having a university education, but he was always his own best teacher, and had made good use of his independent reading. In political battles, he wanted to excel by making knowledge his sword, entering each fray with more facts and a deeper understanding than his opponents” (p.29).

               As he embarked on a career in public service, Churchill considered politics “almost as exciting as war, and – quite as dangerous” (p.83). He successfully launched his political career in 1901, winning a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative. Less than three years later, however, Churchill switched to the Liberal Party and his political fortunes soared. But the book ends abruptly in 1915 with the spectacular failure of a British military operation during World War I at the Dardanelles. Then head of the Royal Navy, Churchill was held responsible and forced to resign. In the book’s final pages, the brilliant political wunderkind appears to have gone down in flames, crashed and burned, with a highly uncertain future ahead of him.

               Much of the first half of the book concerns not Churchill’s politics but his search for a suitable wife. There were numerous candidates whom Churchill pursued, always with zest. The first was society femme fatale Pamela Plowden, who spurned Churchill’s marriage offer. Shelden suggests that this was a lucky break for Churchill, who “sadly misjudged Pamela’s character from the start.” Shelden describes Plowden as a “young woman of ordinary desires who always found it hard to limit her interests to one man” (p.53). A notable exception to Churchill’s search within England’s aristocracy was the American singing star Ethel Barrymore. In addition to her own multiple attractions, it could not have escaped Churchill’s attention that as he was pursuing Ms. Barrymore, he was also following in his revered father’s footsteps — America was the birthplace of Churchill’s mother Jennie (although Churchill’s father died well before the book starts, his mother is a constant here, advising her son on many of the romantic and political issues he was dealing with). But Barrymore too spurned Churchill’s marriage offer.

             Another leading candidate was Violet Asquith, daughter of Henry Herbert Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister during much of the period covered. Shelden describes Violet as “strong-willed,” “highly opinionated,” “idealistic,” “overwhelming,” and “romantic” (p.152-53), qualities which could also be ascribed to Churchill. But similar though they might have been, Churchill was not as attracted to Violet and she was to him, and did not extend a marriage offer to her. Later in life, Violet wrote that their relationship had been one of “unrequited love” (p.152). Yet, Churchill retained contact with Violet throughout his married life. Much like his mother, Violet served was an informal political advisor to Churchill. Shelden describes Violet as the sister Churchill never had.

                 Churchill’s campaign to find a wife came to an end in 1908 – and at about the half-way point in the book — when he wed Clementine Hozier (always “Clemmie” to Churchill). Eleven years younger than Churchill, Clementine was the granddaughter of an Earl and thus had the requisite aristocratic background. But her childhood was hardly royal. Her mother, Lady Blanche, separated from her husband, Sir William, when Clementine was 6, and to this day it is not clear whether Sir William was Clementine’s biological father. After the separation, Clementine and her family “lived a frugal but often colorful life in England and France” (p.167), where Lady Blanche befriended numerous artists and writers, including the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Churchill liked Clementine’s unconventional background and her French connections. “Bachelor life had been lonelier than Winston had wanted to admit,” Shelden writes, and when he married Clementine, the woman he would stay married to for life, he had found a “companion with whom he could share everything” (p.207).

          Churchill’s shift from the Conservative to the Liberal Party in 1904 marked a crucial turning point in the ambitious young politician’s career. The immediate issue prompting the shift was tariffs on goods coming from with the Empire. Conservative leader Joseph Chamberlin, a Birmingham industrialist known as the “King of the Screw Trade” (p.64), favored tariffs to boost revenue and home industries. Churchill was at heart a free trader, a good liberal position, but the issue seems like a pretext – Churchill had calculated that he could rise higher and faster within the Liberal Party for several reasons, not least of which was that his boss would be his friend Violet’s father, Henry Asquith. In his new party, Churchill found a “‘house of many mansions’ large enough to hold even the oversized individuality of Winston Churchill, giving him the chance to belong to a party that he could define as he chose” (p.178).

          Churchill saw Britain’s next political battlefield at home, lying in the “growing discontent over questions of economic justice and basic human rights” (p.57). He joined forces with the more radical Beatrice Webb and astonished everyone by how swiftly he managed to lay out his vision of a Britain “protected and liberated by what later generations would call the social safety net” (p.218). He called for a “network of State intervention & regulation,” which he hoped would “give everyone in Britain a minimum standard of security in such areas as employment, housing, and old age pensions. This was heretical thinking for a politician who had left the Tories only three years previously” (p.164).

            In 1907, Asquith appointed Churchill to his first cabinet position, President of the Board of Trade. At age 33, Churchill was the youngest cabinet member in nearly 50 years. Although his strong suit had generally been style, after entering the cabinet, Shelden argues, Churchill was able to show that he was also a “political leader of real substance” (p.217). As Board of Trade President, Churchill was responsible for three major achievements: the Labour Exchanges Act, which created a national job placement system; the Trade Boards Act, which helped alleviate unhealthy working conditions and miserable pay among “sweated laborers,” mostly women in small workshops; and a scheme for unemployment insurance which was embodied in the National Insurance Act of 1911. Churchill described these as actions designed to give a “greater measure of security to all classes, but particularly to the laboring classes” (p.218). By 1909, the last year that the Liberal Party had a commanding majority in the House of Commons, Churchill had become the party’s most effective figure.

            Churchill next accepted a post as Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order the country. He had become, in effect, the country’s top cop. “In his work as a Liberal legislator, Winston had been trying to create a better life for the millions struggling to survive in the hard conditions of industrial Britain. But in his job at the Home Office he was given a harrowing view of the crime and depravity in the nation’s slums and was forced to confront how intractable these problems were” (p.222). Throughout his tenure as Home Secretary, Churchill acted with flair, gusto, and daring. He was not a low profile leader.

              In an infamous confrontation with striking miners in Tonypandy, South Wales, Churchill suppressed the miners’ protest, efficiently if perhaps also ruthlessly, making enemies on the left. Then, he enraged conservatives with his efforts to reconcile with the miners. Churchill emerged from the crisis with a “whole new set of enemies on the right and left blaming him for doing the wrong thing – one side saying that he was too tough, the other that he wasn’t tough enough (p.237). Churchill gained further notoriety when two Russian anarchists went on a shooting spree in the East End of London. He was called to the scene precipitously, and adroitly managed to minimize casualties as the house in which the anarchists were hiding went up in flames. Although Churchill’s handling of the incident should have been one of his finest moments as Home Secretary, instead he was “ridiculed as a grandstanding egomaniac who didn’t have any business inserting himself into an armed police operation” (p.241).

            By the time he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, in 1911, Churchill had already begun to grasp the implications of Britain’s growing military and economic rivalry with Germany and the importance of sea power in defending the British Isles and the empire. Churchill, Shelden writes, was the “only major British leader who was thinking so far ahead about the catastrophe that awaited the world” (p.258). He wrote an eerily-prescient memo that year, supposed to be only for Asquith and the Committee of Imperial Defence, which “read like an outline for a novel about the first weeks of a European war” (p.257). Drawing on his considerable powers of imagination, Churchill described what he believed would transpire in the first forty days of fighting. As he pointed out after the First World War, his forecasts were “almost literally verified three years later by the event” (p.257).

                       When war broke out in 1914, Churchill, not yet 40, found himself:

at the center of a world war, with a heavy responsibility for the largest navy in the world, and a duty to protect the shores of his island nation. It had taken him only thirteen years to rise from a parliamentary backbencher to one of the top posts in an empire at war. After all the struggles, after all the political fights and name-calling, he now had the chance to change the course of world history, and to prove the worth of his heroic view of life (p.306-07).

            With his “youthful energy, battlefield experience, and the will to win” (p.309), Churchill seemed to be everywhere at once in the opening months of the war. He actually went into combat, taking part in the defense of Antwerp, Belgium. This was, to say the least, a highly unusual tactic for someone in his position. Lacking sleep but with his mind spinning relentlessly, Churchill came up with all sorts of ideas for saving the city, some good, some not so good. The worst came when he wired Asquith requesting that he be allowed to resign as First Lord and given “full powers of a commander of a detached force in the field.” In the heat of battle, Churchill had “lost all sense of priorities, thinking that holding Antwerp was everything. But the only priority that mattered at that second was winning” (p.310). As Shelden points out, leaders were often criticized for sending others into battle. Now, Churchill was criticized for doing the opposite.

             Then came the ill-fated 1915 attack on the Dardanelles, the narrow 38-mile straight which divides European from Asian Turkey along the Gallopi peninsula, emptying into the Mediterranean. By Shelden’s account, Churchill unwisely accepted the advice of an eccentric and cantankerous retired Admiral, Jacky Fischer, once considered the “greatest naval innovator of his time” (p.275), but then in his seventies and well past his prime. The idea was to take out Ottoman Turkey, Germany’s ally, to enable Russia, Britain’s ally, to move freely through the straights to the Mediterranean, thereby forcing Germany to shift its focus away from the Western Front, where British troops were entrenched. The assault turned out to be a “disaster from start to finish . . . [W]hen the older battleships moved into the strait on March 18 to attack additional forts they ran into mines, and they were lost in a matter of a few hours. . . mistake after mistake was made” (p.315). The Turks “proved to be far more disciplined and determined than the British had been willing to believe” (p.315).

                The setback in the Dardanelles was “so big that a suitably big scapegoat was needed, and Winston was it. As soon as things began to go wrong, little time was wasted in pointing the finger of blame in his direction” (p.315). As Shelden puts it, the “young Titan had pushed his luck too far” (p.315) and was forced to resign. In a war that left so many of its combatants maimed or traumatized for life, Churchill was “lucky to escape with merely a wounded career. But he couldn’t be sure at the time that the wound would ever heal and allow him to resume his rise to the top. Because he had been so sure of himself, and had risen so quickly, he was so unprepared for this precipitous fall that few options were left open to him” (p.321).

                 Churchill “lost something in 1915 that he never regained,” Shelden concludes. A spirit that had “once seemed so vital and inexhaustible, a lively spark that had served him well from crisis to crisis . . . [had] flickered and went out in 1915 and Churchill was never the same” (p.323). We all know, however, that the pugnacious Churchill survived, rebuilt his career and much more. The ignominious ending to the story leaves the reader hoping that Shelden will next describe the path which the fallen Liberal star took back into the political arena.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
April 26, 2015

3 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, Uncategorized

Not So Great

Hochschild.realone

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars:
A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 

          Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion makes a nice complement to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, reviewed here in September. Hochschild’s work does not purport to be a comprehensive account of what is sometimes called the Great War, as is Clark’s on the prelude to the war. Rather, Hochschild elaborates upon selected manifestations and consequences of the destruction unleashed in the summer of 1914, destruction that “still seems beyond belief,” with a “magnitude of slaughter. . . beyond anything in European experience” (p.xiii-xiv). In artful prose, Hochschild surveys war resisters, women’s rights advocates, socialists, soldiers on the front lines and their commanding generals. His approach is anecdotal but also rather strictly chronological, treating the war in yearly sections, staring in 1914 and ending in 1918. Hochschild’s primary focus is on Great Britain, but he manages to bring all the belligerents into his picture. Throughout, he writes sympathetically and passionately, yet objectively, about those who prosecuted the war and those who opposed it.

          Hochschild starts with a captivating prelude termed “Dramatis Personae,” which provides an overview of Britain in the half-century prior to 1914. Here, Hochschild introduces his readers to several of the main characters of his book, whom he follows throughout the course of the Great War. These exceptionally vivid sketches personalize the fault lines of the war, none more so than between career soldier John French, who became commander of British forces on the Western Front, and his pacifist, progressive sister, Charlotte Despard, who led the opposition to the war. Hochschild also gives prominent attention to Douglas Haig, French’s “ambitious subordinate” (p.104), who replaced French as Western Front commander and in that capacity made some of the most misguided strategic decisions of the war. The jingoistic poet Rudyard Kipling is the figure in “Dramatis Personae” most likely to be familiar to readers. Kipling’s unabated enthusiasm for the war was tested when his beloved son John disappeared in battle in Northern France. Hochschild also introduces his readers to Emmeline Pankhurst, whose fervent support for women’s suffrage overrode her pacifist inclinations; and James Keir Hardy, leader of the British Socialist Party and a true believer that socialism was the perfect antidote to war.

          “Dramatis Personae” further highlights forces that changed the nature of warfare when the conflict broke out in 1914, most of which came into view during Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. Over 100,000 civilians, including African farmhands, Boer women, children, and elderly were herded into guarded concentration camps, “an eerie glimpse into the not-so-distant future” (p.33). More than twice the number of Boer civilians died in concentration camps than Boer soldiers who died in combat. The Boer War made clear that industrial might would determine the outcome of the next war.

          The socialism that was gaining ground across Europe as 1914 began was an early manifestation of what we might now term globalism, in which social welfare and improvement of living standards across Europe were deemed to trump workers’ loyalty to their nation states. But British class consciousness proved for the most part an ineffectual competitor with the national loyalties which the Great War demanded. The socialist dream “[d]issolved in the face of an ancient and greater force: the deep, instinctive human impulse for solidarity with fellow members of one’s tribe – a group most defined, in this moment of crisis, not by class but by nation” (p.128). In Germany, too, socialists were “like everyone else, carried along on the unstoppable torrent of emotion” (p.92). On both sides, consequently, “governments were delighted to discover that they had feared the left too much” (p.92).

           At the outset of the war, advocates of women’s suffrage were among the few who raised their voices in opposition. Emmeline Parkhurst, who had been a vocal opponent of the Boer War, suggested when war broke out in Europe in 1914 that “all war was the mere byproduct of male stupidity” (p.48). The Suffragettes’ opposition to the war was so strong that her Women’s Social and Political Union decided to put suffrage on hold. But later in 1914, Parkhurst went through a mysterious transformation into a war supporter. Hochschild spectulates that she may have made tactical decision that it would be easier to obtain the vote for women if she supported the war. It was perhaps in recognition of this support, as well as recognition of the sacrifices that women were making to further the war effort, that Britain in 1918 gave the vote to women over 30 — those less likely to have husbands killed or wounded in the war, and therefore less likely to adopt anti-war sentiments, Hochschild suggests. By the time the war ended, Parkhurst had become one of the most strident voices in support of the British war effort.

          The anti-war movement arose in Britain at about same time as conscription and remained an important force throughout the war. By 1916, some 200,000 Britons had signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace. Russia was the only other belligerent to have an anti-war movement as large and as vocal as Britain. Although the war had unleashed “powerful national chauvinism, witch hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight” (p.257), Britain alone enjoyed the “deeply embedded tradition of civil liberties” that allowed the anti-war movement to flourish (p.188). But with overwhelming pressure from friends and family to support the war effort, it nonetheless required “rare courage to resist” (p.188). Yet, by 1917, there were anti-war voices within the Establishment and the right.

          British leaders vigorously sought to counter anti-war sentiment. Parliament empowered a War Propaganda Bureau, which enlisted a wide range of authors to launch a “flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, postcards, slide shows, and films for consumption in Britain and abroad,” (p.148), with the United States being one of the primary foreign targets. “Pamphlets and books bore the imprimatur of well-known publishing houses, and the government secretly agreed in advance to buy copies, which it often distributed for free” (p.148). The Bureau freely ran with rumors and half truths about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. In one court case against a war resister, prosecutor Sir Archibald Bodkin — who, after the war, won fame for winning the case that banned James Joyce’s Ulysses from publication in England – argued that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong” (p.191).  Imagine.

          In his treatment of the realities of the battlefield, Hochschild focuses on trench warfare, new weapons, and battlefield carnage. Trench warfare was not new. Versions were seen in the American Civil War and the Boer War. But it “seemed like such an ignoble sort of combat that hardly anyone in Europe had planned for it” (p.123). “No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long” (p.173). On all sides, military leaders were reluctant to admit how dramatically the machine gun had changed warfare. “No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers” (p.124).

              The Battle of the Somme on July1, 1916 was the bloodiest of the war so far, and marked a turning point for Great Britain. Of the 120,000 British troops thrown into the battle, 57,000 were dead or wounded by day’s end – “nearly two causalities for every yard of the front” (p.206). From that point onward, Hochschild argues, the attitudes of British soldiers began to change. “It was not a turn toward rebellion but toward a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference” (p.211). Later that year, however, David Lloyd George as Secretary of State for War allowed a film of the gruesome battle to be shown in theatres. The film actually reinforced civilian support for the war. “The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all” (p.228).

          Hochschild’s treatment of battlefield realities is interlaced with discussions of miscalculations made by military hierarchy, especially French and Haig. Haig combined stubbornness with an “unshakable faith in the rightness of the British cause. . . [and a] mindless optimism in the face of bad news” (p.321). Haig adhered to his belief that the cavalry was still the 20th century’s key to military success. Referring to two cavalry skeptics, Hochschild quotes Haig as saying, “If these two had their way, Cavalry would cease to exist as such. In their opinion, the war will continue and end in trenches” (p.139). High casualties were seen in some military circles as a sign of aggressive leadership and a measure of success. This perverse logic, Hochschild writes, “sometimes led Haig to fly into rage when he thought British losses . . . were too low” (p.209). But what made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He “felt it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations,” his son wrote, “because these visits made him physically ill” (p.210).

          Haig launched a bombing campaign in Northern Belgium – one of lowest spots in Europe’s “low countries” — with no apparent thought given to the possibility that this bombardment would “wreck canals and drainage ditches and leave tens of thousands of craters that soon filled with water” (p.285). Haig and French were jointly responsible for Britain’s first use of poison gas, on September 25, 1915. The winds did not favor the use of gas that day and, when the day was done, Britain had suffered more casualties than Germany from its own gas.

          The following day, Haig made a decision to order an advance by two battle weary, inexperienced reserve divisions directly up a hill guarded by German machine guns and uncut barbed wire. Out of the 10,000 men thrown into battle, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded or missing in very short time. It is difficult for us to look at this “spasm of carnage” on September 26, 1915, Hochschild writes, as “anything other than a blatant, needless massacre” initiated by French, Haig and their advisors “with near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced” (p.165). But, Hochschild notes, few survivors saw that day’s carnage in this light. “For them to question the generals’ judgment would have meant . . . asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born” (p.165).

          After detailing the military ineptitude that exacerbated the unparalleled carnage on the battlefield, Hochschild poses the question that lies behind his narrative: is there an argument to be made, from Britain’s perspective, that the Great War had been necessary. Here, Hochschild differs dramatically from Clark, who refused to assign responsibility to any nation state for the outbreak of the war, depicting it not as a crime of any state but a collective tragedy implemented by sleepwalking diplomats. Hochschild would likely respond that the war was both a tragedy and a crime, with Germany the most criminal of the belligerents. It invaded neutral Belgium, committing widespread atrocities against the Belgium civilian population –“pre-figuring the Nazis’ even more ruthless occupation regime of the Second World War” (p.219) — and clearly threatened to conquer France in the West and Russia in the East.

           In the end, though, Hochschild sidesteps a direct response to this question, while nonetheless reminding readers that the consequences of the Great War would be devastating for years to come. The “most toxic legacy of the conflict,” he concludes, “lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed” (p.373).

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 8, 2014

6 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized

Where’s the Light?

 

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity:

The British, French and American Enlightenments

 images.himmelfarb

[Introductory Note: This commentary is another which I first wrote in in 2009, also based on a book I pulled off the shelf at my favorite used book shop in Washington, D.C. that year, while on leave from my mission in Bulgaria.  I’ve since come to the conclusion that “The Roads to Modernity,” published in 2004, is an important work because it challenges accepted notions of the 18th century Enlightenment.  I’ve always found the terms “Enlightenment” and “Enlightenment values” to be slippery ones, used loosely, without single governing definitions (I am faced with a similar situation in my day job, where the term “rule of law” dominates the agenda, but without a single or accepted definition — and few in my field consider this a problem).  Gertrude Himmelfarb is therefore to be lauded for her effort to bring some precision to the historical notion we term the Enlightenment. 

 

Himmelfarb is closely associated with the neo-conservative movement, which I wrote about in reviews in mid-2012.  She is the wife of the late Irving Kristol, one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism, and the mother of William Kristol, a well-known American conservative commentator.  Some of her scholarship can be seen as having a partisan edge, and the closer her subject approaches the present, the more tendentious I find her writing to be.  But her views of the Enlightenment deserve serious attention, even from those who do not share her political outlook.] 

 

In “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments,” Gertrude Himmelfarb details three distinctive forms of the “forward march of the human spirit” – Denis Diderot’s definition of the Enlightenment — in the 18th century in the three countries most frequently associated with modern democracy, Great Britain, France and the United States.  Himmelfarb makes her purpose clear at the outset: she seeks to “reclaim” the Enlightenment “from the French who have dominated and usurped it” (p.3).  For Himmelfarb, the French Enlightenment elevated reason and saw it as diametrically opposed to religion, with insidious side effects. 

 

In Great Britain and the United States, by contrast, reason did not have that preeminent role and religion was not the paramount enemy.  The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but “social virtues,” whereas in America it was “political liberty.”  For both, reason was an “instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not an end in itself,” with religion an “ally, not an enemy” (p.19).  In Himmelfarb’s view, the contributions of 18th century American and British thought to modernity and modern democracy far surpass those of France.  Indeed, to Himmelfarb, France’s contributions are antithetical to democracy.  

 

In her brutal dissection of the French Enlightenment, Himmelfarb contends that  esteemed philosphes Diderot and Voltaire were elitists who were contemptuous of  common people.  Voltaire’s contempt led him to a cynical espousal of religion for the lower classes, as a means of keeping them in line, with the more enlightened elements of the population eschewing backward religious practices (Himmelfarb excuses a similar tendency of some of the American founding fathers, p.211).  Disdaining Christianity, Voltaire was even more disparaging of Judaism.  To associate the French Enlightenment with democracy, moreover, is to ignore the historical record.  The philosophes favored enlightened despotism and embraced Rousseau’s collective notion of the general will, which Himmelfarb considers inherently hostile to individual liberty (p.167).   

 

            Himmelfarb also seeks to establish that there was in fact a distinctive 18th century British Enlightenment, a point at odds with conventional academic wisdom.  In addition to Adam Smith and David Hume (whom some scholars see as representatives of a distinctly Scottish Enlightenment), she finds both Edmund Burke and John Wesley central to the English Enlightenment.  A host of sentiments, which Himmelfarb summarizes by “social virtues” or “moral sense” – benevolence, compassion, sympathy, “fellow-feeling,” a natural affection for others– comprised the “social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse” in 18th century Britain” (p.33). 

 

18th century Britain was also characterized by a “conspicuous absence of the kind of animus to religion – certainly nothing like the warfare between reason and religion – that played so large a part in the French Enlightenment” (p.38). In contrast to France, British moral philosophy was “reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future” (p.51).  Himmelfarb quotes de Tocqueville’s observation that he found in England what he had been deprived of in France, a “union between the religious and political world, between public and private virtue, between Christianity and liberty” (p.52). 

 

If social virtues were at the forefront of philosophical speculation and social policy in 18th century Britain, in America these virtues constitute a backdrop to “political liberty,” the principles and institutions appropriate to a new republic.  “As it was liberty that was the driving force of the American Enlightenment, so it was political theory that inspired the Constitution, designed to sustain the new republic” (p.191-92).  Like the  British, and in contrast to the French, Americans did not turn against religion itself.  “Instead, they incorporated religion, of almost every degree and variety, into the mores of society” (p.207).  The Founders in America “did not look upon religion as the enemy of liberty” and American churches did not “look upon liberty as the enemy of religion” (p.211). 

 

Himmelfarb raises many points worthy of a good academic debate.  Should we really speak of three (or more) Enlightenments?  Peter Gay, a towering authority on the Enlightenment, considers it a single phenomenon radiating out from France, as Himmelfarb acknowledges.  Was the French Enlightenment as unenlightened as Himmelfarb contends?  One of my most memorable college teachers was a leading authority on Diderot who taught his clueless undergraduates to revere not only Diderot but also Voltaire and the other 18th century French philosophes.  Several decades later, I am not ready to discard this deeply inculcated reverence.  Further, I wonder whether Burke, seminal theorist though he was, should be considered an Enlightenment thinker.  One can answer these questions differently from Himmelfarb, yet be impressed by the cogency and readability of her – dare I say “enlightening”? — work. 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

January 13, 2013

13 Comments

Filed under English History, French History, United States History