“The news from France is very bad and I grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune. Nothing will alter our feelings towards them or our faith that the genius of France will rise again.”
—Winston S. Churchill, 4 June 1940
With every murderous threat to civilization we are asked: “Where are our Churchills?” There isn’t one, and we should not expect one. Churchills are rare. They appear in extremis. The threat in 1940 was, if this is any consolation, more serious than the threat today.
There are however ways to look at the problem as Churchill did, learning from and applying his approaches—which seem to figure in the thinking of French President François Hollande, a partisan socialist suddenly become the de facto leader of the Free World. Churchill implored his countrymen “not to fall below the level of events.” M. Hollande has risen to the level. Mr. Obama has not, but events may have a way of floating him along with them.
The Quest for Unity
Hollande’s first act after the November 13th massacres was to summon a joint session of the French parliament, members of all parties, to seek support for what amount to war powers. Divided by a score of issues only days before, they stood and cheered. Likewise Churchill, whose first act as prime minister was to seek unity and shared purpose.
Winston Churchill believed in coalitions. Deeply understanding modern warfare, he tried to prevent both world wars. Once they came, his instinct was to unite, not divide—to welcome as “faithful comrades” members of the opposition he had himself excoriated—and they him—in past quarrels.
Churchill reserved his contempt for the enemy, not political opponents. Barely a year earlier, the Labour Party had voted against conscription; in 1938 most Conservatives had supported Prime Minister Chamberlain’s Munich agreement. Churchill ignored all that. “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present,” he told them, “we shall find that we have lost the future.”
In May 1940, as France and Chamberlain collapsed, George VI asked Churchill to form a government. The King did not specify a coalition. “But in view of what had happened,” Churchill wrote, “a Government of National character was obviously inherent in the situation. If I found it impossible to come to terms with the Opposition parties, I should not have been constitutionally debarred from trying to form the strongest Government possible of all who would stand by the country in the hour of peril….”
Labour’s leader and Chamberlain joined an all-party government. Churchill led that coalition for five years of total war, “at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.” But in 1940, he was the indispensable symbol of unity.
The Quest for Allies
Another Churchill impulse pursued by Hollande is the concept of “grand alliance.” It surprises some that France so far has not yet invoked NATO Article 5, requiring a concerted response by the member nations. The idea seems logical, yet Hollande has so far resisted it—I suspect because he wants the Russians on side, and asking them to join a NATO operation would be a reach.
Now Mr. Putin is no friend of the West, and thoughtful voices have said one of his objects has been to marginalize NATO. But in the current crisis Hollande sees a transformative possibility, in taking allies where you find them—like Churchill.
On 22 June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin had been no friend of the West, aligning Russia with Germany in a non-aggression pact and cordially applauding each German victory. Churchill at once recognized the imperative: “If Hitler invaded Hell,” he quipped, “I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
“No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years,” Churchill broadcast that night. “I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies, flashes away…. The Russian danger is therefore our danger.”
If Hollande’s object is Churchill’s “victory in spite of all terror,” the need to enlist both domestic opposition and available allies is fundamental. Who can tell where a grand alliance might lead—perhaps to a new era of what Churchill called “easement,” through rediscovered common interests. Russia arguably has as serious a problem with Islamic fundamentalism as anyone.
Amidst the cataract of horrors, M. Hollande is having his Churchill moment. May he like Churchill forge “a supreme recovery of moral strength and martial vigour,” while time remains.