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«Some people got depressed by Churchill's speeches»

Richard Toye, the English historian and rhetoric expert, talks about the influence Winston Churchill's speeches had at the time – and what kind of reaction they got.

Churchill's visiting Geneva, 1946. Foto: Photopress-Archiv (Keystone)
Churchill's visiting Geneva, 1946. Foto: Photopress-Archiv (Keystone)

How does the Brexit situation harp back to longings about the British Empire?

Certainly things seemed to have changed very abruptly, and I would put down a lot of what has happened to the pursuit of austerity policies since 2010, and the fact that people’s living standards have sort of frozen or gotten worse. That creates an opportunity for people to play out various sentiments. It’s probably worth saying that when people have these discourses about Britain becoming great again they may be talking in almost total ignorance of what happened at the time.

About the time during the war?

No, I’m trying to explain why opinion has changed in the last few years to become more sympathetic to Brexit and towards imperial nostalgia. It has to do with the policies of cutting public spending and public services that have taken place. Then the situation becomes ripe for people to exploit discontent by blaming immigrants. So you have the playing up of the glorious past.

«Even during the war, Chruchill was a more controversial figure, subject of more criticism than one would expect from the standard portraits.»

Do you think in this context that there will be a nostalgic wave of Churchillism?

I think there is kind of an ongoing on, really. It may have been a bit more complicated in the Sixties and Seventies. But particularly over the last 25 years or so … There have been ups and downs, but there has been a fairly powerful nostalgia since his death. You have got to remember that he is a divisive figure. You must not imagine that these political views of his are universally held in Britain. In Wales for example he is less popular than in the rest of the UK. Because of his alleged actions in the pre-1940ies period. Equally we are a currently a very divided society with a substantial body quite strongly held left-wing opinion as well as powerful body of right-wing opinion. So Churchill is going to remain controversial. Even during the war, he was a more controversial figure, subject of more criticism than one would expect from the standard portraits.

You strongly criticize Churchill for his imperialist convictions. What were the reactions you got to your book on the subject?

I wasn’t particularly surprised because some people would say that I wasn’t harsh enough on him - or too harsh. In fact, that book didn’t produce the same amount of controversy as a later one which I wrote about Churchill’s World War II speeches. Where I probably was surprised by the intensity of the reactions to what I perceived to be a modest claim that the speeches generated more criticism that was widely believed at the time. One can see this through survey evidence or people’s diary and so forth. People felt as if I had said that the speeches weren’t any good which is not at all the same thing. I didn’t want to criticize Churchill, I was simply drawing attention to the complexity of reactions to him. But a lot of people didn’t like that because they resented that it didn’t confirm the standard story, the normal story. You know, some people got depressed by Churchill’s speeches rather than feeling uplifted, because often he would be bringing bad news. So my pointing that out was a tribute to him as a speaker, because he was not bringing people false comfort, he was telling them the truth. Over time this allowed him to establish his credibility as a speaker. And so, having persistently over a course of four years that victory was not easily in sight, because he didn’t know when it was going to happen and how.

«Churchill was not bringing people false comfort, he was telling them the truth. Over time this allowed him to establish his credibility as a speaker.»

Reading your books, I sometimes get the impression that both the worst and the best about Churchill comes from the same place, so to speak. His conviction of being right for instance.

Yes, I think that is a fair comment. Often, he was a fairly impulsive person who got very enthusiastic about a particular cause or idea, and then went around trying to persuade people to drum up enthusiasm for it, even if he hadn’t thought it through. But equally he had a quality of persistence which was very useful to him when he came to warn against the dangers of the Nazis in the 1930ies, and then through the war itself.

Now you not only wrote about Churchill’s War speeches, but you also teach rhetoric.

That’s correct.

How did he use his rhetoric skills?

Well, I think it wasn’t just about the famous phrases. There are certain parts of the speeches which get quoted over and over again – and indeed were important. But an awful lot of what he was saying was actually explaining in detail to the public what was going on during the war, and interpreting it to people. So giving them analysis, if you like, as well as facts. And that was something which people were very anxious about, and also eager to get new information. This could often be comforting or useful for them, even though today these do not seem like the most exciting parts of the speeches. They would not have worked if they merely had been a string of striking or inspiring phrases. They needed to have been backed up with substance. And in fact, some of his most effective speeches have not remained famous today because they don’t have many striking phrases in them.

How do you think people’s assertion of Churchill will change? He has done and thought terrible things, after all.

I don’t see any dramatic changes over the next year. I think that perhaps post-Brexit they may be some changes. The point is that with respect to Europe Churchill’s views are kind of complicated and contested. During the referendum, there was some attempt by the remain side to invoke Churchill as a supporter of European integration. Equally in the past particularly right-wing parties have tried to use him in the opposite sense as well. Now of course there is the famous Zurich speech of 1946 in which he talked about the idea of the United States of Europe. That obviously gives some support to the idea that he was a strong advocate of Europe. However, he did qualify that by suggesting that Britain would be a supporter for this idea rather than member. So I think that attempt by the remain side did not quite work.

«Some of his most effective speeches have not remained famous today because they don't have many striking phrases in them.»

In the film, there is no parliamentary reaction to the «Blood, Sweat and Tears» speech. Is this historically accurate?

With the first one, it's difficult to say, but I think that is probably a reasonable sort of poetic license, if you like. We don't have a lot of information on how people did react. It was his first speech as prime-minister. It's a very short speech, about 700 words. With the «Fight on the beaches» speech people didn’t go crazy.

There is an interesting theory by the Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler which he, in an unfortunate phrase, called «die Organminderwertigkeit»: If someone intelligent and ambitious had a defect, a speech impediment or being of little growth and so forth – he would aspire to be better at everything else he could be better at. How did Churchill’s stuttering as a child and his lisp make him the brilliant orator we remember him by?

Well, I don’t know enough about psychology. It seems to me that there were a lot of things going on in Churchill’s childhood which perhaps made him determined to excel. His father had been somewhat disappointed in him and didn’t hesitate to say so. The speech impediment I think had an effect, it gave him a distinctive voice that he probably in some degree revelled in or made use of it. I don’t think there is any evidence that he was embarrassed or traumatized by it, because he had this. I would agree with the proposition – it was a very minor speech impediment; he could use it as part of his performance. He was so energetic, really, from his earliest year as a young man, very driven. And he wasn’t suffering from a lack of self-belief or confidence.

Can one say that the very characteristic that made him such a bigot and a racist in places made him such a strong character when it came to recognize Hitler as a danger?

There is kind of a spectrum of racism. On one end you have got Hitler who literally thought that people who he thought lesser should actually be exterminated, and then you have got the very unpleasant, but not actually genocidal racism of Churchill. Churchill thought that even people who he regarded as lesser deserved some consideration. When he was at the colonial office the first time he actually interested himself in what he saw as injustices being done to railway employees in Ceylon. He shows some compassion. In the abstract he doesn’t think that they deserve to be harmed, but he thinks of them as a lower priority.

«There is kind of a spectrum of racism. On one end you have got Hitler, and then you have got the very unpleasant, but not actually genocidal racism of Churchill.»

I wonder about his frame of thinking: He was very stubborn, he made a lot of mistakes, but he was right about Hitler. Are those things related?

You have to give him credit for being persistent in the 1930ies. He also was persistent in regard to reforming India. There are sort of two sides to his character. One that he carried on regardless. But he also could be quite erratic, if you like. He would have bright ideas which he would pursue for a while, but then give up on. This might explain why many of his colleagues did not trust him. And when he did get it right like in the case of the Nazis, they were less inclined to take him seriously. Because he had taken up so many ideas before. I think it was the Labour prime minister Clement Atlee who said «Churchill has ten ideas a day and one of them is brilliant, the problem is, he doesn’t know which one».

In the film Churchill is suspected of being a war monger. Is this an accurate description?

In fairness Churchill didn’t want the war. Even in spite of the fact that it clearly provided him with a great opportunity to resurrect his career which otherwise wouldn’t come about. What he genuinely wanted was for the British and the French and the Soviet Union to get their act together sufficiently that Hitler could be deterred. I don’t really think that … In 1914 people felt with some justice that Churchill sort of really wanted war for the sake of excitement. But that assumption is unjust with regard to the Second World War. Maybe the experience of the First World War made him more responsible.

In what way his imperialistic attitude shaded or influenced his thinking about the Second World War?

That’s a very good question. In some ways it wasn’t the overriding factor, because his strategy was to defeat Germany first and secure the Americans to do that, even at the expense of having to leave Britain's colonies in the Far East to be overrun by the Japanese. Some Australians still feel that they were neglected by the British in a patronizing way. So he didn't throw everything into the defence of the Empire as such. Where you see him as stubborn and particularly counter-productive is in his attitude towards India. Where even though discussions do take place during the war the fact that ultimately he is the man in charge makes it unlikely for India taking offers seriously.

«In fairness Churchill didn't want the war. What he genuinely wanted was to get act together sufficiently that Hitler could be deterred.»

Coming back to Churchill’s war speeches which you analyse in your latest book: Can you elaborate on his task to motivate the public, scare-off his enemies, giving information but not giving it away – an enormously difficult task, I imagine.

That is an interesting point, because sometimes he accidently did reveal slightly too much. Sometimes some bits of information Churchill gave had to be removed from the parliament record. On the whole, he didn’t just write a speech and then go off and deliver it. He did the writing largely by himself, but the text of the speech would then be divided up and sent to different government departments who would give their feedback and might sometimes give concrete suggestions. Bear in mind also that there were secret sessions at the House of Commons, about a dozen or so. So he could talk to MPs without the world knowing. The secret speeches were published after the war, but there were passages for instance about General de Gaulle that were omitted because they were too sensitive. He had to use the art of oratory to say things that were liked by the British public and accepted by all the allies.

Can you tell us what makes Churchill such a great orator?

One thing I would say that he, over the whole period of the war, is a very good orator in that he makes relatively few mistakes. That is partly due to the counter-checks by government departments, but also by the huge amount of effort he put into writing his speeches. Three or four days at a time for the big ones which was obviously talking him away from other important military political, strategic decision-making. What you see is that it is the famous phrases that survived and the ones that either are used in documentaries or regularly quoted. But if you think about how many of those phrases people could quote, well-informed people would come up with about a dozen of those. Over the course of the war he was talking thousands and thousands of words of which these famous phrases are only a tiny proportion. The other things he was saying were about giving people as much information as he can, because that is what people crave in these desperate situations, plus they don’t want only information, they want analysis. He is capable of doing that. A speech that wouldn’t seem dramatic to us is because we didn’t live in the moment and we are not the ones who are wondering whether or not we are going to be invaded. So the apparently verbally less exciting speeches are just as important. One of the politically most effective speech is about the French fleet I mention. It doesn’t contain any dramatic phrasing. But what he did there was to tell a story and to lay out very carefully why he had taken a particular set of decisions. The language is important, but also the argumentation is also crucial.

«A lot of people are completely unaware that he was imprisoned in South Africa and escaped, they don’t realise the length of his career or its complexity.»

He seems to have been a natural talent, because he wasn’t good at school. Did he teach himself?

Yes, he practiced for a very long period of years. Bear in mind he had his own father as an example, he certainly studied him. He learned a number of speeches of his father by heart, he used to walk up and down as a young man repeating them. He was brought up in an atmosphere where speeches were important and were key part of a political culture. He also had enormous experience of delivering them over a very long political career starting in 1899. By 1939 he literally had been doing this for forty years. But he was good at it, so let us not deny his talent and his genuine facility with language. You know the Malcolm Gladwell argument about the 10'000 hours you have to practice?

Gladwell talks about the Beatles in this instance. But I think that it works the other way around: Talented people have limitless patience to learn something they are passionate about.

Yes, it is about having the talent to persevere. If you practice and you don’t get better at all, you get discouraged and give up.

Over a thousand biographies have been published about Winston Churchill, you have written about him many times. My last question to you, Richard, is: What makes him so fascinating?

Well … I think that there are simply a lot of dimensions in his life that aren’t fully appreciated still. Because often he is presented as a caricatural, sort-of two-dimensional figure. Where we only see the story of the 1930ies or the 1940ies. A lot of people are completely unaware that he was imprisoned in South Africa and escaped, they don’t realise the length of his career or its complexity. And because he left such an enormous amount of records of his life that creates the possibility of creating more biographical information about him, but to place him within the broader political culture and context of the time.

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