12 Oct 2013

Churchill, a biography by Sebastian Haffner

I must assume that everybody knows who was Winston Churchill, or at least has an image of the public figue and his war-time legend. Sebastian Haffner is far less well-known, but his short and to-the-point biography of a complex personnage whose life spanned almost a century makes fascinating reading that sheds many a light on little known aspects of the recent history of the western world. And which, without indulging in any of the distasteful "intimate details" side of some modern biographies, also reveals the many contradictions and failures in the behaviour and career of Churchill, without taking away from his unique achievements.

Haffner's excellent short (160 pages) biography of Winston Churchill, first published in English in 2003 by Haus Publishing

My first knowledge of the existence of Haffner (whose real name was Raimund Pretzel, but I will explain this later) came through a radio programme in France that spoke in glowing terms of a book of his called, in its French edition, Journal d'un Allemand, but whose rather different English title is Defying Hitler: A Memoir. I read this book some years ago and it is to me the most brilliant and lucid account of the mechanisms, both social, economic, political and psychological, behind the seemingly inevitable rise to power of Hitler and his gang. Haffner (or rather Pretzel) was a civil servant in the German legislature who, seeing and not accepting the rise of nazism, fled his country in the 1930's and came to England. Alhtough not directly threatened (all things are relative of course and political opponents were either imprisoned or physically eliminated) in Germany as he was not Jewish, he decided that he could do more to hinder Hitler outside his country and he became active in England as a writer, translator and expert on matters German, trying to influence British politicians as to the dangers presented by nazism. He was convinced not only that Hitler was unhinged (he referred to him as "the crank"), but saw also that he was extremely dangerous. And we should not forget, in this context, the strong movement in Britain at that time towards pacifism, appeasement and even,, from some quarters, collaboration with the nazis. In order to protect his family that had stayed in Germany, Pretzel changed his name to Sebastian (the second name of J.S. Bach) Haffner (Mozart's 35th symphony).Yes, nobody has yet fully understood quite how so much savagery could come from a culture that has spawned so rich a cultural universe of music, philosophy, art and litterature. His book on this period of German history was not published in his lifetime but was found in his desk by his inheritors who rightly published it.


Raimund Pretzel, better known as Sebastian Haffner

Haffner's biography of Winston Churchill, a worthy descendant of John Churchill who had been elevated to the rank of Duke of Marlborough in the late 17th century for feats of arms and diplomacy against the Franco-Bavarian alliance during the wars of the Spanish succession, is a masterpiece of concision and is written with the swiftness of a good journalist who has the advantage of an external oberserver's eye, yet one who also knows a lot of the background. Among the suprises for me in this book were Churchill's changing political party allegiances. He started as Conservative, then became a radical Liberal and member of one of Lloyd George's governmants before returning, shortly before the Second World War to the Conservative party who had for long hated him as a renegate. Churchill was very much a politcal maverick, often hot-headed, rarely calculating, and fairly oblivious of what others thought of him. Having hated school and been a dunce in just about every subject except for English, he turned to the army for his career, and also discovered the joys of writing. He was, above and before all, a warrior and an opportunist, without a trace of self-interest. And a considerable writer. 

Another surprise to me in Haffner's account was Chuchill's total lucidity about Soviet Russia's intentions and his strategy to prevent these from becoming reality after the war, as well as his total incapacity to realise this strategy due to England's relative weakness when faced with both America and Russia. And his clear will to sell the English economy and Empire in exchange for American aid and thus save the war. It was the only way to resist Hitler, and he took it without hesitation. But then mathematics and monetary calculation were not Chruchill's forte. His stubborness and detremination to prove his point led him to some decisions that were dire for many people. Just ask the Australian and New Zealanders whom he sent to a certain death at Gallipoli in the First World War, or the Polish whom he abandoned in the next edition. Haffner also hints clearly at the variable nature of Churchill's moods. He would possibly be diagnosed these days as a bipolar, as he oscillated between intense high-energy elation and periods when what Churchill himself described as "the black dog" descended on him.

Since Haffner respectfully avoids prying into Churchill's private life, we learn little about his relationship with his wife Clementine, who very likely was responsible for keeping him on the rails at many times. I can well remember being struck and moved by listening to several of their letters, exchanged during the war years, read on French radio (the excellent France Culture) not long ago when they were published. Their extraordinary mixture of tenderness and open discussion of strategic matters as if these were everyday events like walking the dog was very impressive, but Haffner, unfortunately, did not have access to this material when he wrote his book.

I can strongly recommend this book to anyone vaguely interested in the man Churchill, or in world or British politics of the first half of the 20th century.




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