By Edward Lucas
July 23, 2023
History’s judgments are different from our own. Good, mostly.
My cousin Jane became Winston Churchill’s private secretary when she was 19 and worked for him until 1955, the year he resigned as prime minister. Lady Williams of Elwel, as she was known after her second marriage, died last week. With the last full-time member of the great man’s team gone, we must now rely on history books.
Somewhere in a bunker in Kyiv is Jane’s counterpart, a young man or woman working for Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Like Jane, this junior staffer — call her Zhanna — will know that her boss had a mixed reputation before rising to high office. Churchill was seen as a political failure, prone to imperial nostalgia and scaremongering. Zelenskyy starred in a political satire produced by his media empire. A distinguished Western commentator warned in 2019 that he was an ignorant pro-Russian lightweight.
Outsiders dismissed Britain’s prospects in 1940, just as they dismiss Ukraine’s chances now. When you are fighting a much superior enemy, surely it makes sense to do a deal? Why continue with this senseless destruction? A senior British official visitor to Washington was recently told by his American counterparts that their computer simulation proved that Ukraine’s counteroffensive could not succeed. “What happens when your computer models the Battle of Britain?” he asked. “Hitler wins,” replied his hosts, seemingly unaware of the damage this did to the credibility of their expensive predictions.
For Jane’s old boss then and Zhanna’s boss now, the only thing worse than fighting was surrendering. “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition” was the Ukrainian leader’s response to an American offer of evacuation in the first days of the war when the Russian invaders threatened Kyiv. As the German invasion loomed, Churchill said that Britain’s story would not end “until each one of us is lying on the ground, choking in our own blood.”
We do not know what post-war Ukrainian politics will be like. But however much Zhanna and her colleagues revere their boss for his wartime leadership, history suggests that the voters may see it differently. Ukrainian politics is frozen for now. It will defrost, and people who have been (mostly) loyal team players when fighting the Russian invaders will be eager to put their case to the voters. Before the war was fully over, Churchill was out: replaced by his wartime deputy, the Labour leader Clement Attlee. Britons wanted a different team in charge of reconstruction. If that happens to Zelenskyy, he should play for time. Six years later, Churchill was back, with Jane at his side.
But the voters’ verdict is not the final one. Wait for the books. In the decades immediately following the war, Churchill’s record was treated as hagiography than history (helped by the publication of his own, rather tendentious memoirs). It would be interesting to know who in Zelenskyy’s inner circle is keeping a diary with an eye to publication. Wartime strategy and the behavior of allies will attract huge interest. So too, will Ukraine’s unpreparedness for the onslaught. The end of the war, and any eventual negotiations with Russia, will also be subjects of huge academic interest. Zhanna may even write her memoirs, too (I wish cousin Jane had done so).
And then come the revisionist historians. A British professor, who has not exactly hit the headlines for his own academic work, says Churchill’s “limited abilities” made him the “most overrated person in history.” Other critics are far harsher. Cousin Jane was able to rebut these slurs with her personal testimony. Zhanna will, with luck, live until 2100 or thereabouts. After that, people will have to rely on the history books.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.