Churchill, the last Victorian


I recently went to see the German historian Peter Alter, something of a specialist on the history of the modern British Isles, talk at the German Historical Institute in London on Churchill and Europe.

A couple of highlights. The first is a conversation between Churchill and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1953, when Adenauer raised the subject of Britain in Europe. Churchill drew a Venn diagram on a placemat, which Adenauer kept and included in his memoirs.

He labelled the three circles ‘Britain’, ‘Europe’, and ‘USA’, and then filled in the middle segment and said that Britain was the only one that could connect all three but that it would always be on the side of Europe. (And yes, maths wasn’t Churchill’s strong point.)

Churchill had used the same concept in a speech at the Conservative part conference five years earlier, while in opposition.

Listening to this story made me realise that as Prime Minister Churchill was the last Victorian. By the time he met Adenauer in London he was in his late 70s: he had been 26 when Victoria died. (Later, he became the only person to be elected MP in the reigns of both Victoria and Elizabeth II.) He said in 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” and never really came to terms with the loss of India after the war. Peter Alter suggested that Churchill had realised at Yalta that Britain’s role in the post-war world would be marginal, but he didn’t adjust to it.

The other story Alther told was of the occasion in Munich in 1932, shortly before Hitler became Chancellor, when Churchill and Hitler almost met. Churchill was travelling privately and staying at one of Munich’s more distinguished hotels. He was approached by one of Hitler’s supporters, and eventually asked if he would like to meet Hitler. Churchill said yes, and was told that Hitler often came to the hotel in the afternoon. But then Churchill went and spoiled it by saying indirectly that he wanted to ask him about anti-semitism (which marks him out from many members of the English upper classes of the time). Hitler never showed.

Had he done so, would it have made any difference to how things turned out? I doubt it.

The image of Churchill and Adenauer is from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and is used with thanks.


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