Study Guide

Winston Churchill in Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat

By Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

There aren't a whole lot of Winstons in the world, and even fewer who can be nicknamed "Winnie" their whole lives and still be seen as intimidating political figures.

There's one distinct exception to that rule, and he's one of the most famous figures of the 20th century. In Britain, he's still often seen as a beloved national hero, despite having some ideas that wouldn't fly nowadays (and didn't really fly then, either).

But we'll get into that later.

Bottom line: the dude is well known. You've seen him portrayed by John Lithgow or Brendon Gleeson or Michael Gambon or Albert Finney, or one of the many other actors who have taken on the role of Winston Churchill.

Guess there's something interesting there, if you can get Dumbledore and Daddy Warbucks to play you in biopics.

From Blenheim to Boers

Winston Churchill didn't have to make his way up from poverty or obscurity to achieve power. He was born at a palace into an aristocratic family, so he started life in some pretty favorable circumstances.

He got involved in the military as a teenager, joining the school Rifle Corps as an alternative to being one of those students who focuses on academics. It took him a few tries, but eventually he got into military college, and after that, he set off to fight in some of the conflicts the British Empire faced with their colonies in the late 1800s. (Source)

Once in the army, his crazy successful writing career took off, too. He wrote books about his adventures and became a war correspondent. For example, his book London to Ladysmith is about the time he was captured while reporting on the Boer War in South Africa. He escaped, made it 300 miles to Mozambique, and became famous back home in England. (Source

So if you want to get your writing career started, just travel to a different continent, find a country that's engaged in a war, get captured, make a daring escape that involves hundreds of miles on foot across unfamiliar territory. Nothing to it.

But actually, please don't. We don't know what we'd tell your mother. Or her lawyer.

Anyway, by age twenty-six, Churchill had written five books already, and would continue to write throughout his life. In fact, his most famous book is probably The Gathering Storm (1948) , about the lead-up to World War II.

Mastering Parliament

After his adventures in Africa, Churchill returned to England and became an MP for the Manchester area. He started out in the Conservative Party, but soon switched to the Liberal Party. Churchill wanted to make things better for the British working classes, and the Conservative Party didn't seem interested.

The new MP promoted legislation and budget changes that provided more social welfare programs for the working classes, and labor regulations such as the eight-hour workday and a government-mandated minimum wage. This made some of his fellow upper-crust Conservative acquaintances consider him a traitor to his class (source). It probably didn't help his case when he helped pass the People's Budget in 1911, which increased taxes on the wealthy to pay for those welfare programs for the poor.

Churchill made it into the prime minister's Cabinet by 1908, as president of the Board of Trade, and he became the First Lord of the Admiralty prior to World War I. He led the modernization of the Navy and helped pioneer the creation of the Royal Air Force, the same RAF that would later kick Luftwaffe butt.

They Say Never Meet Your Heroes

Churchill's career isn't all sunshine and military glory, though. He's always been a controversial figure because sometimes he did things that were, well, surprisingly harsh.

For example, in 1913, he drafted legislation to alter the new Mental Deficiency Act and require the sterilization of people with mental handicaps (source). And no, we don't mean sterilization like "make them super clean." Don't worry, that part didn't pass.

He also resigned from his role as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, after the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli. It wasn't totally his fault, but he felt like it was and resigned in shame.

Most of the controversy surrounding Churchill, though, even to this day, surrounds his approach to the British Empire and colonial territories. Essentially, Churchill did not want to let the colonies go and did not approve of any plans to give them greater independence.

While he was colonial secretary (1919-1922) under Prime Minister David Lloyd George (a.k.a. the Man with Three First Names), Churchill ordered military retaliation against Kurdish tribesman in modern-day Iraq, which was then a British territory. Even back then, this was a controversial move (source). He repeatedly condemned actions taken by his fellow MPs to give India greater autonomy over their own government, which angered his colleagues throughout the 1930s.

Not Invited to the Party Anymore

Churchill got back into the Conservative Party in 1922, and spent the 1920s in various government positions. In 1929, a change in leadership meant he got fired, but by then his aggressive approach to politics had alienated him from pretty much everybody (source).

Churchill spent most of the 1930s in a sort of political exile. He couldn't play nice with the other MPs, so he wasn't allowed to play with them at all. So when he caught on to the fact that Germany was getting stronger and that it would be a major problem, people didn't want to listen to him. Admittedly, that was also due to the fact that people were really sick of war.

But also because they were sick of Churchill.

The problem was no one in the British government trusted him anymore. They saw his current policies and harshness towards India as a contradiction of his earlier personality, and therefore he was unstable, old-fashioned, and offensive (source).

Winnie knew his stuff about Europe, though, and had even tried to have dinner with Adolf Hitler when he visited Munich in 1932 while doing research for a book. Hitler stood him up.

Hate to Say I Told You So

In his landmark book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer writes that Churchill was the only person who seemed to recognize the growing threat from Germany. After the Nazi occupation of the Rhineland, his warnings got more dire. Finally, Churchill got back into government as First Lord of the Admiralty (again) in 1939 as part of Neville Chamberlain's cabinet. Despite his years as a political pariah, his work with the Navy hadn't been forgotten. Famously, when it was announced that he was back in business, a message was sent out to the Royal Navy ships that simply said, "Winston's back."

At this point, the Brits were recognizing the wisdom of Churchill's consistent warnings about the growing threat of Germany. His vision of the great British Empire, previously seen as archaic, became inspirational for a people who were now terrified of the approaching war (source).

His predictions about Germany made him popular enough that, when Neville Chamberlain resigned after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, Churchill's name was second in line to replace him. First in line was Lord Halifax, Chamberlain's foreign secretary, but Halifax didn't think he was the right man for the job and turned it down. He even recommended Churchill himself (source).

Optimus Prime Minister

On May 10, 1940, King George VI called Churchill to Buckingham Palace and formally appointed him prime minister and asked him to form a coalition government.

Churchill immediately said yes, which isn't surprising since he'd been dreaming about being prime minister since he was a kid (source). That same day, he pulled together a war cabinet of five men from all three major parties: Conservative, Liberal, and Labour. Well, really four men, since the fifth was himself.

He wasn't immediately beloved. Chamberlain still had a lot of supporters in Parliament, who saw Churchill as a usurper. As the war started to rage, though, Churchill's image of strength won people over. He made great speeches, was visibly present during the Blitz visiting areas that had been bombed, and was often seen smoking a cigar and throwing up a "V for Victory" sign with his hands. The people quickly fell in love with him (source).

Nothing like a cigar and a war zone to really win over the ladies (and gentlemen).

Churchill was actually an ideal wartime prime mister. Here's how the Encyclopedia Britannica describes him:

In a sense, the whole of Churchill's previous career had been a preparation for wartime leadership. An intense patriot; a romantic believer in his country's greatness and its historic role in Europe, the empire, and the world; a devotee of action who thrived on challenge and crisis; a student, historian, and veteran of war; a statesman who was master of the arts of politics, despite or because of long political exile; a man of iron constitution, inexhaustible energy, and total concentration, he seemed to have been nursing all his faculties so that when the moment came he could lavish them on the salvation of Britain and the values he believed Britain stood for in the world. (Source)

Churchill also quickly forged a strong friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to gain America's support against Germany. Even though they didn't get officially involved until December 1941, FDR did some arm twisting with Congress to make sure that American resources flowed to the allies. Churchill also quickly worked on getting cozy with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whose former alliance with Hitler went out the window when Hitler, you know, invaded the Soviet Union.

Once Stalin was on board, the Allied forces had a strong power to the east of Germany and west of Japan, which proved pretty handy.

Okay, time to fast forward a bit here. Obviously, the Allied powers won the war. The Nazis were defeated, governments were restored (except Germany's), and Churchill went down in history as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the modern era.

Retirement Reshmirement

After the war was over and world was saved, Churchill spent his deservedly happy golden years in a gated community in Boca Raton and enjoying the early bird specials at the Country Kitchen Buffet.

Oops, sorry—wrong guy.

Churchill's party lost the general election in 1945, so he was out of office and replaced by his cabinet member Clement Atlee. Churchill remained a prominent figure in the Conservative Party, and spent the next few years writing and giving speeches about his former ally, the Soviet Union. Ever heard of the phrase "Iron Curtain"? That came from a speech Churchill gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

Atlee's time as prime minister was short-lived. The Conservatives won again in 1951, and the 77-year-old Churchill was back in the prime minister seat. He managed to get some more social reforms passed during this term, and was knighted by the newly minted Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. That was a good year for Sir Winston: he also won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Yep, literature.

His second turn as prime minister was not as glorious as the first. The British Empire was clearly crumbling, as was Churchill. He hid the worst of his ailing health from Parliament, but everyone noticed his mental and physical decline. (Shmoop can attest to this fact, having watched the entire first season of The Crown in two sittings.) Churchill finally had to admit that he wasn't fit to be in office anymore, and resigned in 1955. When he died ten years later of a serious stroke (at age 90), he became the first commoner to get a full-on state funeral since Lord Wellington 100 years earlier (source).

More Like Win-y Churchill

Judging by the number of films either about him or including him as a major character, Winston Churchill is one of the most popular, colorful, and memorable political leaders of all time. His leadership during some of Britain's darkest days cemented his reputation as the ultimate British patriot and defender of the Empire, even if in retrospect some of his positions were clearly, well, imperialistic. His bravery in staring down the powerhouse that was Nazi Germany convinced FDR to lobby hard for the military aid that allowed Britain to hold off Hitler until the U.S. entered the war.

Maybe the best way to conclude is with one of Churchill's many famous quotations: "Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room" (source).

We haven't Shmooped that one yet, so you'll have to figure it out on your own.

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