An article on Churchill in a Catholic magazine? – the reader may wonder upon opening these pages. Indeed, what is it that prompts us to write about the “old lion”? A virtue little practised in our days and which opens veritable treasures to us: admiration. And as the good is eminently diffusive, these lines enable us to practise admiration upon admiration.
Let us explain. Through decades of contact with the oral and written material of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, we were amazed to notice the admiration – with apologies for the repetition – of this great man for certain historical figures, among them, Winston Churchill. It was his wise insight on men and events that aroused our curiosity about this famous statesman.
He thus describes this figure in his older years: “Churchill’s super-expressive physiognomy stood out in a way one would almost call splendid. To shine, it is obviously not enough to be very expressive. It is also necessary to express something worthwhile, and this old English lion did in torrents. His baldness seemed to gleam with vigorous and subtle diplomatic cogitations. His eyes – how much could I say about them! – expressed successively fascinating depths of observation, reflection, humour and aristocratic gentility. His broad muscular cheeks lost no vigour with age. They were like two facial ramparts, robustly framing a highly intellectual physiognomy. And they lent the face a certain decisiveness and stability, one could almost say perpetuity: an expressive symbol of the centuries-old strength of the English monarchy. His lips, thin and of uncertain outline, seemed to follow the movement of the eyes, and therefore were always ready to open for wry irony, a word of command, a monumental speech… or a cigar.”1
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, in Woodstock, at Blenheim Palace, built by the first Duke of Malborough, Lord John Churchill. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of the financier Leonard Jerome, owner of a multi-million-dollar fortune. Later, after the death of Lord Randolph Churchill, his father, Winston found in her an “ardent ally”, who favoured his plans “with all her influence and boundless energy,”2 right to the end.
Combative from childhood
As he himself relates in his book My Early Life, as a child he greatly enjoyed the grand parades in Dublin, where he lived because his father was secretary to his grandfather, the Viceroy of Ireland. This seems to have been the birthplace of his passion for militarism, as a result of which he owned a collection of a thousand toy soldiers with which he simulated parades. Perhaps this was already the beginning of the military future in which he would brilliantly fight in campaigns in India, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa.
Elizabeth Everest, his governess, played an important role in Winston’s upbringing, since his parents, due to the intense social life they led, dedicated little time to their children. His father, especially, treated him with a certain coldness and disdain. His first and closest affection was for Mrs. Everest, who was his devoted educator and confidante until he was twenty. When she passed away, Winston and his brother Jack, who had also been educated by her, endeavoured to provide her with a decent sepulchre, and throughout their lives they carefully maintained it.
From an early age, Churchill was one to overcome adversities. As a schoolboy, the only courses he enjoyed were English and fencing. His many early school setbacks served as a lesson on how it is possible to learn from failure, as within a few years he became one of the best students in his class. Perhaps it was the memory of those bitter experiences and of the many others he faced throughout his life that led him to say: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”
He entered Harrow School, a famous old British college, and later began his military training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. On completing his course, he was called to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army’s 4th Cavalry Regiment, The Queen’s Royal Hussars.
Soldier, writer and war correspondent
During the period of leave from the academy – five long months each year – Churchill considered it useful to take part in a “dress rehearsal”. He would thus fulfil an old and vehement desire: “From very early youth I had brooded about soldiers and war, and often I had imagined in dreams and daydreams the sensations attendant upon being for the first time under fire.”3
Through a friend of his father’s, a British ambassador in Madrid, he then obtained letters of recommendation and set off for Cuba, where the War of Independence was raging. He was accompanied by a friend, on the pretext of sending reports on the conflict to the Daily Graphic in London. Amidst the whizzing of bullets, he celebrated his twenty-first birthday.
Later he took part in other military campaigns, one of which was in Afghanistan, then part of British India, working both as a military officer and war correspondent for various newspapers. From this experience, he wrote his first book: The Story of the Malakand Field Force. His narration of exciting war episodes evinces a soul full of ideals and the desire for heroism. After his participation in the Sudan campaign, he wrote another book, in which he wrote about his actions and observations of that period: The River War.
In these works, he reveals determination and sagacity in action, qualities that he would demonstrate until the end of his life. However, at no time does he present himself as a “superhero”, but as someone who needs to overcome fear, insecurity and many other obstacles that nature raises against the realization of great ideals.
At the end of this campaign, he wished once again to return to the combat and achieved his objective through his mother’s influential contacts. He went to South Africa to take part, as war correspondent for The Morning Post, in the Boer War. As soon as he arrived, he was shot and captured by the enemy and spent a month in prison, from where he miraculously escaped. This resulted in another book: London to Ladysmith via Pretoria.
From the battlefield to Parliament
The will to overcome setbacks characterized Winston Churchill from childhood
Scenes from the life of Churchill: at the age of seven; prisioner of the Boers in South Africa; in the tower of a tank in 1941. In background, planes of the Royal Air Force
On his return to England, he had become a war hero and famous author at the age of twenty-five! This wealth of knowledge and popularity ensured his success in his election as a Member of Parliament, the beginning of his long political career.
He proved to be an outspoken and energetic politician. He worked hard, while managing at the same time to write articles and books. From there his political career developed rapidly, and he went on to occupy several important posts, making him the man with the greatest number of public offices in England. For sixty years he was a Member of Parliament and, as Prime Minister, he became the symbol of British determination during the Second World War.
Dr. Plinio continues his analysis of this brilliant personality: “An authentic member of the English gentry, adorned (this is precisely the term) with the manly charm of a upper-class aristocrat, in Churchill coincided the splendours of university culture, journalistic talent, parliamentary oratory and military glory, with, moreover [something] of the straightforward, practical and disconcertingly active, typical of the American businessmen of the Belle Époque.”4
His role in guiding Europe in the Second World War was fundamental, employing those personal gifts so well noted by Dr. Plinio. In fact, the latter followed and analysed this bellicose period and Churchill’s political participation in it, step-by-step, in the pages of Legionário. Later, in an article published in the Folha de São Paulo, Dr. Plinio once again praises this great man: “The most diverse forms of intelligence, political acumen and courage became evident and shone in him to an increasing degree, as the exigencies of the battle demanded it. When the war ended, Churchill was the most famous victor.”5
Dr. Plinio further comments: “Sir Winston Churchill attained the apex of human greatness in his country, and attained it deservedly, according to general consensus, by his exceptional talents, the unmatched breadth of his personality, and the merit of the many services he rendered his country during the course of a brilliant political career. Endowed moreover with all the raffinement of an excellent traditional education – Churchill is the grandson of a Duke of Marlborough – and of a vigorous and extensive culture, this great statesman also distinguished himself as a writer, a brilliant orator, and one of the finest conversationalists of our time.”6
His speeches in Parliament, whose aim, largely achieved, was to raise the morale of the people in the midst of wartime woes, became memorable. An example is the one of May 13, 1940, when he spoke for the first time as leader of the nation at war: “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined the government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength God can give us, to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”7
Some of his frequently recalled phrases, such as this one about the agreements and compromises signed between Chamberlain and Hitler before 1939, also became famous: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” Or again: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” He is credited with the expression Iron Curtain in reference to the division of Western from Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
These and countless other speeches are understood in the light of Dr. Plinio’s explication: “He was so great in spirit that he could be compared to a table laid for everyone at any time. He served spiritual banquets, intellectual banquets, his table being, in principle, open to all. He could also refuse some. And when he said ‘no’, it was a ‘no’ that would almost exclude the person from the universe.”8
A companion who enhanced him
Churchill married Clementine Hozier in September 1908; from this marriage of fifty-seven years, five children were born. Dr. Plinio offers the following description of this lady: “With a large facial structure and overall build, and a nobly aquiline aspect in her gaze and profile, Lady Churchill united, however, all the genuinely feminine graces. Her aristocratic education communicated to her an evident charm. Her stateliness coexisted elegantly with an attractive affability. In spite of being engaging, she was utterly discreet. And she knew how to be intelligent without competing in any way with her brilliant husband in the eyes of the public. In the harmony of so many almost opposite qualities, everything was dégagé and nothing was recherché.”9
With descriptive flair, Dr. Plinio uses a unique analogy to highlight her role in the life of her husband: “In pictures representing certain great men of the past, the artists liked to accentuate the personage by placing near him, in the background, some column with a beautiful vase of flowers, or some noble curtain. This was Lady Clementine Churchill: the background of a magnificent picture which enhanced so remarkable a husband, [when] there seemed to be nothing that could enhance him.”10
The famous “Great Tom” announces his passing
Finally, like all the children of Adam, however famous and successful they may have been, Winston Churchill passed away at the age of ninety. This news was widely covered in the newspapers of the day. Among the innumerable tributes of respect and mourning, the Folha de São Paulo pointed out: “The immense bell of the Cathedral of St. Paul, the Great Tom, which is only rung to announce the death of a member of the royal family, the Mayor or Bishop of London, or the Dean of the Cathedral, began to solemnly toll at ten o’clock in the morning to inform the English people of the death of the ‘Old Lion’.”11
Interviewing some of the people who had gathered in front of the great statesman’s residence, the newspapers reported statements such as these: “I take this as the end of an era”; “This is the end of the Great Britain we know from the history books. What a pity, he was a great man.” One lady, for her part, made the sign of the cross and exclaimed: “May God have mercy on his soul; men like Churchill only come along once every century.”12
In the valleys of mediocrity of his time, Winston Churchill stood out as a man full of qualities worthy of praise
Churchill during a military inspection; in background, the scene of his funeral cortege, taken from the documentary “A Giant in the Century”
A man full of qualities, contemplated from the divine vantage point
So here we have an admirable man seen by someone who, if the facts are considered superficially, a priori should not take such an attitude. After all, besides Churchill not being a Catholic, his life displays objectionable aspects – and not a few! Dr. Plinio, however, was no ordinary observer…
Adorned by Providence with the gift of wisdom to an eminent degree, which allowed him to analyse the most diverse realities from the divine vantage point, and with the charism of discernment of spirits, which enabled him to supernaturally penetrate that which surrounded him, especially the interior of souls, Dr. Plinio saw in the English statesman much more than his external actions: he contemplated his specific mission within the historical period in which he lived. And in the valleys of mediocrity of his contemporaries, so lacking in true personalities, it cannot be denied that Churchill stood out as a man full of praiseworthy qualities.
Considering Dr. Plinio’s deeply religious and compassionate soul, we can be certain that he raised many prayers to God for the man who was steering the course of world events at that historical juncture, and who in some measure did so satisfactorily.
In view of one or another fidelity of the “old lion” to the role that Providence then destined for him, what must have been the graces he received as he approached his definitive encounter with God? We cannot know, but we are not forbidden to hope that, when we reach Heaven, by the divine mercy we may find there the ideal Winston Churchill, holy, and, like all the blessed, full of gratitude for those who helped him to reach eternal happiness. ◊
1 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. A baronesa e a passionária [The Baroness and the Pasionária]. In: Folha de São Paulo. São Paulo. Year LVI. N.17.792 (Dec. 19, 1977); p.3.
2 Cf. CHURCHILL, Winston. My Early Life. London: Eland, 2000, p.56
3 Idem, p.69.
4 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, A baronesa e a passionária, op. cit, p.3.
5 Idem, ibidem.
6 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA. Dignidade e distinção para grandes e pequenos [Dignity and Distinction for Both Great and Small]. In: Catolicismo. Campos dos Goytacazes. Year III. N.33 (Sept., 1953); p.7.
7 CHURCHILL, Winston. Speech, 13/5/1940. In: CANNADINE, David (Ed.). The Speeches of Winston Churchill. London: Penguin, 1990, p.149.
8 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Talk. São Paulo, 9/8/1974.
9 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, A baronesa e a passionária, op. cit., p.3.
10 Idem, ibidem.
11 PESAR EM TODO O MUNDO: Morre Winston Churchill [MOURNING THROUGHOUT THE WORLD: Winston Churchill Passes]. In: Folha de São Paulo. São Paulo. Year XLIV. N.13.007 (Jan. 25, 1965); p.2.
12 Idem, ibidem.