Monday, January 24, 2011

Winston Churchill and the End of an Era: January 24, 1965

WinstonChurchillToday is the anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death in 1965 at the age of 90.  His passing was not only the end of one of the most remarkable lives of modern times but also seemed to officially mark the end of the old British Empire.

Churchill, born during the long reign of Queen Victoria in 1874, embodied the sense of patriotism, grandeur and imperialistic impulses of that period.  Indeed, by the zenith of his power in the early 1940s, Churchill was perhaps the last of the great Victorian statesmen.

Churchill’s life has received extraordinarily wide attention. One bookseller, Mark Weber, identifies the “Top 100 Books About Sir Winston Churchill” on his website (  And that is only a fraction of what exists and what comes flooding out yearly.  Add to that the staggering number of books the statesman himself wrote (, and you can spend much of your time studying Churchill.

Such attention underscores a life rich in adventure, achievement and failure.  Churchill was an army officer in the midst of colonial wars; a journalist; a 60-year member of the House of Commons; holder of multiple high government posts; and two-time prime minister of Great Britain.  He also was acclaimed for his writing, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his impressive oil paintings.

Churchill’s career was one of peaks and valleys.  The son of a rising and then discredited member of Parliament, he was the personification of public service.  Although some colleagues felt him opportunistic, he followed his instincts; he was not a party man.  That’s why he was barred from government posts  in the 1930s when his experience and talents might have been most useful.

Some remembered his disastrous decision in the Dardanelles when he was First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I.  Others mistrusted him because he had switched parties twice.  There were those, flirting with appeasement, who saw him as a warmonger.  Some merely took umbrage at his enormous ego and sometimes poor interpersonal relations. 

But he did rebound politically.  It was his tenacious opposition to Hitler that ultimately forced him back into the government in 1939.  As prime minister he filled a huge vacuum with his oratory and obstinacy at the beginning of the war and during the Battle of Britain, clearly “his finest hour.”   

This was all the stuff of legend, and rightly so.  But even with his victory in World War II—after he had become a national hero—he was turned out of office in 1945.   The following year, he warned of the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain.”

He returned as prime minister in 1951, serving as an aged symbol but still engaged in a weighty cause, world peace, in the midst of the Cold War.  He was acclaimed history’s “Greatest Briton” in a 2002 BBC poll.

Churchill tenaciously held onto the idea of the British Empire, even as events proved otherwise.  England, which once had arguably the greatest empire of all time, had run its course by the end of the war.  The death of Churchill 46 years ago was the last, formal acknowledgement of it. 

For more information about Winston Churchill, see:

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