Thursday, December 1, 2011

Winston Churchill on the Meaning of Civilization

by Michael Kaplan

Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh, December 30, 1941

Nineteen Thirty-eight was a dark year for Western civilization. Germany, once a bastion of that civilization, the land of poets, musicians, philosophers, and scientists, had become under Adolf Hitler the very heart of evil. Having sent his Wehrmacht into Austria to effect its annexation to Germany (the Anschluss) without firing a shot, Hitler now set out to seize the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. After a diplomatic crisis that stretched through the spring and summer, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the now infamous Munich Agreement with Hitler. Returning home to Britain with the agreement (which Hitler later dismissed as a “scrap of paper”) in hand, Chamberlain proclaimed “I believe it is peace for our time.” The scrap of paper Chamberlain so proudly waved to the crowds at Heston Airport on September 30, 1938, was the most notorious example of the policy of appeasement; that is of sacrificing weaker people to a tyrant in the hope that he will leave you alone. It never works. Chamberlain threw Czechoslovakia, “a faraway country of which we know nothing,” under the bus in the hope that Hitler would honor his pledge that he would make no further territorial demands. The mass slaughter of World War I had destroyed the moral capacity of Britain and France to act as great powers and stand up for liberty and civilization. Chamberlain himself had been so traumatized by his memories of the Great War that he was willing to do anything to avoid going to war again. These were dark days indeed.

Yet there was one man in Britain who understood that a tyrant like Hitler could not be appeased. That there were times that war was a tragic necessity; that free men and women had to take a stand if liberty and civilization were to be saved from the dark night of barbarism and evil. That man of course was Winston Churchill. Much like Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill was a man of both words and action, pursuing a multifaceted career as a soldier, statesman, writer, and historian. His political career had begun in 1900 with his election to Parliament following his triumphant escape from captivity in South Africa in the Boer War. Between 1905 and 1929 Churchill held a number of key posts in both Conservative and Liberal governments, among them Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. But as a proud British imperialist Churchill had fallen afoul of the politically correct thinking of the 1930s, and was now relegated to the back benches in Parliament. From the political wilderness Churchill continued to warn of the mortal danger posed by Hitler to the freedom of Britain and of Europe. Years later Churchill would famously say “It is ‘better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.’” Yet Churchill was very much a leader in the Jacksonian mode who knew when the time had come to call an end to jaw-jaw and vigorously prosecute war-war. As prime minister in 1940, Churchill, with his unmatched oratory, would rally the British people to the grim task ahead.

On July 2, 1938, at the height of the Sudetenland crisis, Churchill delivered the Chancellor’s Address at the University of Bristol. In a short but powerful speech Churchill, a master of the English language, gave as eloquent a statement of the Anglo-American tradition of liberty and civilization—freedom to enjoy one’s life and property in peace, guaranteed by the rule of law and constitutional government—as has ever been uttered. Churchill’s definition of civilization brought together a liberal or Whig idea of progress with Edmund Burke’s conservative understanding that ordered liberty was grounded in custom, history and tradition. This concept of liberty and civilization is central to American exceptionalism and distinguishes the West from other civilizations; civilizations where the individual is a subject dependent upon and exploited by an autocratic state and oligarchic elites. The West alone among the world’s great civilizations, and its Anglo-American branch in particular, was committed to promoting and protecting the human rights and dignity of all individuals. The liberty that Churchill spoke of was precious and fragile, and had to be renewed and safeguarded by each generation. Civilization, Churchill warned, was always in danger of being overwhelmed and devoured by the barbarians at the gate. A “manly courage” grounded in civic virtue and ready to take up arms when liberty was threatened was the ultimate guarantee that liberty and civilization would survive.

Churchill’s words are as relevant in 2011 as they were in 1938. We now face new threats to liberty in the form of Islamic Jihadism and authoritarian statism. We have an elite intellectual class in parts of the media and academia, mired in post-colonial guilt and postmodern nihilism, which despises the Western civilization that Churchill stood for and despises the nation that has become the bulwark of that civilization and guarantees their own freedom of thought: the United States of America. They yearn instead for a quasi-Marxist utopia, see the hope of the future in the brutal statism of China, and espouse sympathy for the jihadis as victims of the West’s and America’s malevolence. What we need today are leaders who share Churchill’s clear understanding of the meaning of liberty and civilization, and of the need to defend them against the barbarian and the tyrant. Leaders like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln in our nation’s early days; like Churchill’s friend and ally Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940s; and like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It has always been the great strength of American democracy that such leaders have emerged when they were needed. Let us hope that this holds true in 2012.

On November 9, five months after Churchill’s speech and little more than a month after Chamberlain waved his scrap of paper at Heston Airport, the events of 1938 would climax in the horrors of Kristallnacht. This “Night of Broken Glass” marked the end of what remained of Jewish life in Germany and the beginning of the Holocaust. Darkness was descending on Europe and soon Churchill would lead his people into “Their Finest Hour.” A beleaguered Britain would hold off Hitler’s storm troopers long enough for the United States to enter the war and save Western liberty and civilization for future generations.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

* * * * * * * * * *

There are few words which are used more loosely than the word “Civilization.” What does it mean? It means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization—and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort and culture. When Civilization reigns, in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.

The central principle of Civilization is the subordination of the ruling authority to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed through the Constitution. In this Island we have today achieved in a high degree the blessings of Civilization. There is freedom: there is law; there is love of country; there is a great measure of good will between classes: there is a widening prosperity. There are unmeasured opportunities of correcting abuses and making further progress.

In this very week we have seen a Prime Minister at the head of a large and loyal majority bow with good grace to the customs of Parliament, and we have heard Socialist Members speaking with pride of the precedents of the early seventeenth century, and the principles of the Petition of Right. (Editor’s Note: A reference to the Report of the Committee of Privileges which inquired into the dispute between Mr. Hore-Belisha and Mr. Duncan Sandys.) In this respect for law and sense of continuity lies one of the glories of England. And more than that, there also lies in it an important part of her strength and safety. Such episodes are astonishing, but also educative, to countries where dictatorships prevail, and where no one dares to raise his hand against arbitrary power. They stir and cheer the minds of men in many lands.

We have, however, to face the problem of the turbulent, formidable world outside our shores. Why should not the same principles which have shaped the free, ordered, tolerant Civilization of the British Isles and British Empire be found serviceable in the organization of this anxious world? Why should not nations link themselves together in a larger system and establish a rule of law for the benefit of all? That surely is the supreme hope by which we should be inspired and the goal towards which we should march with resolute step.

But it is vain to imagine that the mere perception or declaration of right principles, whether in one country or in many countries, will be of any value unless they are supported by those qualities of civic virtue and manly courage—aye, and by those instruments and agencies of force and science which in the last resort must be the defense of right and reason.

Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.

Here, then, we see the task which should command the exertions of the rising generation which tills this spacious hall, and which may bring to the life of Britain the surge of a new impulse towards the organization of world peace, and across the gulf of these eventful years prepare and bring nearer the Brotherhood of Man.

Source: Winston S. Churchill, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Randolph S. Churchill, ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941), pp. 45-46.


  1. What a fabulous speech that was! It's rather amazing in some ways that Churchill and Thatcher, Brits to boot epitomized what is the "American Ideal"!

    Anyone who is willing to actually learn from history should not only be aware of the dangers from appeasers like our current president, but also should realize one must learn from history and not make the same mistakes. The hatred, anti-Semitism, racial and class warfare now being practiced by this administration is evidence of as you state above an elitist mind set that is destroying our country from within, just as Khrushchev said would happen.

    I sometimes wonder if there is a leader left with the stature of a Reagan, Churchill or whatever and if so, would he or she really want to subject themselves to the character assassination tactics of the co-opted media and the left.

    As we have a President who spouts out how he has done more for Israel than any other President (I"m just using this as one example of lack of leadership and loyalty) while openly throwing them under the bus and embracing the Muslim Radicals, one can only wonder where the real leaders are at this time and when they will come out and say enough is enough!

    As always Michael my thanks once again for a great article, in this case, a reaffirmation of not only the greatness of Mr. Churchill, but the American ideal in spades!

  2. Joe,

    You know it says much about President Obama and his priorities that as soon as he took office he removed the bust of Mr. Churchill from the Oval Office and sent it back to England. Tony Blair had given the bust on loan to George W. Bush after 9/11.

    It's really not surprising that Churchill so embodied American ideals. His mother was American and he saw the United States as the heir of the British empire in sustaining liberty in the world. Churchill was one of the early advocates of the idea of an Anglosphere: the English speaking nations that draw their political and cultural heritage from Britain are the primary shapers and defenders of the liberal democratic capitalist system which now organizes much of the world. Niall Ferguson, Walter Russell Mead, Andrew Roberts, and Thomas Barnett, among others, have written about this.

    It seems that the Anglosphere is another ideal that Barack Obama does not believe in.


  3. Hi Michael,

    I hope you had a great Christmas and I wanted to wish you a Very Happy New Year! looking forward to more of your great articles.


  4. Hi Joe,

    I did have a very good Christmas. I hope you did too. One of my New Years' resolutions is to find time to work on more essays. Have a very Happy New Year too!


  5. Hi Michael,

    Just saw this on the Fox News site.

    "Newt's Jacksonian Revolution

    Power Play
    Newt's Jacksonian Revolution

    By Chris Stirewalt

    Published January 23, 2012

    Newt's Jacksonian Revolution

    "You are a den of vipers and thieves. I have determined to rout you out, and by the Eternal, (bringing his fist down on the table) I will rout you out!"

    -- President Andrew Jackson in a February, 1834 meeting with Philadelphia financiers about his opposition to the creation of a central bank."

    I found it an interesting analysis. Among other things he uses Jackson's statement as to the central bank relating it to in effect "overturning the establishment" and in turn likens Newt to that kind of action. he also makes the point that while Newt is in fact an establishment politician, he is the only one in his view employing Jackson's "get out of my way, we're going to do it the right way" philosophy.

    By Chris Stirewalt

    Published January 23, 2012


  6. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for the reference. I was working on a post about Newt's invocation of Jackson at the Jan. 16 debate. Unfortunately, my computer had a hardware malfunction and has been sent to the Geek Squad for repairs. It may be 2 weeks before I get it back. So I'll be waiting until then to complete the post.