Sir Martin Gilbert was Churchill’s official biographer, and evidently enamoured of his subject: ‘I never felt that he [Churchill] was going to spring an unpleasant surprise on me. I might find that he was adopting views with which I disagreed. But I always knew that there would be nothing to cause me to think: “How shocking, how appalling.”’
In an article in Finest Hour, ‘Myth and Reality – What did Churchill Really Think About the Jews?’ Gilbert tried to refute claims affirming Churchill’s negative attitudes toward many Jews. Gilbert begins by correcting the factual record. In 2007, Cambridge historian Richard Toye mistakenly identified the 1937 article ghostwritten for Churchill by Marshall Diston as Churchill’s own. Gilbert calls this error ‘astonishing’. To recall what was included in Diston’s article, titled ‘How the Jews can Combat Persecution’, here is one passage:
The Jew in England is a representative of his race. Every Jewish moneylender recalls Shylock and the idea of the Jews as usurers. And you cannot reasonably expect a struggling clerk or shopkeeper, paying forty or fifty per cent interest on borrowed money to a “Hebrew bloodsucker” to reflect that, throughout long centuries, almost every other way of life was closed to the Jewish people; or that there are native English moneylenders who insist, just as implacably, upon their “pound of flesh.”
Gilbert goes on to point out that the article, to which Churchill’s name would have been attached if printed, was offered for publication three times. Gilbert mentions that it is ‘not clear’ Churchill read Diston’s article, because the original draft and typed article had no markings on them by Churchill. Furthermore, by 1940, Churchill, warned of the piece’s antisemitic depictions, ‘would not permit publication’. Gilbert ends with this remark: ‘Someone else’s opinions, in an unpublished article, which never appeared in print under Churchill’s name, cannot be laid at Churchill’s door.’
Unfortunately, Gilbert did not use the tools of critical inquiry in dealing with this issue. In his emotional quest to defend his hero, Gilbert overlooked some basic points.
There are a few possibilities for Churchill’s role in this controversy, none of which are really excusable:
- Churchill read Diston’s draft and agreed with it, then paid for it and tried to get it published under his own name
- Churchill read Diston’s draft and disagreed with it, but nevertheless paid for it and tried to get it published under his own name
- Churchill did not read Diston’s draft, yet paid for it and allowed his private office to try and get it published under his name
- Churchill did not read Diston’s draft, was oblivious to his private office trying to sell the article under his name and had no idea what was going on
Is it plausible that Churchill did not read Diston’s draft? No. Churchill had previously spent time giving instructions to Diston on what the article was to cover, which Gilbert cites, including that Jews should be good citizens, avoid segregating themselves from the rest of society, avoid Communism, and try to influence governments to stop persecuting them. (Incidentally Gilbert suggests that Churchill’s instructions were at variance with what Diston wrote, but evidently Churchill didn’t see it that way as he made no amendments to Diston’s draft.) Diston sent the article to Churchill and informed him that it ‘may in places be rather outspoken’, which would have given Churchill good reason to review its contents. Furthermore, Churchill was always eager to protect and advance his reputation, so the idea that he would allow his office to make two attempts to publish a text under his name without him having any knowledge of the opinions expressed therein is rather suspect.
The fact that Churchill did not write comments on Diston’s draft cannot be taken as an indication that he did not read the article; it is totally possible that Churchill read the article and simply did not think any changes were necessary. Indeed, Gilbert himself notes that ‘a few [of Diston’s articles] were published unamended’, whereas some were amended by Churchill. Consequently, the fact that Churchill did not make markings on the draft is in no way evidence of his not reading it. Diston’s draft was then sent to be typed for publication, and Diston was paid £25 for his work. Again, is it plausible that through all these stages, Churchill was blissfully ignorant of the language and arguments Diston deployed, even after Diston personally wrote to Churchill to get the article to him? Scenarios 3 and 4 can therefore be dismissed as rather unlikely. Given that, on balance, Churchill very probably did read the article (even Gilbert is cautious enough to say it is ‘not clear’ he read it, rather than asserting that Churchill did not read it) we are left to choose between scenarios 1 and 2. It seems completely implausible that Churchill would pay for and seek to publish an article he disagreed with, so we may conclude this discussion with scenario 1 being the most likely course of events.
A critical historian might also reflect upon the fact, which Gilbert mentions, that Diston had been a member of Oswald Mosley’s New Party (Mosley would go on to lead the British Union of Fascists). What does it tell us about Churchill that he hired and worked with a man who was ideologically associated with Mosley? Whether Diston later joined the BUF seems controversial—he worked in their publicity department according to a 1934 book but another source suggests there is no evidence he was a member. At any rate, Diston’s ideological sympathy with Mosley is clear enough. Indeed, what does it tell us about Churchill that he hired and worked with a man who, when he conveyed his draft article to Churchill, argued that ‘[t]here are quite a number of Jews who might, with advantage, reflect on the epigram: “How Odd, Of God, To Choose, The Jews.”’ What does it tell us about Churchill that Diston was comfortable writing these words to him? Would Diston have been comfortable doing so if this sort of prejudice was ‘anathema to Churchill’, as Gilbert claims? Unfortunately, Gilbert does not engage with these questions about Churchill’s hiring of Diston.
Gilbert proceeds to suggest that we cannot blame Churchill for attempts to publish the article because ‘Churchill … would not have offered the article personally’, rather, ‘[h]is private office did that’. This is sophistry—the idea that Churchill bears no responsibility for what his private office was doing is bizarre to say the least. Does Gilbert expect us to believe that Churchill both a) did not read the article and b) had no role in his private office trying to get it published? One starts to wonder whether Churchill knew anything about his own career as a journalist while Gilbert spins out of the realm of plausibility into another universe in order to do the acrobatics necessary to protect his Hero. If Churchill’s private office was trying to publish an article, making more than one attempt, we can reasonably surmise that Churchill himself didn’t object.
What about the fact that the article was not published in 1940? Here Gilbert is dishonest. He says Churchill ‘would not permit publication’ because of the ‘anti-Semitic overtones’. First, it is highly unlikely that a man who in 1920 wrote publicly in print of the ‘the schemes of the International Jews’ and their ‘world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation’ would be alarmed by ‘anti-Semitic overtones’. Second, if Churchill was so concerned by antisemitism, he surely would have at least read the draft article, which Diston informed him was ‘rather outspoken’. Again, Diston in his letter to Churchill concerning the article appended the words, ‘How Odd, Of God, To Choose, The Jews’. If Churchill was really so against these prejudices, he surely might have seen in Diston’s language terrible warning signs when the article first reached him in 1937, but somehow Churchill was not even concerned enough to bother reading Diston’s work, according to Gilbert. Perhaps Gilbert would start arguing that Churchill was so innocent that he did not even read the letters his ghostwriter sent him? About the articles Churchill was supposed to pay him for? That despite Churchill’s reliance on publishing ghostwritten articles as an important source of income for his luxurious lifestyle?
Third, the statement that Churchill ‘would not permit publication’ is itself misleading. It leaves out the caveat that his private office mentioned to the relevant editor in 1940, namely, that ‘it would be inadvisable to publish the article … at the present time [emphasis mine].’ Rather than prejudices against Jews being the reason for not publishing the article, it seems that those prejudices in the context of a war with Nazi Germany were the real problem. Otherwise, it is evident that Churchill found it acceptable, two years after Germany introduced the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, to publicly suggest that Jews bore some responsibility for their persecution.
To review Gilbert’s conclusion: ‘Someone else’s opinions [which Churchill in no way amended or objected to, and which belonged to a long time ghostwriter of his], in an unpublished article [which Churchill’s office tried to publish on two occasions], which never appeared in print under Churchill’s name [whether it appeared in print under Churchill’s name is irrelevant to what the episode tells us about his prejudices], cannot be laid at Churchill’s door [it most certainly can].’
Gilbert compounds his dishonesty with his treatment of Churchill’s 1920 article, ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism’, which he quotes and paraphrases in a deeply mendacious fashion. He says that Churchill wanted Jews ‘to abandon Communism, and either enter into the national life of their own countries … or opt for Zionism.’ Anyone who has looked at my post on Churchill’s prejudices, which contains a full passage from the article, would be forced to conclude that this is a dishonest presentation of what Churchill said. Churchill did urge Jews to abandon Communism, but he also blamed a group of ‘International Jews’ for plotting a ‘world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation’, and accused Trotsky of wanting to establish ‘a world-wide communistic State under Jewish domination’. Nowhere does Gilbert mention these quotations; that would be far too damaging to his Hero. Instead, Gilbert focuses on Churchill’s Zionism (Zionism is certainly not incompatible with antisemitic prejudices, and that was particularly true of Churchill’s time) and his statements against the persecution of Jews.
Let’s now remember who Sir Martin Gilbert was. Gilbert was trained as a historian at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1960 with a first-class degree. He proceeded to postgraduate research and in 1962 became a Fellow of Merton College. His dishonest account of this issue, not to mention his extraordinarily weak arguments, are far more ‘astonishing’ than Toye’s factual error in attributing Diston’s article to Churchill. What can we conclude about academic history from this case study? We can say with confidence that even a distinguished graduate and fellow, from a most prestigious institution, is susceptible to making the flimsiest of arguments and misrepresenting the evidence, particularly when protecting their Hero and the associated Myth.
That being the case, one wonders what the value of academic training is in the first place. Certainly we are all liable to make poor arguments at times, though I would suggest that the contentions discussed above are exceptionally so, by the standards of reason if not academia. Nonetheless, the issue of Gilbert’s dishonesty overshadows his bad argumentation. Can we take at face value Gilbert’s claim that one of his Oxford tutors ‘forced me to be accurate, to the point of pedantry’? This particular case, at least, suggests we cannot. In a separate post I will bring forth an example from Andrew Roberts, another professional historian, who misrepresents this issue in a similar way. I do not mean to dismiss their work wholesale, yet I cannot help but feel that these scholars, apart from their weak arguments, are engaged in the kind of misrepresentation and mythologising that harms the entire discipline, more deserving of the name hagiography than history.
M. Gilbert, ‘Myth and Reality – What did Churchill Really Think About the Jews?’ in Finest Hour 135 (2007)
M.J. Cohen, ‘The Churchill-Gilbert Symbiosis: Myth and Reality, Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews’ in Modern Judaism (2008)
W. Churchill ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism’ in the Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920
E. Conze and E. Wilkinson, Why Fascism? (1934)
R. Langworth, ‘Churchill as Anti-Semite: Rubbish’ on his blog (2017)
M. Gilbert, ‘Oxford University’ on his website (1993)