A Point of View: Churchill, chance and the 'black dog'

Winston Churchill

The wartime prime minister's dark moods, plus a series of lucky encounters, may have transformed the course of human history, writes John Gray.

Towards the end of his long life, when he was staying in a house lent to him by friends in the south of France, Winston Churchill sent for a young man who was helping him write one of the books with which he occupied his retirement.

Churchill needed the young man as a researcher. But he also valued him as a companion, particularly in the evenings when he would otherwise feel lonely.

One cold night they were sitting before the fire, where pine logs were hissing and spitting as they were burnt away. Churchill watched the blaze in silence. Then he growled: "I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed."

Churchill had not one life but several. Each was full of challenge and excitement, and in one of them he changed the history of the world.

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John Gray
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  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism

Yet there were times when he felt his life had been futile, and the mood of despondency that had sometimes come upon him in his most active years - which, following Samuel Johnson, Churchill called the "black dog" - seems to have been with him in much of his later life.

But in a strange conjunction of events, it may have been this same black dog - together with the intervention of a loyal friend during a few fateful days in early May 1940 - that enabled Churchill to achieve the position from which he could alter the course of history.

There have always been those who think Churchill's recurring melancholy could have been a symptom of mental illness. Some have suggested he may have suffered from bipolar disorder, experiencing frequent mood shifts from intense bursts of impulsive activity to paralysing depression.

Nowadays we tend to interpret any type of character or behaviour that departs from our standards of tepid normality as a symptom of some underlying disorder. Churchill was certainly not tepid. He was passionate, volatile and intensely emotional in much of his life. That did not make him unbalanced.

Churchill's exceptional openness to intense emotion may help explain how he was able to sense danger that more conventional minds failed to perceive.

For most of the politicians and opinion-makers who wanted to appease Hitler, the Nazis were not much more than a raucous expression of German nationalism. It needed an unusual type of mind to see that Nazism was something new in the world, a radically modern movement with a potential for destruction that had no precedent in history.

A recent study by an American psychologist maintains that Churchill's insight was related to his episodes of mental ill-health. We needn't accept the diagnosis, but it's hard to resist the thought that the dark view of the world that came on Churchill in his moods of desolation enabled him to see what others could not. He owed his foresight of the horror that was to come to the visits of the black dog.

But Churchill's foresight would have counted for nothing if he hadn't become prime minister in May 1940. For Churchill himself, this may have been a matter of fate. Though not a religious believer, he seems to have felt that his life was ruled by a kind of destiny in which he was being prepared for a supreme trial.

Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook Bracken (left) and Beaverbrook were, arguably, instrumental in securing Churchill's rise to power

So it proved to be, and yet from another point of view his becoming prime minister when he did was the work of chance. Churchill became Britain's leader through the intervention of someone who is now practically forgotten.

Brendan Bracken was a strange, self-invented personality, who achieved success as the publisher of the Financial Times and the Economist and served as Churchill's minister of information during the war. Born in Ireland, Bracken grew up in Australia - where his father was a builder - before migrating to England, where he effaced his modest past and became Churchill's confidant during the inter-war wilderness years.

Bracken hero-worshipped Churchill, and supported him when the world had written him off. But the greatest service Bracken performed was in making it possible for Churchill to take power.

We tend to view the past as if it could not have been otherwise, but for Churchill to replace Neville Chamberlain in 1940 was a highly improbable turn of events. Almost no-one who counted wanted Churchill as leader. The press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who also played a role in securing Churchill the premiership, wrote: "Chamberlain wanted Halifax. Labour wanted Halifax... The Lords wanted Halifax. The King wanted Halifax. And Halifax wanted Halifax."

Beaverbrook was exaggerating. Chamberlain took a long time before deciding to resign, and it's not clear that Halifax did want to become prime minister. What is undoubtedly true is that a great many influential people wanted Halifax to take over, and it is highly likely that he could have been persuaded to do so.

Crucially, Churchill seems to have shared the view that Halifax (then foreign secretary) would be Chamberlain's successor. Churchill took for granted that he would serve under Halifax as minister of defence, and made it clear he felt it was his duty to serve in this way.

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For a couple of days in May 1940, the fate of the world turned on the fall of a leaf”

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We may never know the exact pattern of events over the days of 9 and 10 May 1940. Beaverbrook liked to dramatise his role, and the accounts left by others conflict in some of their details.

But according to Bracken's biographers, he anticipated that when Chamberlain decided to resign he would arrange a meeting in Downing Street from which Halifax would emerge as next prime minister.

Loyal to Churchill and an enemy of appeasement, Bracken was determined to prevent this outcome. So at about 01:00 on the morning of 9 May, he and Beaverbrook set out to talk to Churchill, eventually finding him brooding alone in one of his clubs.

They warned Churchill of the coming meeting, with Bracken urging Churchill to say nothing if asked whether he would serve under Halifax. In the end, Churchill was persuaded to remain silent.

As Bracken anticipated, a meeting was held at Downing Street later that day, and when the issue of the succession came up Churchill did what he had promised - he said nothing.

After a long pause, Halifax said that his position in the Lords would make it difficult for him to be prime minister. Next morning, news arrived that Hitler had invaded Belgium and Holland, and in the afternoon Churchill went to the palace to tell the King he was forming a government.

Some historians have suggested that Churchill's silence may not have been decisive. If Halifax had become prime minister, they argue, Churchill would still have been in charge of the war.

Winston Churchill The "black dog" may have prepared Churchill for the desperate struggle against Hitler

But Halifax would have sued for peace - that was the reason so many in Britain's ruling elites supported him - and this would have changed everything. With unchallenged command of Europe, Hitler would have been able to implement the full force of Nazi ideology.

Some historians have also argued that if the war had not continued, the Holocaust might not have happened. But genocide was the logic of Nazism. In the eyes of Nazis, racism was a science, claiming to show that some parts of humanity were inferior and fit only for extermination. There's no reason to think Hitler wouldn't have followed that logic to its terrible conclusion, and it's entirely realistic to think that the hideous world that Hitler aimed to create would have come fully into being and still exist today.

As Churchill said in a speech in the House of Commons in June 1940: "If we fail, then the whole world will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science."

Even if we don't think past events were bound to happen as they did, we tend to believe that the larger course of history is shaped by vast, impersonal forces. But for a couple of days in May 1940, the fate of the world turned on the fall of a leaf.

If Bracken hadn't left Australia to reinvent himself as an Englishman and appointed himself as Churchill's faithful protector; if Beaverbrook and Bracken hadn't found Churchill brooding in his club; if Bracken hadn't succeeded in persuading Churchill to remain silent; and if Churchill hadn't been prepared for the desperate struggle that followed by the visits of the black dog, history would have been very different and the world darker than anything we can easily imagine.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Churchill was a product of his time with the attitudes of the world as it stood then. 50% Genius- 50% Child according to Attlee.
    He was schooled in Victorian times with those attitudes . Every person has to develop. He had to accept the demise of the Empire even if hurt his romantic view. He ordered the sinking of the French fleet at Toulon. But unlike Hitler and Stalin he kept his humanity

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    260: SigurdJorselfar: you comment about "the arrival in Britain of a million Yanks to join the Canadians and a comparatively few Brits for the landing" On D-Day, the Allies landed around 156,000 troops in Normandy. The American forces landed numbered 73,000. In the British and Canadian sector, 83,115 troops were landed. Get your facts right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Let us not forget that britan held back the tide of Nazism for three years before the U.S joined and would have still done so without them they saved europe!

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    There is absolutely no doubt that without Churchill as PM, GB, & especially people like Halifax and ex King Edward supported by Sen Joseph Kennedy would have willingly sucked up to Hitler, and the eventual liberation of Europe would have been impossible as England, the "unsinkable aircraft carrier" would have been in the hands of the Nazies.
    Hitlers fatal mistake was not to have invaded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    Churchill was also personally responsible for the Bengal famine, killing 2-3 million people. (According to "Churchill's Secret War")

    "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    Let us not forget that aside from the cost in lives of this war there were other costs and consequences. The Brits lost an empire, were left bankrupt and deeply indebted to almost everyone, the French were able to hide their complicity, the Germans were left with no debt and the Marshall Plan provided a way to new future. The UK stood alone (+ Empire) until the US joined AFTER Pearl Harbour

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    Some Brit Centrics screen out that Mr. Churchill coped by befriending Roosevelt, which then got Britain convoy protection in the Atlantic, Sherman tanks at El Alamein, & the arrival in Britain of a million Yanks to join the Canadians and a comparatively few Brits for the landing that in the first 3 months captured over 400.000 jerries and smashed to Paris, and met up with the Soviets at the Elbe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    We must acknowledge the leadership qualities of Churchill,and not forgetting that WW2 was the conclusion of WW1

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Some really stupid comments here. The US of A would have had nothing to save had Britain fallen. Hitler wasn't your enemy....really? You probably wouldn't be alive to write your words if he'd succeeded in creating the society he craved. And we all know that Churchill didn't personally win the war just as Alex Ferguson doesn't personally win the League. Any other words of wisdom?

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    to 61,
    you are wrong, Britain started the deliberate bombing of civilians. On the night of 24 August 1940 the German air force accidentally and against Hitler's orders - dropped some bombs over London, Churchill requested a retaliatory raid on Berlin. Hitler responded by going ahead with the Blitz, and the following months and years saw tit-for-tat raids on each country's cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    253: heathjones2012

    He was war criminal. Ask the people of Dresden.

    I live in Dresden, and so do my father and grandfather, who served in the war. We do not consider Churchill to be a war criminal. We think you are a self opinionated prig who has the arrogance to think that they speak behalf of other people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    Emotionally, he favorably compared with Stalin and Hitler. Most have to cope with what they inherited. He had to cope with arrogant, often aristocrat, colonial-type officers who led the running away from Europe at Dunkirk, surrendered without a fight at Singapore, could not hold Tobruk, abandoned their wounded at Arnheim, and falsely claimed credit for Indian, Anzac, Canadian and Yank victories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    "What a whole lot of IF'S! So now I'll add my IF!..."

    Ok I might as well as my what if:- What if Churchill was lesbian?
    Come on, lets try and keep some reality in the comments please.

    @244.Stuart8827 What a result from Britannica, I have noticed wikipedia.org is allowing some historical facts to be omitted in favor of the USA too, and they wonder why so many people hate the USA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    As usual, we have to fight through the ignorance.
    Churchill worked hard to cause WWII.

    German expansionism caused the elites to ignite WWI. Churchill was part of this.

    He sent poor people to die for his Empire, just like every imperialist before him and after.
    Hitler wasn't my enemy.
    If you were poor, you meant nothing to Churchill.
    He was war criminal. Ask the people of Dresden.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    "Hitler would have been able to implement his ideology with full force" That miscreant Hitler, DID implement his ideology with extreme force until the U.S. saved Europe from Hitler.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Churchill did not defeat Hitler, as per the sub headline.

    Actually it was tens of millions of servicemen and service women who volunteered or were conscripted into the armed forces of tens of countries that defeated Hitler and Nazism.

    Millions of them died in so doing.

    To lay the laurels of that victory at the feet of one man is ludicrous, no matter how inspirational his leadership.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Churchill was a great man, but let us not forget:
    1) while he stood up against the Nazis, he fought against Indian independence, and even wanted to expand the Empire in Asia
    2) Hitler was a great admirer of the British Empire

    This makes it all less black and white, and more grey, as usual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.


    Ha ha.I was aware one of this.

    No doubt this guy belived in his English speaking Empire,but democrat? I don't think so.Apologists try to say at that period of history he was.

    No.democrats lived before him and we live after him.If he had never existed we'd still be here.Hitler,Stalin,William the 'Conquerer' and his descendants.All have failed to prevent the march of democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Churchill was not a madman, that is a very simplistic view of this great man. There is a fine line between genious and insanity and only the most gifted and skillfull can weave their way back and forth . Thank God that this man found the unlikely champions that he did. It was his skills, with both words and actions, that convinced a disinterested country to help in the fight againt fasicm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Regarding Curieux's view, yes the Russians and Americans did help to defeat the Nazis, but only after they were attacked. Also I don't think it says anywhere that Churchill did it single-handedly, not forgetting the multitude of other nations and commonwealth countries that contributed to the war effort. The point of the article is without his foresight history may have been a lot different!


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