Professor Donald Elder: Leadership and Lessons from “Darkest Hour”

Mar 14, 2018 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Leadership and Lessons from “Darkest Hour”

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, as most of our readers know, you co-authored a book on the American Presidents, so it seems appropriate to ask you some questions and reflect on the leadership of Winston Churchill, who was just featured in the Oscar Winning Movie “Darkest Hour.”   First of all, have you see the movie and what was your initial impression?

I did not have an opportunity to watch “Darkest Hour” until it came out on DVD. By then, critics had already hailed it as a great movie, and had suggested that Gary Oldman deserved the Academy Award for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. These accolades initially gave me high hopes for “Darkest Hour,” but I began to worry that no movie could live up to those lofty expectations.

“Darkest Hour,” however, did indeed impress me as mightily as I had originally hoped. Oldman gave an incredible performance, perfectly capturing the determination in the face of impending disaster that Winston Churchill displayed as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940. While a number of scholars discount the idea that one person can truly alter history, this movie presents a powerful argument in favor of the theory that an individual like Winston Churchill can indeed alter the course of events that transpire over time.

2) Winston Churchill was somewhat thrown into leadership following the appeasement practices of Neville Chamberlain.  Prior to this, what was his political experience?

Before becoming the prime minister of Great Britain in 1940, Winston Churchill had a great deal of experience in the political realm.

First, he had won election to Parliament in 1900, serving in that body until 1908. At that time, he became a member of the British cabinet when he received an appointment as the President of the Board of Trade.

Two years later, the Prime Minister asked him to serve in his cabinet as the Home Secretary. Although Churchill had served in the British Army, in 1911 he received an appointment as the First Lord of the Admiralty. This position became an extremely important one in 1914, when Great Britain entered World War I. After a campaign that he had masterminded ended disastrously at Gallipoli in 1915, Churchill lost his place in the cabinet, but he returned in the 1920s as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That stint in the cabinet ended in 1929, at which point Churchill returned to Parliament.

Because of his implacable stance against the aggressive tendencies of Adolf Hitler, Churchill once again became a member of the cabinet on the day that Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, regaining his position as First Lord of the Admiralty.

When King George VI asked him to become the Prime Minister in May of 1940, he therefore had a wealth of governmental experience to call on.

3) Churchill seemed to know quite well, that Hitler was obviously deranged and planned on taking over all of Europe and possibly even invading England.  What in his prior experience could have provided him with this insight?

Interestingly, Churchill had a mixed record on Adolf Hitler prior to 1936. Most notably, in 1935 he had written an article in which he said that he thought Adolf Hitler could “still go down in history as the man who restored honour and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation.” Hitler’s decision in 1936 to reoccupy the Rhineland (a territory forbidden to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles), however, ended any such hopes on Churchill’s part.

From that point on, he became increasingly convinced that Hitler had territorial ambitions that would jeopardize the peace and security of all of Europe. Hitler’s moves during the next few years proved the validity of Churchill’s concerns, and convinced the British government to bring him into the cabinet when World War II broke out.

4) Obviously, Churchill was quite a writer (I think I have four of his books at home) and quite an orator. What do we know about his education and early upbringing?

Churchill belonged to one of the most distinguished families in British history. Indeed, he traced his ancestry back to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Because of his family’s prestigious standing, Churchill received his education at elite British boarding schools. At these schools, Churchill often received low marks for behavior, but excelled in subjects relating to History.

While at Harrow, Churchill wrote poems and article that the school magazine published. Because his father wanted him to have a career in the military, Churchill sought admission to the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. He failed to pass the admission tests on his first two attempts, but finally succeeded in 1893.

Finding the curriculum to his liking, Churchill did well at Sandhurst, graduating fifth in his class. His affinity for History and his ability to write both poetry and prose clearly prepared him for his later career as an author.

5) In the movie, Churchill seemed to reach out at one point to his typist who had a picture of her soldier brother on her desk. He seemed to know that he was, in fact, sending loved ones to their death. Your thoughts?

The scene you are referring to is one of the most powerful that “Darkest Hour” has to offer. In actuality, that incident never occurred. Elizabeth Layton (portrayed in the film by Lily James), Churchill’s personal secretary, did indeed have a brother, but he lived in Canada. But most historians still find the scene consistent with Churchill’s behavior during the war. He always seemed to recognize the human costs of the military operations that he authorized, and never cavalierly ordered soldiers to their deaths as Adolf Hitler consistently did during World War II.

6) Again, in the movie, he seemed to be speaking to “the common man” when he took the London Underground to Westminster. Was this a fictitious story? Or just representative of Churchill?

Once again, the scene where Gary Oldman rides the Underground and talks to the common folk commands attention does not stand up to historical scrutiny. To the best of our knowledge, Churchill only rode on the Underground once, back in 1926 during a strike.

Moreover, a number of historians have found fault with the implication of the scene that Churchill received the inspiration for his famous speech from average citizens. These experts contend that Churchill had supreme faith in himself, regarding his appointment as Prime Minister as almost a matter of divine intervention. But I think the scene actually works well in that it shows his ability to speak to the English soldiers and civilians in informal settings.

Whether visiting the front or a neighborhood that German bombers had devastated, Churchill made the English people feel that he cared for them.

7) It is really coincidental that “Dunkirk,” the movie and “Darkest Hour” seemed to appear so near each other.  What was his role in Dunkirk in terms of the big picture, and mobilizing the British at that time?

After the Germans had succeeded in capturing Norway in the spring of 1940, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had resigned. After briefly considering Edward Wood (known by his aristocratic title of Lord Halifax), Chamberlain had recommended to King George VI that he name Churchill as his successor. Shortly after he assumed that office on May 10, the German military struck again, this time launching an offensive against the combined Franco-British force defending France. In a matter of weeks, the Germans had inflicted crushing losses on the British and French, driving a wedge between the two armies. Seeing only one possible avenue of escape, the British Army (and thousands of French soldiers) retreated to the port of Dunkirk on the English Channel. It seemed likely that the Germans would capture all of these men, but Churchill orchestrated an effort to evacuate as many of the soldiers as possible.

As the movie “Dunkirk” shows, these efforts resulted in a flotilla of Royal Navy vessels and privately owned ships transferring over 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk to Great Britain. This could never have happened had not Churchill refused to consider abandoning these men and seeking a negotiated settlement with Hitler instead. Most historians believe that only his leadership at this crucial moment prevented the collapse of all resistance at that point in time.

8) Exactly how long did he serve as Prime Minister and what happened when the war ended?

After entering the office in 1940, Churchill continued to serve as Prime Minister until the Allies succeeded in defeating Germany in May of 1945. At that time, Great Britain prepared to have a general election, and many assumed that the results would keep Churchill’s party in power (thus assuring that he would continue as Prime Minister). The majority of the British electorate, however, voted for the opposition, and in July of 1945 he formally resigned his position.

He would briefly serve as Prime Minister again in the 1950s, but his first term in office is the one that people in general—and obviously the world of entertainment as well—choose to remember.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Historians have a love-hate relationship with movies that deal with the past. On the one hand, they welcome anything that makes people interested in the subject that they focus on, but on the other hand they recognize that many viewers will regard what they see on the big screen as gospel truth. What they hope is that the general sense of an event portrayed in a movie conveys an essential truth about that moment in time.

“Darkest Hour” seems to me to succeed admirably in that regard. While it has inaccuracies, the film does show how one man played a crucial role in helping the British people to weather a terrible storm and persevere to an ultimate triumph over evil.

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