“An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Hitler & Churchill—Secrets of Leadership is made from Andrew Roberts’ recent BBC television series, Secrets of Leadership, in which he sought to tease out the management secrets of four famous charismatic leaders—Hitler, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Ken-nedy.

With this book, Roberts returns to his favorite subjects—Winston Churchill’s life and times and, behind that, the larger theme of Britain versus the Continent.  Roberts is the author also of Holy Fox (a biography of Lord Halifax) and Eminent Churchillians (a collection of essays about Churchill and his contemporaries), plus a superlative biography of Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, a Eurosceptical novel called The Aachen Memorandum, and Napoleon and Wellington.  In accordance with his Atlanticist sentiments, he is presently writing a biography of Henry Kissinger.

Roberts is a conservative and a patriot.  All his books are informed by these identities and by a nostalgia for the more serious, literate Britain, with its authoritative Parliament, respected institutions, glorious pageantry, and civilized mode of behavior that predominated until the 1960’s and still subsist furtively in odd corners of Tony Blair’s folksy, multicultural, “relevant,” and unutterably tedious “Cool Britannia.”

Roberts has two principal reasons for writing this book, apart from his sheer interest in the period.  His subsidiary reason is to counterattack various revisionist views of Hitler and Churchill that have been making some headway in recent years.  Roberts singles out revisionists as diverse as David Irving, Christopher Hitchens, Clive Ponting, Patrick Buchanan, Ralph Raico (whom he mistakenly identifies as “Robert”), and—rather more gently—what he calls the “British Tory nationalist critique” of Alan Clark, Maurice Cowling, and John Charmley.  To some degree, he shares John Lukacs’s concern that, if Western civilization keeps unravel-ling, desperate Westerners may come to view Hitler as “a kind of Diocletian, a tough last architect of a desirable imperial order.”

His chief, very conservative reason for wanting to understand the nature of both leadership and what educationalists call “followship,” however, is his distrust of human nature and Ortega y Gasset’s “mass man.”  Unlike many self-styled conservatives, who are actually economic reductionists sailing under an ideological flag of convenience, Roberts is a firm adherent to what Stephen Pinker has called the “Tragic Vision” of humanity—the belief that human nature is at least partly innate and immutable and not always pleasant.  He does not share the sentimental left-wing delusion that all human beings are equal and beneficent and infinitely malleable—a delusion that has been absorbed almost without realizing it by many on the modern British—and, of course, American—right.

In one of the most interesting sections of a captivating and thoughtful work, Roberts describes a series of little-known psychological experiments carried out in the early 1960’s in the United States that cast a sharp and unflattering light on human nature.  In 1963, Dr. Stanley Milgram asked volunteers to test a man sitting in a chair with an electrode attached to his wrists.  The volunteers were told that the man in the chair had been connected to an electrical current and that they should press a button to shock him if he did not repeat a memorized text correctly.  The more errors, the higher the voltage became, up to a lethal dose of 450 volts.  Of course, there was no current, and the man in the chair was a professional actor.  However, the volunteers thought they were actually electrocuting a human being.  What was shocking about this experiment was how many of the volunteers—65 percent—were prepared to inflict potentially fatal pain on a fellow human being who had never harmed them, “screams” notwithstanding.

In the so-called Asch experiments, three people were shown three lines on a screen and asked to indicate that which was very obviously the longest of the lines.  Unknown to one of the participants, the other two were experimenters.  After several turns in which all three people chose the same line, the two experimenters began deliberately to choose the same wrong line.  At first, the volunteer would protest and point out the error; soon, however, he would simply go along with the wrong majority opinion.  Such experiments, notes Roberts, “show how easily people can be led, both into acting cruelly and—just as worryingly—into disbelieving the evidence of their own eyes.”

With such tendencies so prevalent, Roberts believes that all who are concerned about the future of civilization need to understand how normal
people can be imposed upon and manipulated by the unscrupulous.  Roberts is himself clearly a believer in “elitism,” but it is an honest elitism, as opposed to the elitism-masquerading-as-sugary-humanitarianism so beloved of today’s charlatans; his ideal elite would combine quiet ability with aristocratic, pro-Western values and a touch of Tory romanticism.

Roberts is scornful of much of what passes for political debate in these benighted times:

The need under universal suffrage to appeal to what is effectively the lowest intellectual common denominator—at least among those likely to cast a vote—has inevitably led to the wholesale lowering of standards when it comes to persuasion, a process that politicians themselves nowadays wholeheartedly aid and abet.  

He goes on to compare the stately if orotund rhetoric of William Gladstone—a 136-word-long sentence is supplied as an example—with the “three word verbless sentences, intellectually patronising sound-bites, references to footballing or soap opera catch-phrases” so beloved of Blair and his emulators.

Roberts is refreshingly free of cant, such as the oft-repeated remark that “de-mocracies never start wars.”  In fact,

Not only has democracy presided over the bloodiest wars in history, but some of them—such as Vietnam and the Gulf War—have been fought specifically in its name.  When one fights for an idea rather than a particular geographical objective . . . it is almost impossible to compromise . . . as a modern secular religion, democracy requires unconditional surrender.

In this realistic appraisal of the problems inherent in democracy, he clearly differs from the bombastic neoconservatives, for whom consumerism and democracy are religious totems, although he was likewise a strong supporter of the actions against Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, both of whom he regards as would-be Hitlers.

He differentiates between “inspirational” and “charismatic” leaders—Churchill being an example of the former; and Hitler, an example of the latter.  Hitler & Churchill contains 44 well-chosen photographs that sum up the essential character and stylistic differences between the two men—with amusing touches in some of the captions, such as “The League of Maidens (some more like matrons) worship their idol as Heinrich Himmler looks on” and the irresistible “Some books have claimed that the Führer was gay,” showing the lederhosen-clad Führer standing with his hands on his hips.

As practical politicians, inspirational leaders are, of course, ambitious, often ruthless, happy to use props and gimmicks—such as Churchill’s cigar and “V” sign—and even to perpetuate “confidence tricks” on those whom they lead.  Essentially, however, they inspire because they are themselves worthy of emulation and their confidence tricks are benevolent in purpose.  Importantly, they also know how to delegate, to trust subordinates, and to see strengths in unconventional people.  As Roberts says, “Successful leaders surround themselves with constructive dissenters.”

Charismatic leaders, on the other hand, of whom Hitler is the best-known example, rely on coups de theatre and fierce protection of their public image.  “Charisma,” Roberts writes, “is a harlot’s trick”—the deliberate creation of mystique, a substitute for real authority and bottom, the unimpressive Wizard of Oz speaking from behind a fearsome mask.  Hitler disliked being seen wearing his spectacles and would surround himself on all occasions with the trappings of power.  He gave audience to visitors in his 1,200-square-foot study in the Reich Chancellery, reached through 900 feet of increasingly magnificent, marble-clad halls and anterooms.  All his party’s rallies were staged to impress onlookers with a sense of the irresistible strength of the
Reich.  Every word of every one of Hitler’s speeches was carefully chosen and choreographed.  He would fake mood swings and stare disconcertingly at those whom he wished to quash.  He would avoid contact with ordinary Germans.  In a subtle form of ostentation, he would dress down deliberately and live simply but showily (he was a vegetarian and teetotaler for most of his adult life) to emphasize his Jesus- or Buddha-like simplicity vis-à-vis his gaudily clad acolytes.  All was devised to build up a myth of the superhuman strongman “against time”—the monkishly devoted man of destiny.  Ultimately, such a man could inspire fanaticism but not love.  Many of the political techniques used by today’s leaders were pioneered by the National Socialists.

By contrast, Churchill was perfectly relaxed about being photographed on a stretcher carried out of an ambulance, wearing torn coats or his famous siren-suits, and walking around the streets and meeting the people.  Churchill was a fervent believer in MBWA—Management by Walking About.  He did not disguise his fondness for good food and brandy (although Roberts points out that his indulgence has been much exaggerated) and worked from the squashed concrete bunker of the Cabinet War Rooms or No. 10 Downing Street—from the outside, an ordinary Georgian terraced house like thousands of others in the capital.  He admitted to errors.  His public persona was based on being a real human being among other human beings; his rhetoric, although carefully crafted, relied for its effect on its honesty—“we have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”—as much as its dark beauty.  This is not to say that Churchill was incapable of viewing his speeches dispassionately.  Leaving the Commons after making his “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech, he said to a friend, “That got the sods, didn’t it?”

Of course, Churchill had the advantage of historical context; he could inspire simply by virtue of being an aristocrat, the inheritor of a long tradition and the occupant of one of the world’s most eminent and longest-established posts—an advantage and a feeling of security not enjoyed by his adversary, a Johann-come-lately acutely conscious of his origins and his country’s newness, a man who envied and admired the British Empire in equal measure.  Being to the manor (or manner) born helps those who aspire to inspire.  Churchill’s and Hitler’s respective styles were as much products of personality and upbringing as of political circumstances and national differences.

Although Churchill exerted less immediate power over people’s lives, the effect was arguably more genuine and longer lasting than that of Hitler on Germans’ lives—which is why he was easily voted the top “Great Briton” in 2002’s nationwide BBC poll and will probably top such polls for decades to come.  Churchill is probably the only person whom both Tories and the left can unite in supporting—and he is also a symbol, for many Britons, of the last gasp of Great Britain, before mass immigration and socialism began to work their evil magic.  As the Times put it in an editorial in 1990, “The iconography of 1940 cannot be very far from those with Britain on their mind.”

It may be significant, however, that, when German television recently decided to put on a German equivalent of “Great Britons,” the producers felt they had to exclude Hitler from the list of possible nominees.  This may have been a case of baseless blind panic on the part of television executives, but it is possibly also a worrying confirmation of John Lukacs’s fears.  Perhaps, after all, charisma may be as long-lasting as inspiration given the right—or wrong—circumstances.  Human nature has not changed much since 1945, and we have certainly not seen the last of shrewd political operators who know how to press the right emotional buttons at crucial moments and are willing to deliver whole nations into the hands of death and disaster simply in order to realize some cranky fantasy or to gratify their own vanity.

Nor will such operators ever find it difficult to find followers.  As Roberts notes, 

In an age that considers itself sophisticated and correspondingly cynical, in times of peril, inspired leadership still relies to a large extent on the suspension of disbelief.  The stock of human emotions that the leaders are appealing to are [sic] limited and remarkably consistent and it can be plundered and plagiarised . . . but above all learned [he adds, encouragingly]. 

Hitler & Churchill may therefore prove itself to be not just a distinctive contribution to World War II scholarship but an antibiotic against ideological infection, a valuable vaccination against future Führer.


[Hitler & Churchill— Secrets of Leadership, by Andrew Roberts (London: Weidenfeld Nicolson) 202 pp., £18.99]