There are other reasons he was able to see the danger from Hitler before others. First is that he was a philo-Semite. He liked Jews. This is not common amongst men of his class and background in the 1930’s. He went on holiday with Jews as a child. He represented Jews in Manchester, his first constituency. He had supported the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. He believed in the right of the Jews to have a national homeland in Palestine even before that. And so you have this Zionist, effectively, in the 1930’s, who therefore had an early warning system when it came to Hitler and the Nazis and was able to spot what they were genuinely like.
Second is his sense of history. One of the reasons I'm very proud to be a historian is that Winston Churchill was one: he was able to see Adolf Hitler immediately as a hegemonist would-be tyrant of Europe. And so he was able to say, and did say, that here we have someone like Philip II of Spain, like Louis XIV, like Wilhelm II, like Napoleon, who wanted to dominate Europe. He could not allow this because historically, British independence depends on a balance of power in Europe.
Third, he had seen fanaticism in his life in a way that many of his contemporaries hadn't. He had seen his friends slashed to pieces by Pathan tribesmen and Talib tribesmen on what is now the India-Pakistan border. He had seen it during his fighting in the Sudan, where he killed four dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman. And he was able to see that same kind of fanaticism — not religious of course — but political, in the Nazis.
Unlike the other Prime Ministers of the 1930's, unlike Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, he was able to see that the Nazis were qualitatively different from the politics these men had had to deal with before. He could spot it. They couldn't.
So you have these three elements all coming together in 1930’s and filling him with a certainty that Hitler and the Nazis had to be stopped, as well as the most profound sense of frustration that no one was listening. One of the reasons no one was listening was, as I mentioned earlier, that he made so many mistakes previously.
OR: How do you see his stellar career as a writer fitting into his political life?
Roberts: He didn't write because he wanted his words to be heard. He did it because he was broke all the time. His parents were huge spendthrifts and he was pretty much in the red his entire life until he was in his early seventies.
He gambled enormously, both on the tables and on the stock exchange. He employed 14 servants and lived an extremely expensive lifestyle. He ordered the best of everything, all the time. So he was broke and the way he dealt with it was to to write books and articles. He wrote 840 articles and he wrote 37 books. And these helped. Some of the articles that he wrote were incredibly well-paid. He would get the modern equivalent of more than $30,000 per article.
One of the ways we know so much about Churchill and what was going through his mind, the way he was thinking, and his hopes and fears is his writing — and thus ultimately because of the fact that he was broke all the time.
OR: Do you have a favorite book of his?
Roberts: My Early Life, his autobiography from childhood until when he gets married to his wife Clementine in 1908. It's been in print ever since he wrote it. It's one of the great international bestsellers. It's been translated into 22 languages, and it is extremely funny as well as being very moving. It gives wonderful insights into what he would like people to think about him. It's not always entirely historically accurate. But it nonetheless is a combination of a wonderful adventure story and a proper memoir that makes you really understand somebody's motivations.
OR: Why are we not producing leaders like Winston Churchill today?
Roberts: King George VI told William Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, that he wouldn't appoint Winston Churchill as Prime Minister except in a world war. And that is of course the crisis in which he ultimately did become Prime Minister.
Assuming that we should have leaders in peacetime of the quality and the level and the caliber of Winston Churchill is almost a bit too much — we don't have a world war. Equally, I think that we expect so much of our leaders in terms of their personal vulnerabilities. We demand that they should be completely clean individuals morally and physically and professionally. Churchill smoked 160,000 cigars. He drank an enormous amount. He made all the mistakes that I've mentioned earlier, any one of which could destroy a political career today. He made jokes all the time — people think nowadays of politicians with a sense of humor as untrustworthy. He was a person who I think would have done very well, by the way, on Twitter: many of his great witticisms can be fitted into 280 characters or less.
How many people like that are allowed to get to the top in politics today? He was somebody who said exactly what he thought. He had no speechwriters. He was writing his own speeches. He didn't take much notice of opinion polls — that wouldn't have got him terribly far in modern-day politics. He had no spin doctors and he never had any focus groups.
If we want politicians of the caliber of Winston Churchill, we're going to have to alter the assumptions that we make about who can and can't go into politics.
OR: How do you defend Churchill against his modern critics?
Roberts: It's pointless to ask what Oliver Cromwell would have thought of socialized medicine. And a Victorian aristocrat born in 1874 in a palace who then goes off and spends years of his life defending the British Empire on the northwest frontier of India is going to be an imperialist and is going to think positive things about colonialism.