Heroes and villains: how history picks the winners

The Second World War movie Darkest Hour raises questions about perspective and reality

Pat MurphyGary Oldman’s riveting portrayal of Winston Churchill leaves no doubt as to who is the hero of the new film Darkest Hour. But apart from the off-screen Adolf Hitler, does the movie really have a villain?

Thanks to the way the narrative unfolds and the carefully-chosen camera shots, casual viewers might be tempted to ascribe such a role to Lord Halifax.

But that would be wrong. While Halifax’s judgment may have been faulty, he was no villain.

Born Edward Wood in 1881, Halifax belonged to one of northern England’s great landowning families. As the fourth son, his inheritance prospects would normally have been circumscribed but fate intervened. With his three older brothers dying in childhood, he became the heir and assumed the Viscount Halifax title on his father’s death in 1934.

Physically, he stood out. At six feet five inches, he towered above his contemporaries. And being born with a withered left arm and no left hand further accentuated the visual impact.

Halifax excelled at university, earning a first-class Oxford degree and spending several subsequent years as a fellow of All Souls College. Then he entered politics as Conservative MP for the Yorkshire seat of Ripon in 1910.

While his early political years could be characterized as very conservative, Halifax became something of a ‘progressive Tory’ in the aftermath of the First World War. An emphasis on the community rather than the individual and a federal solution for Ireland were among the causes he championed.

This mindset continued during his five-year term as Viceroy of India (1926-31). Although a convinced imperialist, Halifax tended to be sympathetic to Indian sensibilities and anxious to promote amicable relations, externally and internally.

Externally, he wanted to make India content with its relationship to Britain. Internally, he was keen to end violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Of course, Halifax’s post-war reputation has always been seen through the prism of his role in the 1930s. Along with Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister he was closest to, Halifax is viewed as a key architect for the failed policy of appeasing Hitler.

Chamberlain and Halifax believed that Britain had no vital interest in taking military measures against Germany’s 1930s actions in Europe. Britain was an imperial, commercial power whose critical interests lay overseas. Other than ensuring that no unfriendly European power became so dominant as to threaten British security, what happened on the continent didn’t matter all that much.

And both men believed that another war – especially one with aerial bombing of population centres – could be disastrous. In that view, they were joined by the bulk of the British populace.

Further, there was the sense that some of Hitler’s early territorial aggressions were semi-legitimate.

As Halifax observed in his later memoirs, the optimum moment for deterrence would have been at the very beginning – when, contrary to treaty provisions, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936. But that would have been tantamount to going to “war with Germany for walking into their own backyard … at a time moreover when you were actually discussing with them the dates and conditions of their right to resume occupation.” The British electorate would never have countenanced that.

In normal circumstances, the Chamberlain-Halifax perspective would have been shrewd. With Hitler, though, things weren’t normal.

Ultimately, Churchill’s assessment of Hitler in particular and Nazism in general was more astute than that of either Chamberlain or Halifax. And we have good reason to be grateful that Churchill won the May 1940 policy showdown – defiance versus peace talks – that Darkest Hour vividly portrays.

But Churchill was also lucky.

If Hitler’s later decision to attack his erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, hadn’t spectacularly misfired and if Pearl Harbour hadn’t brought the United States into the war, things might have worked out very differently. And the historical narrative we grew up with would have told another story entirely.

That’s often the thing about history. Although the passage of time can introduce new, even revisionist, interpretations, the first draft is generally written by the victors. In the process, roles are assigned, reputations are enhanced or denigrated, and myths are inculcated.

Churchill was truly a heroic figure, but Halifax was neither a villain nor a dupe. He was an honourable man trying to avert a potential catastrophe.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

Editor’s picks:
Winston Churchill and the villainous ‘Guilty Men’
Winston Churchill: ruffian or hero
Adolf Hitler’s fateful mistake


heroes, villains, history, darkest hour

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