For the British, fortunate to escape the traumas of both Communism and Fascism, the two world wars were the defining experience of the 20th century. In both the country avoided invasion and ultimately evaded defeat, if only because in each case France was in the front line, because Russia suffered most of the casualties, and because the United States tardily but effectively identified its own interests with those of Great Britain. So it seems natural to expect recognition for the two war leaders who emerged bloody but unbowed from these struggles. In Great Britons, the excellent book published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany the BBC series of the same name, Brian Harrison, the editor of the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, observes that we are hardly alone 'in placing the great at the centre of our national myth':
If Lloyd George and Winston Churchill epitomise national resistance to Germany in two world wars, Joan of Arc and General de Gaulle are central to the French national self-image and F.D. Roosevelt is central to the story of America's interwar economic recovery, and Nelson Mandela is central to South Africa's new-found racial harmony.
Exalted company for our two great heroes - but surely justified?
LRB 3 April 2003 | PDF Download