This week I attended in New York the excellent annual conference of the Winston Churchill Society. One speaker, former BBC broadcaster and Liberal Party politician Lord Watson, spoke on Churchill and Germany, citing a poignant anecdote relevant for today and all time.
In 1934 Churchill visited Athens and painted a scene of ancient white columns from the ruins of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis set against a very blue sky. Twenty-two years later Britain’s ambassador to West Germany told the by then former prime minister that Chancellor Adenauer, with whom he exchanged birthday gifts, would appreciate a Churchill painting, having already received an Eisenhower painting.
Churchill sent him the Parthenon painting, which Adenauer hung in his home office outside Bonn, where it still hangs. Last year the painting left Adenauer’s house to join a larger exhibition of Churchill paintings in Germany. The museum host explained of Churchill’s gift to Adenauer:
The symbolism is evident. The temple ruins recall the destruction of Europe and the spirit of the antiquity. Adenauer understood that and considered the gift a noble gesture.
Similarly, the exhibit’s curator suggested of Churchill’s intent behind gifting the painting:
It may well be that with the choice of this motif he wanted to evoke their joint efforts to rebuild a destroyed and broken Europe. In addition to their shared devotion to democracy, the two statesmen were united by the desire to contribute to peace in Europe and the world after the terrible experiences of the Second World War.
Lord Watson went further, suggesting the painting conveyed Churchill’s hopes to Adenauer that democracy, long associated with ancient Athens, could arise from the ruins of defeated and war-ravaged Germany.
The painting and presumably its symbolism obviously meant a great deal to Adenauer, who as a devout Catholic otherwise preferred religious art. He and Churchill admired each other for their mutual courage, skill and commitment to European civilization and democracy. Adenauer’s admiration was such that he even modeled his own funeral on Churchill’s.
A few months after the gift of the painting Adenauer hosted Churchill in the ancient city of Aachen where the British statesman received the Charlemagne Prize for commitment to European solidarity. In his speech, Churchill, gratified by friendly crowds who greeted their former conqueror, celebrated NATO and de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union, which he hoped could lead to raprochement with the West.
Adenauer had warmly introduced him:
That only a few years after the end of the war, a victor of the great war calls out with such intelligence and vision of the future to an annihilated Europe—still bleeding from a thousand wounds—to join forces and unite; this is a statesmanlike deed that would be enough to secure you a place in history.
Lord Watson stressed Churchill’s magnanimity in peace was a great as his ferocity in war. He had bombed German cities to rubble and ruinous defeat, then advocated Germany’s reconstruction into a vibrant democracy and Western partner.
Churchill’s tranquil view of a ruin from republican Greek antiquity, painted before WWII while on vacation, foreshadowed his later hopes for democratic European civilization’s revival after WWII. It also showcased his commitment to reconciliation, which Adenauer intuitively appreciatively, and which should instruct us now and always.