Zelensky Doesn’t Know the End of His Story—Churchill Didn’t Either

From a New York Times column by Andrew Marr headlined “Zelensky Doesn’t Know the End of His Story. Churchill Didn’t Either.”:

LONDON — In his address to the House of Commons in London this month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine compared himself to Winston Churchill. But Mr. Zelensky never mentioned Churchill by name — he didn’t need to.

He simply echoed the words and cadences of the famous speech Churchill made to the Commons on June 4, 1940, in the final stages of the evacuation from Dunkirk of the remains of the British Army and Allied troops in France.

“We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender,” Churchill said.

“We will not give up, and we will not lose,” Mr. Zelensky said. “We will fight till the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”

The fervor and the flourishes, as heard in the chamber itself, left more than a few lawmakers in tears. Mr. Zelensky was shrewdly addressing an audience in words that they could not help reacting to.

On one level the call to history seemed immediately too much — an overreaching across too great a space of time and across very different conflicts. But the more one considers it, the more apt it becomes.

Mr. Zelensky has addressed many audiences around the world as he pleads for international support. He has spoken to the European Parliament, to the U.S. Congress and to the Bundestag in Berlin. As he tailors his message to his audience, his choice to channel Churchill — and indeed Shakespeare — may go down as his biggest oratorical play for the ages.

Yet to make the parallel is also to invite questions about it. In 1940 Churchill was leading a huge, albeit creaking, global empire. He was an aristocratic politician in his late 60s, with decades of parliamentary experience behind him. Mr. Zelensky is 44, the child of a Jewish computer science professor and an engineer who made his career in television comedy. And before becoming president, had never held public office. His nation is fighting a major enemy on its own in a way that even Britain in 1940 was not.

Churchill — who allegedly muttered to a colleague after his famous speech, “We will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got” — may have feared a German invasion, but he did not face enemy tanks and artillery on his own territory, as Mr. Zelensky does now.

In the end, most comparisons stretched across history break down. Britain in 1940 and Ukraine in 2022 are vastly different societies facing vastly different threats and led in very different ways.

And yet, fundamentally, Mr. Zelensky’s implied comparison still retains an essential truth that will reverberate for a long time. Both men were leading countries at a desperate low point. Both were in physical danger themselves; Churchill would clamber onto the roofs of Whitehall buildings to watch German bombing raids advance across his capital. Less than a year after he spoke to the Commons, its chamber was destroyed by German bombs. Kyiv is under Russian bombardment and the president, who refuses to escape, has reportedly been targeted by a Chechen assassination squad.

Both men are wordsmiths, with a background in written (Churchill) or broadcast (Zelensky) political entertainment, who deploy drama to inspire and stiffen the resistance of their people. We are relearning how much words and individual leadership still invigorate wider political audiences, across Western Europe and the United States.

Mr. Zelensky’s buoyant optimism, expressed day after day as he sits in his fatigues, has been a unifying and moralizing factor in the war. His calm, his understated ordinariness, is a daily rebuke to Mr. Putin’s smear that Ukraine is led by drug addicts and neo-Nazis. By staying in Kyiv and constantly promising a victory that remains hard to imagine Ukraine’s Army winning, Mr. Zelensky has turned himself into a symbol of resistance. His video messages are eagerly awaited and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Churchill, likewise, was consciously turning himself into a symbol. The bowler hat, the cigar, the two-fingered salute, were designed to make him instantly recognizable in an age when people were getting their news from movie theater “shorts,” as well as the press. The orotund, theatrical cadences of his famous speeches were likewise intended to make his voice, and therefore his message, unforgettable when picked up through crackling wireless signals at home and abroad.

And the speeches worked. Churchill’s biographer, Roy Jenkins, the Labour cabinet minister and a founder of the Social Democratic Party, noted that they might have been regarded as overblown and self-indulgent in different times. The “never surrender” speech itself was greeted coolly on the Tory benches. (It didn’t even make the front pages of many British newspapers the following day.)

But Mr. Jenkins also said that such speeches matched the mood of the moment and survived “etched in the memory of many who were young at the time and are old now. They were an inspiration for the nation and a catharsis for Churchill himself.” Ludovic Kennedy, then in the Navy and later a well-known broadcaster, recalled of the June 4 speech, “When we heard it, we knew in an instant, that everything would be all right.”

“All right” in this context meant the geopolitical consequences of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, which finally brought the United States into the war; intensive haggling among the allied leaders; the deaths of tens of millions; famine, bankruptcy and poverty across great swaths of Europe; and the effective end of the British Empire that Churchill loved too much. The speechifying was, at most, a fragile pivot around which much greater forces swung.

Still, I would not be surprised if right now, at the moment of their maximum peril, young Ukrainians were tapping into their phones similar “it will be all right” thoughts after hearing or watching Mr. Zelensky’s latest. The parallel between the two men is not, it turns out, ridiculous after all. After decades of relative domestic peace, the West perhaps was in danger of forgetting the pivotal and motivating power of individual charismatic leadership.

We cannot finally judge the meaning of Mr. Zelensky’s defiance until we know how it ends. We know how the Churchill and World War II story ended. We know that he, like Mr. Zelensky, was fundamentally pleading for American support. But the Zelensky story may have a long way yet to run.

And the meaning of symbols can change very quickly. How would Churchill be remembered today had Britain been defeated in 1940? As a stubborn, outdated, old imperialist warmonger? In the economic war that has now begun, there may come a time when Europeans and Americans, selfishly horrified by high energy prices and the economic shock caused by the invasion, turn Mr. Zelensky from a heroic Ukrainian resistance fighter into a stubborn blockage to a necessary endgame.

He may yet emerge as the triumphant leader of a still independent Ukraine, a world figure to set alongside Gandhi and Mandela. Or there may yet be a much darker ending.

For all the failures of the army, the Russian military advantage remains enormous. The day may come when Mr. Zelensky has no escape from the Russians coming after him. Churchill would have understood that as well. A few days before addressing the Commons, he spoke to colleagues in the cabinet about not giving in until he was lying on the ground, choking in his own blood. It is in the nature of courageous leadership that you don’t know the end of the story when you utter your memorable — and perhaps decisive — words.

Andrew Marr (@AndrewMarr9) is a contributing Opinion writer. He is a veteran British journalist and political analyst and was a longtime television and radio host for the BBC.

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