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The night Churchill nearly died

Churchill being discharged from hospital in December 1931

One wintery evening in 1931, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Times, Winston Churchill was in New York and about to go to bed when his old friend Bernard Baruch rang up to ask him round for a nightcap. Churchill set off in a cab, but forgot Baruch’s Fifth Avenue address, so after an hour of searching got out to ask for help. Setting out across the road, he “sensed a black shape rushing towards him” at top speed – a car coming not from the right, as in England, but from the left. There was no time to take evasive action, he wrote later, but “I certainly thought quick enough to achieve the idea, ‘I am going to be run down and probably killed’. Then came the blow.” The collision didn’t kill him, but it was a close-run thing. If it had, “perhaps the swastika would still fly over Europe today”.

Churchill is the one “resplendent exception” to the rule – laid out in Ian Kershaw’s new book Personality and Power – that when great individuals really matter in history, “they tend to matter for ill”. Perhaps Russia would always have had a revolution in 1917, but it was Lenin who made it a Bolshevik dictatorship. Communism was always doomed, but it was only Stalin, with his “poisonous combination of ideological dedication and paranoia”, who ensured it killed so many millions. Germany was probably destined to swing to the right in the 1930s, but only Hitler, “devoid of scruples and obsessed with antisemitism”, could have led it so completely into the abyss. “The equation is straightforward,” writes Kershaw. “No Hitler, no Holocaust.”

By contrast, Churchill’s lone determination to fight on in the summer of 1940 changed the course of the war, and thus of history, for the better. A pro-German government in Britain would have supported a war against the Soviet Union, says Kershaw, “and most likely been implicated in the horrific crimes against humanity that accompanied it, and in implementing the Holocaust”. It’s just as well, then, that Churchill didn’t die that night. “Whatever his critics might think.”