Skip to main content
book excerpt: a first-rate madness

We remember Winston Churchill the orator, the fiery leader, the man who refused to submit to tyranny, and in whose stubborn refusal a nation, and then the world, found the strength to resist and ultimately prevail. Other prominent British statesmen had failed to fill the role that Churchill rode to glory. Churchill alone emerged as the great leader, the wartime genius, the deliverer of democracy. And although some acknowledge that he had mental problems, few appreciate the relevance of those problems to his prodigious leadership abilities. I believe that Churchill's severe recurrent depressive episodes heightened his ability to realistically assess the threat that Germany posed.

One might suppose that such a great man would have to be especially whole, healthy and fit in mind and body, full of mental and spiritual capabilities that escape average men. But Churchill belied this notion. In fact, he was quite ill, and his story, if belonging to a middle-class American living in the 21st century, would seem a sad but typical tale of mental illness.

There is no doubt that he had severe periods of depression; he was open about it – calling it, following Samuel Johnson, his "Black Dog." Apparently his most severe bout of depression came in 1910, when he was, at about age 35, home secretary. Later in his life, he told his doctor, Lord Moran, "For two or three years the light faded from the picture. I did my work. I sat in the House of Commons, but black depression settled on me." He had thoughts of killing himself. "I don't like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through," he told his doctor. "I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don't like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second's action would end everything. A few drops of desperation."

Churchill suffered from more than depression, though. Many historians now acknowledge his depression, but they generally don't appreciate that when he was not depressed, Churchill's moods shifted frequently. He was never "himself," because his "self" kept changing.

Numerous physicians who knew Churchill or studied him have concurred on the view that he likely had a cyclothymic personality, which, as we now know, is biologically and genetically related to bipolar disorder. For instance, Lord Russell Brain, a famed British neurologist, knew Churchill for almost two decades and saw him as a patient for 20 visits. Lord Brain concluded that Churchill had "the drive and vitality and youthfulness of a cyclothyme."

These observations suggest that when he wasn't depressed, Churchill probably had hypomanic (mild manic) symptoms: he was high in energy, highly sociable and extraverted, rapid in his thoughts and actions, and somewhat impulsive. He would routinely stay awake late into the night, with a burst of energy after midnight when in his bathrobe, he would dictate his many books and conduct much of his other work. He was incredibly productive, not only serving as a minister or prime minister for decades, but writing 43 books in 72 volumes (not to mention a huge body of correspondence).

Since cyclothymic personality involves the constant alternation between mild manic (hypomanic) and mild depressive symptoms, and since Churchill also clearly had multiple severe depressive episodes, it seems to me that he meets the official current definition of biopolar disorder, type II (hypomania alternating with severe depression). It is also possible that he had more severe manic episodes, which we cannot fully document yet, in which case he would meet the diagnostic definition of standard bipolar disorder (also called type I).

Perhaps the key to finding a link between this melancholic Churchill and his political realism can be found in the era of his political exile, the Wilderness years.

In the period between the two world wars, Winston Churchill, out of power and sidelined by his own Conservative Party, was seen as a peripheral and somewhat curmudgeonly political has-been.

Churchill did not fit the times. In the 1920s and 1930s, the leader of the Conservative Party, Stanley Baldwin appeased his conservative base while also compromising with the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who exuded the same basic attitude (some leftists called MacDonald the "Boneless Wonder" for his penchant to compromise). For about a decade, the two men led a government of national unity, one that excluded Winston Churchill.

Churchill was not part of the national unity club of the interwar peace primarily because his military views conflicted sharply with those of his peers. Churchill wanted to rearm England to prepare for the Nazi threat; he foresaw war.

His peers opposed military spending and couldn't fathom the reality of the German danger. For instance, the Duke of Westminster – best man in Churchill's wedding, and widely viewed as England's richest man – was an openly anti- Semitic supporter of Nazi Germany. Lord Londonderry – a cousin to Churchill and head of the Air Ministry in the years 1931– 1935 – consistently rejected Churchill's calls to expand British air forces. Londonderry even hosted Hitler's aristocratic emissary, Count von Ribbentrop, during a 1935 visit to England. Sir John Simon, Baldwin's foreign secretary, called Hitler "an Austrian Joan of Arc with a mustache."

Even Churchill's closest political mentor, the former First World War prime minister David Lloyd George, called Hitler "a born leader, a magnetic dynamic personality with a single- minded purpose," and concluded, "I only wish we had a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country." The royal family itself had pro-German sympathies; the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) told a German prince in 1933, "It was no business of ours to interfere in Germany's internal affairs either [regarding] Jews or anything else. … Dictators are very popular these days and we might want one in England before long."

King George V was explicit: "I will not have another war. I will not. The last one was none of my doing and if there is another one, and we are threatened with being brought into it, I will go to Trafalgar Square [where demonstrators traditionally gathered] myself sooner than allow the country to be brought in."

Many assume that Churchill's isolation made him depressed; it may be that Churchill's depression made him isolated. Churchill was relegated to the Wilderness, by Baldwin and others, because his unconventional persona (partly reflecting his mood illness) provided an excuse to ignore his sadly realistic political judgment. Baldwin groomed another successor: Neville Chamberlain.

The contrast between Churchill and Chamberlain in their approach to Nazism is well known. Where Churchill began to warn about the Nazi threat as early as October, 1930, Chamberlain remained oblivious as late as his fateful Munich visit in 1938. Chamberlain wanted to establish personal relations with Hitler, to meet him, to rationally convince him of the need to avoid war.

After his first meeting with Hitler, Chamberlain convinced himself that he had been right: "In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word." Chamberlain met Hitler three times in all; before the third trip, as he announced his plan in the House of Commons, most members stood and cheered. A few, like Churchill, remained seated, despite angry reproaches from nearby colleagues. In September 1938, while Chamberlain had dinner with Hitler in Munich, Churchill supped with two anti-Nazi MPs and steamed, "How could honourable men with wide experience and fine records in the Great War condone a policy so cowardly? It is sordid, squalid, subhuman, and suicidal."

What made Churchill see the truth where Chamberlain saw only illusion? A key difference was that Chamberlain was mentally healthy, while Churchill was clearly not.

Excerpted from A First-rate Madness , by Nassir Ghaemi. Published with permission from Penguin.

Interact with The Globe