Dumbledore and Churchill: War Heroes of 1945
I’m normally proudest of myself after I’ve done something that frightens me because I believe in courage, and I think that it’s the virtue that ensures all the others, as Winston Churchill said.” – J.K. Rowling
Eighteen years ago, according to the book’s timeline, Dumbledore was murdered in the Battle of the Astronomy Tower. In recognition, a comparison between Dumbledore, a great Wizarding War leader, and Churchill, a great Muggle war leader, seems fitting. Both men won a war in 1945, exactly 70 years ago, and both remain controversial figures.
Michael Gambon, who played Dumbledore for most of the Harry Potter movies, is currently performing as Winston Churchill in an ITV drama.
But this is the least of their connections; J.K. Rowling has mentioned on several occasions that the Second World War inspired significant aspects of the Harry Potter series. She has pointed out the parallels between Voldemort and Hitler – their desire for a “pure” race, their cruelty, and their ambition. She has also revealed Neville Chamberlain was the inspiration for Cornelius Fudge – both tried desperately to ignore an impending war. That leaves Winston Churchill and his Harry Potter counterpart – Albus Dumbledore.
Winston Churchill and Albus Dumbledore had remarkably similar beginnings. Churchill was born in 1874, while Dumbledore followed seven years later. Both mothers were distant – Churchill’s mother was a great socialite and rarely found time for her son, trying instead to fit in with her husband’s friends. Kendra, too, was described (by Muriel – so take this with a grain of salt) as a social climber, caring a great deal about her reputation.
— proud and very domineering, the sort of witch who would have been mortified to produce a Squib […] ” – Muriel, Deathly Hallows
Both mothers were outcasts – Kendra was a Muggle-born witch (possibly with Native American heritage), while Churchill’s mother was an American in 19th-century Britain.
Churchill and Dumbledore both lost their fathers at a young age. Dumbledore’s father was taken to Azkaban after attacking the three Muggles who had assaulted his daughter – Dumbledore was around 10. Churchill’s father died when Churchill was just 20.
In love they were similar – Churchill met and fell for Clementine Hozier, with whom he had a political rapport. Dumbledore’s infatuation with Grindelwald was also founded on a political “meeting of minds.” Although beyond this, their love lives went in very different directions.
I knew my brother, Potter. He learned secrecy at our mother’s knee. Secrets and lies, that’s how we grew up, and Albus… he was a natural.” – Aberforth Dumbledore, Deathly Hallows
Kendra was desperate to conceal her daughter’s condition. At the age of six, while discovering her magical abilities, some Muggle boys attacked Ariana and traumatized her so thoroughly she could no longer control her magic. Kendra was terrified Ariana would be discovered and committed to St. Mungo’s – so she made sure no one discovered the family’s secret.
Churchill lost his mother and his first daughter in 1921. His daughter was never spoken about by Clementine, his wife; in fact, Churchill’s second daughter didn’t know for a long time that she had a sister. The parallel between Ariana and Kendra’s secret is irresistible.
For the rest of his life, Dumbledore excelled in keeping secrets; in some ways, he was describing himself when he described Voldemort to Harry:
You will hear many of his Death Eaters claiming that they are in [Voldemort’s] confidence, that they alone are close to him, even understand him. They are deluded. Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one.” – Dumbledore, Half-Blood Prince
Dumbledore didn’t have many “friends” or “equals” besides Grindelwald, and the entire Order was in the dark about his plan for Harry.
Churchill, like Dumbledore, held many secrets, one of which has leaked is the “poison gas” memo:
I, [Winston Churchill] may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention.
Like Dumbledore, Churchill devised radical plans that would be condemned if they were made public – for both of them, the need for secrecy was paramount.
Both craved political success in their youth. Churchill was desperate to take his father’s place in the House of Commons. Dumbledore spent the summer of his 18th year fantasizing about his potential power:
I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory.” – Dumbledore, Deathly Hallows
However, Churchill continued to crave political power until his death, whereas Dumbledore – after the loss of his sister – grew wary of his ambition.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much of Dumbledore’s failures, except for this tantalizing hint:
In fact, being – forgive me – rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.
But it does bring to mind Churchill’s spectacular failure at Gallipoli during the First World War when he was acting as Commander of the British Navy. The attack was repelled after eight months of fighting with tremendous amounts of casualties. Churchill had “a great head for strategy,” but at that point, he was disastrously wrong.
Churchill was described in his youth by a young soldier in a letter to his father as “completely mad but the bravest man I ever saw.” A quote that could just as easily apply to Dumbledore – and let’s not forget what Percy tells Harry the first tie he sees Dumbledore.
Mad? [Dumbledore]’s a genius! Best wizard in the world! But he is a bit mad, yes.
Dumbledore and Churchill both tried to warn their ministers and their countries of the dangers of Voldemort and Nazi Germany, respectively.
If your determination to shut your eyes will carry you so far, Cornelius, then we have reached a parting of the ways. You must act as you see fit, and I must act as I see fit.” – Dumbledore, Goblet of Fire
Both were slandered as warmongers. Minister Cornelius Fudge and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain preferred to ignore their warnings.
My model of the world after Voldemort’s return was, directly, the government of Neville Chamberlain in Great Britain during the Second World War, when he tried to minimize the menace of the Nazi regime for political convenience.” – J.K. Rowling
In the end, both Churchill and Dumbledore were vindicated, when Hitler invaded Poland and when Voldemort blasted his way through the Ministry of Magic.
Both were brilliant orators –
I predict that the day will come at some point or other at some issue or other that you will have to make a stand, and I pray to God that when that day comes we do not find that we make that stand alone” – Churchill
Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good and kind and brave because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.” – Dumbledore, Goblet of Fire
The structure of these two pieces of rhetoric is extremely similar – there is a sense of foreboding, followed by the outline of a choice, and finally an appeal to the audience’s morals – Dumbledore appeals to the listener’s compassion, Churchill to the listener’s sense of duty.
Dumbledore was prepared to sacrifice Harry’s life:
Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter” – Snape, Deathly Hallows
Churchill, too, made controversial sacrifices – he destroyed the French fleet in World War II because the French refused his command, and he believed they would be taken by German forces. 1,200 French sailors were killed.
It was a ‘hateful decision, but no act [was] ever more necessary.’
Their deaths even had some similarities. Both men were determined to keep working despite becoming more and more debilitated – Churchill due to a series of strokes and Dumbledore due to his cursed hand.
Churchill and Dumbledore share a conviction in their own intelligence that allowed them to be great leaders – brilliant and ruthless. Seventy years ago, they won the greatest wars of their ages. Both were true Gryffindors, both were hated and loved by their public, and both are permanently stamped across the pages of their respective histories.
Do you agree? Or do you think there is another historical figure who parallels Dumbledore better?