This essay is adapted from The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation (Encounter, 232 pages, $29.99)

Churchill, Political Judgment, and the ‘Courage to See’

The greatness of Winston Churchill continues to shine through despite the ravages that accompany what Roger Scruton so strikingly called “the culture of repudiation.” To be sure, there are growing efforts to “cancel” one of the greatest human beings of this or any other time. One of his best biographers, the English historian Andrew Roberts, has rightly noted that his conservatism, a conservatism at the service of English liberty and the broader inheritance of Western Civilization, could be summed up under “the generalized soubriquet, Imperium et Libertas, Empire and Freedom.” 

But “civilizing empire” has a bad name today and is wrongly and presumptively identified with plunder and exploitation and a racist contempt for other peoples and nations. All were alien to Churchill.

As Roberts points out in his impressive 2018 book, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Churchill was deeply grateful to the millions of Indian subjects of the Crown who volunteered to fight for the cause of civilization during the two world wars of the 20th century. His opposition to a precipitous granting of independence to what became India and Pakistan was rooted as much in his desire to avoid sectarian strife and unnecessary bloodshed than in imperial blindness to the self-determination of peoples or the dignity of colonial subjects. Churchill was humane and magnanimous if he was anything at all. His fiercest critics are driven by ignorance and ideological parti pris, not to mention a lack of gratitude to the statesman, who more than anyone saved Western liberty and made possible Britain’s “Finest Hour.” 

Churchill’s Political Judgment 

To acknowledge Churchill’s greatness does not necessitate hagiography or what Churchill himself called “gush.” There is always an essential need and role for “discriminate criticism.” Roberts enumerates a long list of issues and decisions in the nine decades of Churchill’s life (1874–1965) where his judgment legitimately might be questioned. These include his early opposition to women’s suffrage, his decision to continue the Gallipoli operation after March 1915, his employing of the Black and Tan paramilitary forces in Ireland, his support for Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis of 1936, his mishandling of the Norwegian campaign in the spring of 1940, the misplaced “Gestapo” speech during the 1945 general election campaign that badly backfired (he suggested that Labour style socialism might eventually require a full-fledged totalitarian apparatus and secret police), and his questionable decision to remain prime minister after a serious stroke in 1953. All these decisions and judgments are debatable, and some were no doubt mistakes, perhaps even serious mistakes. 

But much of this is beside the point. Political greatness is not coextensive with infallibility or perfect judgment. On the issues that really mattered, Churchill was right, and not just in 1940 or as a critic of the disastrous appeasement of Hitler’s lupine imperialism in the half-decade or more before the outbreak of World War II. Today, many mediocre historians and critics, professional enemies of the very idea of human greatness, begrudgingly acknowledge that Churchill was right once, in 1940, and never or rarely before or after. 

These include those with a pronounced leftist orientation as well as the kind of perverse Tories, like the historian John Charmley, who retrospectively have preferred a separate peace with Nazi Germany in order to preserve the British empire and to ward off a coming threat from Soviet Communism. Even the Labour leader Clement Attlee, who presided over the War Cabinet with Churchill during World War II and came to acknowledge his qualities and to esteem him as a human being, problematically claimed that “Energy, rather than wisdom, practical judgment or vision, was his supreme qualification.” In truth, his undeniable energy would have amounted to very little, or little that was positive and constructive, if it had not been informed by practical wisdom of the first order.

In the magisterial conclusion to Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Roberts effectively responds to the naysayers, to those who are intent on minimizing both Churchill’s greatness and the practical judgment that informed and vivified that greatness. Roberts rightly points out that “when it came to all three mortal threats posed to Western civilization, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgment stood far above that of the people who sneered at his.” 

Paraphrasing Kipling’s great poem “If,” Roberts notes that many of Churchill’s critics were “losing their heads and blaming it on him.” Attlee, honorably anti-Nazi to be sure, opposed rearmament and conscription before World War II, long after Churchill had wisely called for both. “Energy, rather than wisdom” indeed.

I would add that Churchill understood the lethal character of Bolshevism long before the majority of his complacent contemporaries. As early as April 11, 1919, in a speech in London, Churchill argued that “Bolshevist tyranny,” as he called it, was “the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading” in human history. He would reiterate that claim many times over the years. Churchill wanted to truly help the fledgling White forces in Russia while his short-sighted colleagues were anxious to withdraw the small Allied forces in Russia who were in a position to prevent the consolidation of Bolshevik tyranny. Even this is held against Churchill by anti-anti-communist historians, who are legion today. Somehow a meager, ineffectual, and brief Allied presence on Russian soil during the Russian Civil War is said to be responsible for the long Cold War. This reflects anti-anti-communist ire rather than a disinterested analysis of the facts. A widely held sophism, but a sophism nonetheless.

Roberts is most effective at challenging the facile and fashionable view that Churchill was a “hedgehog” (to cite the adage of the Greek poet Archilochus, popularized by Isaiah Berlin) who got only one big thing right. In truth, Churchill, no socialist, was in the years before the Great War “the initiator of much social legislation to alleviate the suffering of the grindingly poor of Edwardian Britain.” A member of the Liberal Party at the time, his role in creating a modest British welfare state reflected his Disraeli-like commitment to “one-nation” conservatism, to “Tory Democracy” broadly understood.

Churchill early on saw the need for an effective and long-term alliance with a France that could no longer adequately defend herself without external help. As first lord of the Admiralty, he got the fleet ready for World War I, and he is in many ways the father of the tank and appreciated, henceforth, the centrality of tank warfare in modern military operations. He made peace with the Irish rebel Michael Collins (whom he also befriended) and helped bring the Irish Free State into existence. During his second premiership, he renewed the path of Tory democracy by building “a million homes and abolishing rationing.” These are considerable achievements, numerous, and in no way simply “one big thing” at one brief moment in time.

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Churchill and the Twin Totalitarian Marauders

Last but not least, Roberts adds, Churchill “was the first significant political figure to spot the twin totalitarian dangers of communism and Nazism and to point out the best ways of dealing with both.” Roberts thus rightly concludes against Churchill’s critics—not the full-blown “cancelers” but rather the academic “belittlers”—that “Churchill was a quintessential fox, who knew and did many things, not a hedgehog.” In this judgment, Roberts is surely right. But one might go on to add that this fox put many hedgehogs to shame.

In one of his greatest speeches—eloquent, discerning, and speaking the truth fearlessly and without hesitation amidst a false sense of “joy and relief”—on the calamity that was the Munich Pact (“A Total and Unmitigated Defeat,” delivered in the House of Commons on October 5, 1938), Churchill made clear why there “can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.”

And then with laconic eloquence, he draws the only conclusion that can be drawn from such a situation: “That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.” Not appeasement but a “supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor” is necessary for Britain (and the other democracies) to “take [her] stand for freedom as in the olden time.” 

Here we see and cannot help but admire understanding at the service of eloquence, practical reason at the service of a politics of tough-minded but humane prudence, a defense of freedom at the service of true peace and not pacifism or pusillanimity.

The Courage to See: Saving the West as the West

Churchill saw what was at stake in the totalitarian assault on liberal and Christian civilization like few people before or after. Among 20th-century statesmen, only de Gaulle shared this admirable lucidity and the determination to resist the inhuman totalitarian temptation on the intellectual, military, political, and spiritual fronts. These two great statesmen fully appreciated that World War II was much more than an age-old geopolitical conflict: it was no less than an effort to save and sustain a civilization at once Christian, liberal, and democratic. They still cared for the West as the West, a civilization worth preserving because it alone fully valorized the dignity of human beings who are souls as well as bodies, persons imbued with dignity and not playthings of ideological despotisms that in decisive respects were “beyond good and evil.” 

That noble spiritual and civilizational vision is increasingly moribund in the democracies today. 

Churchill always manifested what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “the courage to see.” This courage to see is at the heart of Churchill’s ability to combine love of peace with truly indomitable courage, resistance to totalitarian aggression with a sincere desire to avoid the “twin marauders” of war and tyranny, as Churchill called them in his Iron Curtain Speech (“The Sinews of Peace,” March 5, 1946) delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, with President Harry Truman’s strong encouragement and support. In that world-famous speech, Churchill celebrated the spiritual and political solidarity of the freedom-loving “English-speaking world,” committed as it was “to the principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Independence.” This is the shared heritage, the spiritual lineage, of the Anglo-American world. It is a particular tradition that reaches out to the universal grounds of liberty and human dignity. 

Like one of his greatest inspirations, Edmund Burke, Churchill was a conservative Whig, “an apostle of [ordered] liberty,” of constitutionalism built on settled tradition and old wisdom, and a formidable critic of the totalitarian enemies of Western Civilization. Churchill and Burke stood equally for modern liberty and ancient wisdom, for Christian ethics and fierce opposition to the totalitarian negation of man, whether Jacobin, Nazi, or communist. If Burke was the great partisan of war to the death with Jacobin atheism and tyranny, Churchill advocated “peace through strength,” a firm but more cautious and calibrated response to ideological totalitarianism in an age where nuclear weapons could put an end to the human adventure in one fell swoop. 

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In his “Swan Song” before the House of Commons before retiring as prime minister for a second time (“Never Despair,” March 1, 1955), Churchill defended an independent British nuclear deterrent and hoped that with “patience and courage” the West could survive the age of totalitarianism. Someday, on the distant horizon, “tormented generations” may live to see a new dawn “when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom” are truly the order of the day. That modest but deeply encouraging hope, of course, is by no means preordained according to some logic of historical inevitability (Churchill’s political thinking was bereft of such ideological or utopian illusions). In his conclusion to this final parliamentary address as prime minister, Churchill evoked the great Churchillian virtues of hope, determination, and the refusal to surrender or to despair: “Never flinch, never weary, never despair.” These were virtues that demanded action and determination on the part of prudent, decent, and freedom-loving men and women. 

Churchill, a thinking statesman par excellence, combined the Roman virtue of courage with the love of peace and the arts of prudence. And never did he forget that Western liberty was nothing without solicitude for everything represented by “Christian ethics.” He is one of history’s great avatars and exemplars of “greatness of spirit” informed by decency, prudence, and moderation.

Isaiah Berlin: “Winston Churchill in 1940”

Let us turn now to the most outstanding single piece of writing on the soul, historical imagination, and political achievement of Winston Churchill: Isaiah Berlin’s “Winston Churchill in 1940,” originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1949. Berlin spent much of World War II as an observer of the American scene for the British government. But he never lost sight of the home front or Churchill’s central role in sustaining the cause of Western liberty. Berlin’s magisterial 1949 essay, republished in several anthologies of Berlin’s writings, most recently The Proper Study of Mankind, gets to the heart of Churchill’s moral and political bearing in a manner that academic historians and political scientists cannot begin to convey. With a few notable exceptions, they have lost the capacity to speak about the soul and the rich and diverse motives that inform it. 

Where they tend to dogmatically see nothing but broad, inexorable causes at work, Berlin (for all the limits of his “pluralistic” moral philosophy), like Aristotle and Churchill himself, appreciated that history is what “Alcibiades did and suffered.” The determinism implicit in the social sciences and what Tocqueville called “fatalistic” or “democratic” history cannot begin to illumine the role that a great soul, for good or for ill, can play in the unfolding of history. As Milton Himmelfarb once declaimed, “No Hitler, no Holocaust.” And one can add with equal assurance, “No Churchill, no survival of British liberty or the cause of Western Civilization.” Berlin, to his enduring credit, was committed wholeheartedly to this golden verity without which there can be no serious thought or noble action. 

Berlin begins his essay by recalling a 1928 book on the art of writing English prose by the then well-known poet and critic Herbert Read. Read’s book took aim at Churchill’s allegedly “high-sounding, redundant, falsely eloquent, declamatory” prose, self-aggrandizing in Read’s estimation and false to its very core. Marked by a somber and dissatisfied postwar mood that was critical of everything high-minded, including “noble eloquence” itself, Read deplored Churchill’s “grand style.” It was at best anachronistic, at worst “hollow pasteboard” that had nothing to say to the dark realities of the time. 

Berlin believed that this view, tinged with nihilistic despair, was “profoundly mistaken.” Churchill’s “heroic” and “highly colored” if “sometimes over-simple and even naïve” rhetoric was the “natural means” for him to express a “genuine” vision of life. Where Read saw an “unconvincing . . . illusion,” Berlin discerned an “inspired, if unconscious, attempt at a revival,” one indebted to Gibbon, Dr. Johnson, Peacock, Macaulay, and classics such as Cicero. It was undoubtedly “too bright, too big, too vivid, too unstable for the sensitive and sophisticated epigoni” of the 1920s. Berlin found Read’s analysis of Churchill to be unconvincing because it made no effort to understand Churchill from the inside and was blind to the totalitarian threat already visible on the horizon.

Churchill’s vivid language, with its “sharply marked characteristics,” spoke to the new situation and the courage needed to confront it precisely because it combined formal eloquence with truly “public” language, Ciceronian, dignified, and “remote from the hesitancies and stresses of introspection and private life” that preoccupied intellectuals such as Herbert Read or those young men at Oxford in 1933 who voted to “never again to fight for King and country.” Churchill’s rhetoric was the medium for bringing together love of liberty with the Roman virtue of courage. When Churchill spoke to the nation on June 4, 1940, (“Wars Are Not Won by Evacuations”) after the return of 333,000 allied troops—26,000 of them French—who had been semi-miraculously rescued from death or captivity at Dunkirk, his Augustan prose conveyed both realism about the situation confronting the British people and the heroic determination to stand up to approaching evil, come what may. It is rhetoric for the ages that stirs souls that can still respond to the clarion calls of honor and liberty. Here is the most memorable and dramatic passage: 

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight 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.

At the same time, as Britain carried on the struggle with her last breath and the most heroic determination, Churchill had “realistic” hopes that in “God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.” No false colors here, no inflated verbiage. Just the noble eloquence and honorable love for political liberty and national independence that was Churchill’s hallmark. This inspiring and inspiriting rhetoric allowed a commercial and peace-loving people to stand up to Hitler’s monstrous tyranny and ravenous imperialism. In Berlin’s words, through noble speech of this kind, Churchill single-handedly “created a heroic mood” and helped give the common cause of Western liberty a “sublimity” that carried the British people through the Battle of Britain. Without vivid, colorful, ennobling, and inspiriting rhetoric of this sort, Churchill would not have won what the historian John Lukacs has rightly called his “duel” with Hitler.

As Berlin points out, Churchill’s volumes on the Second World War (six in all) are guided by the same vision, moral imagination, coloration, and ennobling rhetoric. In this moment of supreme crisis, Churchill’s world, as Berlin called it, evoked “the primacy of public over private relationships,” insisted “upon the supreme value of action,” and spoke freely and unapologetically about “the battle between simple good and simple evil, between life and death.” No sophisticated relativism or debilitating “moral equivalence.” Churchill’s public speech dispelled the acids of modernity and restored cardinal virtues such as courage, justice, and fortitude to their rightful place in the souls of human beings. No nihilism here either, only the moral clarity that allows free peoples to fight heroically for freedom and civilization. In this regard, Churchill stands with Cicero and Burke as a defensor civitatis par excellence, a defender of the human city against the ideological barbarians at the gate.

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The Sympathetic Identification with Great People and Nations

In “Winston Churchill in 1940,” Isaiah Berlin beautifully captured how Churchill’s humane historical and moral imagination allowed him to experience great and ancient nations and peoples from within, so to speak. The Germans were a “great historic race” for Churchill. They were never reducible to the depravity and cruelties of Hitler, “this evil man, this monstrous abortion of hatred and defeat.” That is why, among other reasons, he could, generously and magnanimously, call for the “revival of Europe” through a grand partnership between “a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany” in his memorable speech on European unity at Zurich on September 19, 1946. Half-American himself (on his mother’s side), he studied American history and politics, traveled widely through its states, befriended President Franklin Roosevelt, and became the popular historian of the “English-speaking peoples” (his four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, essentially completed before the outbreak of World War II, was finally published in 1956). 

In addition, Churchill had what Berlin rightly calls a “glowing vision of France and her culture” and always supported “the necessity of Anglo-French collaboration.” If he sometimes saw Russia as half-Asiatic and prone to “oriental despotism,” he also appreciated its civilizational and cultural achievements and saw its people as sorry victims of a truly unprecedented totalitarian order. 

There is more one can add. In his wartime speeches, Churchill speaks of the subjugated peoples of Europe with a vividness and sympathy that comes from an historical imagination that is vibrant, living, and in no way antiquarian or academic. Near the end of the Finest Hour speech of June 18, 1940, he speaks of “Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians” who “have joined their causes to our own.” He movingly adds with a strikingly biblical resonance: “All shall be restored.” Churchill speaks of free peoples, Western peoples, whom he knows well and are vital parts of a civilization, one might say civilization itself, which was then under unprecedented assault. His evocative rhetoric was perfect for this sobering moment and admirably combined realism with hope and a call to action. 

This is a rhetoric, wholly “authentic” as Berlin has already established, that truly moves—and elevates—souls. And in the famous passage from the “Iron Curtain” speech of March 5, 1946, where Churchill discusses the Iron Curtain that has descended across half of Europe, he speaks of “the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe”—Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia”—with a sympathy and familiarity that is palpable. He knows them, he feels for them, and he does not want the rest of Europe to experience the dislocations, repressions and persecutions, police states and “totalitarian control,” as these great and ancient peoples were already experiencing. No European or American statesman could speak this way today, or would know how to. Churchill’s is a cosmopolitanism that is essentially conservative, rooted in tradition, historical imagination, and deep sympathy for the myriad national and cultural expressions of civilized Western liberty. His language was much broader and deeper than the reductive contemporary language of “human rights.” Churchill was the consummate British patriot but also a “good European” and the most civilized of men.

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“A Periclean Reign” 

For Berlin, Churchill’s “imagination” and “will” were able to lift the British people “to an abnormal height in a [supreme] moment of crisis.” He suggestively calls it “a Periclean reign,” worthy of the great Athenian statesman Pericles himself, whose admirable statesmanship we know from Thucydides and Plutarch. Churchill’s will, moral imagination, and Ciceronian rhetoric, and his broader courage and determination, “transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armour.” Churchill was the lion who roared and who called to the British people: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” These words of June 18, 1940, are quintessentially, emblematically, Churchillian and rightly speak to the ages. 

But Berlin makes clear that Churchill’s noble and evocative rhetoric has nothing to do with “the kind of means by which dictators and demagogues transform peaceful populations into marching armies”; Churchill’s noble rhetoric fully operated within “the framework of a free system without destroying or even twisting it.” This is perfectly stated. If Churchill was in some respects a romantic, filled with chivalric sentiments and sympathies, he also “was saved . . . by a sufficiency of that libertarian feeling” that allowed him to fully perceive “what is false, grotesque, contemptible in the great frauds upon the people practiced by totalitarian regimes.” He truly loved political liberty and representative government, and he had respect for the dignity of ordinary people, in their simple “cottage homes,” as he put it in the Iron Curtain speech.

Of aristocratic lineage himself, Churchill was no crude snob, as his best biographers well attest. He was an anti-totalitarian through and through. He “mobilized the English language,” as the American journalist Edward R. Murrow famously put it, in no small part to expose the monstrous pretensions of the totalitarians. Churchill admirably combined astute analysis with eloquence and a call to arms as in these famous sentences, at once instructive and ennobling, from the peroration of the Finest Hour speech:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Churchill’s remarkable combination of Periclean greatness with a Ciceronian rhetoric educated in liberty and civic virtue was committed to a libertarian civilization informed by mercy and chivalry, one that inherited an elementary decency from the Christian centuries. This rare mixture of virtues and perspectives helps explain Churchill’s abiding greatness. Writing in 1949, Isaiah Berlin, a most literate and discerning eyewitness to Churchill in 1940, rightly concluded that Churchill was “an orator of prodigious powers, the saviour of his country, a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as reality, the largest human being of our time.” This is not the aforementioned “gush” or hyperbole but rather an empirical description of a very high order, utilizing the full poetic resources of the English language to capture the deepest recesses of the statesman’s soul.

Those words will continue to ring true. Isaiah Berlin’s witness to Churchillian greatness, shorn of cynicism and the modern intellectual’s tendency to repudiate and tear down the noble and exemplary, is a gift for this and coming generations. It captures the phenomenon of “greatness of spirit” with eloquence, seriousness, and gratitude, and with a rare literary and moral grace and acumen appropriate to the subject.

 “A Man of Destiny”

Like Charles de Gaulle, Churchill saw himself from his teenage years as a “man of destiny.” Andrew Roberts reports that Churchill told a teenage friend that he was destined for great things and would one day save London from occupation and destruction, even as de Gaulle wrote an essay in 1905 foreseeing that in the year 1930 (he was a mere ten years off!), “General de Gaulle” would save France and Europe from tyranny and aggression. Readers of The Gathering Storm, the first and most gripping of the six volumes of The Second World War, well remember the supreme self-confidence that Churchill displayed upon becoming prime minister of Great Britain on May 10, 1940, since he at last “had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.” He felt, he told his readers, that he was a man “walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” His predictions “were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me.” He added that he “could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it.” 

Churchill was sure “he would not fail.” This is the self-confidence that accompanies genuine magnanimity, or greatness of spirit. Churchill adds that he “slept soundly throughout the war, even during the blitz, “and had no need for cheering dreams.” He memorably concludes, “Facts are better than dreams.” Noble and humane “greatness of spirit,” informed by practical wisdom and true moderation, is indeed a “moral fact” of a very high order. There can be no authentic political science, no genuine understanding of human beings and society, without a willingness to give the proper conjugation of greatness, courage, and moderation its due.

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About Daniel J. Mahoney

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University and is, for the 2020-2021 academic year, the Garwood Visiting Professor in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He is completing a book called The Statesman as Thinker: Ten Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, to be published by Encounter Books.

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