Winston Churchill is defined by historyhe studied it, he wrote it and he made it. While the notion that great men shape the course of human events is somewhat outmoded among professional historians, Churchill transformed Britain’s darkest hour in 1940 into its finest. Inspiring Britons with his own romantic view of their history, he was a wartime leader beside whom all subsequent leaders must pale. Churchill defined Britain’s war aims simply: upon the shoulders of British men and women lay the burden and responsibility of defending Western civilization in Europe. He appealed to the greatness and goodness that was history’s legacy to his people, and his people rallied to the mission he assigned them.
This colossus bestriding the first half of the 20th century has not wanted for biographers. There are scores of mammoth treatments of the man. The most distinguished historians, regardless of their field of specialization, have written on Churchill, drawn perhaps by an affinity to a subject who was as much a historian as a statesman, who, indeed, was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature for his history of the Second World War. The two contributions to this corpus under review here are somewhat more modest in scale if not in interpretive power and the professional status of the authors.
John Keegan, a distinguished and prolific military historian, wrote his brief biography of Churchill for the Penguin Lives series. It is meant to be a brief, accessible introduction, and it succeeds excellently on those terms. In under 200 pages Keegan sketches out the life of the great manthe aristocratic background, a poor student, the young cavalry officer in imperial service and the prolific writer and journalist. In 1900 Winston, the son of the maverick Conservative Randolph Churchill, entered Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party, a destiny fulfilled, only to cross the floor to the Liberal Party four years later, in time to partake of the party’s prewar dominance. Churchill was not always well liked, and certainly not well trusted, yet he so clearly possessed the talent and energy for government service that he quickly rose to cabinet positions. His sparkling political career was nearly derailed during the First World War, when Churchill the strategist plunged British and imperial forces into the disastrous Dardanelles campaign.
If the years before World War I saw the rise of a most promising young politician, the years after could have been experienced only by Churchill himself as years of failure. He jumped parties again in 1924, acquiring a reputation for unsteadiness and disloyalty, and he was never very much in the favor of his new Conservative colleagues, though once again his sheer talent and energy earned him high office, for awhile. The lion in the wilderness, as one of his biographers describes him, Churchill found himself increasingly isolated from his party and his nation. He was seriously at odds with both in his opposition to Indian self-government and his denunciation of Britain’s appeasement of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s, assuming the role of Cassandra to an ever dismissive House of Commons. Events, of course, vindicated his astonishing vision, and in 1940 Churchill rose from the nadir of his political career to its zenith when he became prime minister and leader of Britain’s valiant war effort at the age of 65.
Keegan provides an excellent introduction to the life of Churchill, though he is perhaps a little too inclined to airbrush the warts from his portrait. He takes particular pains, for example, to claim for his hero the mantle of a social radical, giving him far more credit than the evidence bears for the development of the British welfare state. But Churchill had a bad reputation among the British working class, largely attributed to his tenure as Home Secretary during the General Strike of 1926. Having won the people’s war, Churchill acquired the respect and affection of his people, but not their confidence in his willingness to construct a people’s peace to follow. And so he fell victim to a huge Labour landslide in 1945. From that point his contribution to history was largely the writing of it and, of course, his rather magisterial cold-war policy pronouncements.
Those more familiar with the contours of Churchill’s career will find considerable delight in the more thematic contribution of John Lukacs, Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian. Basically this is a collection of revised, previously published, stand-alone essays, many of them extended book reviews that focus on Churchill’s role in the origins and progress of the cold war. The author of over 20 books on 20th-century European history, Lukacs nearly matches his subject in publishing output. And therein lies the fun of the book. Few biographers have approached Churchill with the depth and breadth of Lukacs, and although one might dispute many of the author’s assessments, it is still a pleasure to watch his mind at work.
Lukacs, unlike Keegan, acknowledges Churchill’s errors and misjudgments, although all is forgiven in light of Churchill’s undisputed greatness. The source of this greatness is Churchill’s vision, shaped so profoundly by his study of history and his acute understanding of the titans who shared his historical moment. In exploring the showdown between Churchill and Hitler, or the relatively successful partnerships with Stalin and Roosevelt and the less successful one with Eisenhower, Lukacs presents Churchill consistently as the more perspicacious statesman. Having considered Churchill as a historical actor in the first several essays, Lukacs turns his attention to Churchill the historian and then to the historians of Churchill, concluding with a thoughtful and moving account of Churchill’s funeral in 1965, which marked the end of a certain historical era.
During these days of imminent war and vulnerability to evil forces bustling about in the world, we yearn for a leader like Churchill, who is more a statesman than a politician, who offers a moral vision articulated through such a beautiful command of the language that we are inspired and profoundly transformed into our better selves.