Sunday, August 11, 2013


A review of Marin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life (1991)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Martin Gilbert’s biography of Sir Winston Churchill is a straightforward account of the life of one of the great (if not the greatest) statesmen in British history.  Considering how long British history goes, that is quite a thing to be.  His career was long and enduring; it began in the reign of Queen Victoria and ended during the reign of Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II.   During his career he would go from being a conservative to a liberal to a conservative again.  In the end he would prove to be just as much a riddle wrapped in an enigma as he proclaimed Russia was. 

A commoner of noble blood Winston Churchill was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.  His father was Lord Randolph Churchill a member of British House of Commons who rose all the way up to Chancellor of the Exchequer, and fell due to his own missteps.  Young Churchill would earn a commission in the British Army and fight in India.  He would also go to war as a correspondent reporting on the Boer War to the press, while simultaneously getting captured and having an adventurous escape.
Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer

His accomplishments as a writer would equal his political accomplishments.  His works would include but was not limited to a History of the English Speaking Peoples; his own accounts of World War I and II, and a biography of his famous ancestor, John Churchill the 1st Duke of Marlborough.  
Churchill the solider
Churchill would enter the Commons as a member of the Conservative Party, his father’s party, but would switch to the Liberals.  He would rise through the Liberal ranks holding various offices in Liberal governments.  One of his best, although to him distasteful and to the world forgotten, was his work in the Home Office.  There he would introduce many reforms most notably of the British prisons.
new member of the House of Commons

In the early years of World War I he was in a prime position as First Lord of the Admiralty but during a low point in the war with blame flying he lost his job.  So his response is to go and command a regiment in the actual fighting.  It is at this and several other moments in the book that I am consistently drawing parallels to the career of President Theodore Roosevelt.  

The one drawback of the book is while it does successfully detail Churchill’s career it negates to bring to life his world.  Churchill’s career spans the Victorian Age to the Cold War yet these periods do not come alive for us.  When we met other actors from Franklin Roosevelt, Neville Chamberlain, Adolph Hitler, George V, or Joseph Stalin, we see them as Churchill does.  Gilbert makes no effort to explain who these people are on their own terms.  The author works with the assumption that the reader knows who everyone is.  That is fine in regards to President Roosevelt but I knew of very little of Anthony Eden going into this and did not learn anything new about him.
 Nevertheless, some things I did take away were the fall of relevancy of David Lloyd George and the disgrace of Stanley Baldwin.  After the First World War, Lloyd George was one of the most powerful men in the world by the end of next decade he did not even matter—although he has one more fleeting moment of greatness when Chamberlain falls.  It is amazing how a powerful man and party can just disappear.  Then there was the case of Baldwin.
Prime Minister Baldwin more concerned over the King than Hitler

Stanley Baldwin, although Britain does rearm, the progress is slow and the Prime Minster seems to be more concerned with who the King is marrying then what the Germans are doing.  When the King, Edward VIII is determined to marry who he wants, Wallis Simpson, the Prime Minster seeks to drive him from the throne.  What might have been considered outright treason Baldwin saw as normal behavior, he gets the King off the throne and retires himself before the coronation of the new King, George VI.
A year that began and ended with King George
When Baldwin leaves Neville Chamberlain, a prime minister whose legacy is forever linked to the failed policy of appeasement, replaces him.  Churchill is brought back into government and before long is running the entire program.  In the early days of his premiership Churchill and Britain stood alone, but with Hitler’s blunder in invading the Soviet Union and the Japanese blunder in attacking the United States, Churchill became a member of great triumvirate that would help bring the allies to clear and absolute victory.
"Peace in out time" That was not true
V for victory

As the Prime Minister, Churchill was a hands-on manager.  He appointed himself his own minister of defense and simultaneously arranged many face-to-face meetings with his allies, Roosevelt and Stalin, doing his best to build personal relationships that would enable them to work together and defeat the Axis powers. 

The enemy

war planing with Roosevelt
After the war the electorate threw out the conservatives (with Churchill) out of power despite Churchill himself being personally popular.  He would have to be an observer in the post-war world he had worked so hard to bring about.  Churchill would continue to focus on his literary works while leading the opposition.  When returned to power in 1950 Churchill would try to use his second premiership to bring a rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union.  That would end only in disappointment.  The career of the man who led his country through war and coined the phrase the ‘Iron Curtin’ while also dreaming of a United States of Europe, would come to a more quite end of resignation and insufficient replacement, as Eden did not last long in power. 

Martin Gilbert gives us a very 101 look into the life of a great statesman.  As I earlier noted this book could have explored his world a little more.  I must also add I love the capitalization in this book.  I much prefer the style of Prime Minster of the United Kingdom to prime minister of the United Kingdom.  Gilbert gives a good start into the life of Winston Churchill.

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