Winston Churchill was an amazing man, full of contradictions, as larger-than-life heroes usually are. He was a Tory (Conservtive Party), and yet he campaigned for and won huge changes in the way war was waged. He lauded freedom and democracy as the highest goals of mankind, and he governed as a one-man show, a near dictator during the years of World War II. He was Britain’s beloved and greatest war leader of the twentieth century, and yet as soon as the war was won, the British people threw him out of office.
Mr. Hastings, a British journalist and author, shows Churchill with all his warts and also with all the endearing and audacious qualities that make him a fascination to historians and readers and students of World War II. I can’t rewrite the book here, so I’ll just give you a few sample quotations from the book:
“His supreme achievement in 1940 was to mobilise Britain’s warriors, to shame into silence its doubters, and to stir the passions of the nation, so that for a season the British people faced the world united and exalted. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was not spontaneous. It was created by the rhetoric and bearing of one man, displaying powers that will define political leadership for the rest of time. Under a different prime minister, the British people in their shock and bewilderment could as readily have been led in another direction.”
Churchill on Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into the war:
“it was a blessing . . . Greater good fortune has never happened to the British Empire. . . . Saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful. One hopes that eternal sleep will be like that.”
Churchill on the Russians:
“Experience has taught me that it is not worthwhile arguing with the Soviet people. One simply has to confront them with the new facts and await their reactions.”
(I have learned this same fact recently about a certain teenage family member. Arguing is a waste of time and breath.)
Alan Brooke, senior commander in the British Army describing a scene in Churchill’s bedroom (of which there were apparently many):
“The red and gold dressing gown in itself was worth going miles to see, and only Winston could have thought of wearing it! He looked rather like some Chinese mandarin! The few hairs were usually ruffled on his bald head. A large cigar stuck sideways out of his face. The bed was littered with papers and dispatches. Sometimes the tray with his finished breakfast was still on the bed table. The bell was continually being rung for secretaries, typists, stenographer, or his faithful valet Sawyers.”
Marian Holmes, one of Churchill’s private secretaries:
“In all his moods—totally absorbed in the serious matter of the moment, agonized over some piece of wartime bad news, suffused with compassion, sentimental and in tears, truculent, bitingly sarcastic, mischievous or hilariously funny—he was splendidly entertaining, humane and lovable.”
The author’s summation:
“Churchill had wielded more power than any other British prime minister had known, or would know again. . . Himself believing Britain great, for one last brief season he was able to make her so. To an extraordinary degree, what he did between 1940 and 1945 defines the nation’s self-image even into the twenty-first century.
His achievement was to exercise the privileges of a dictator without casting off the mantle of a democrat. Ismay once found him bemoaning the bother of preparing a speech for the House of Commons, and obviously apprehensive about its reception. The soldier said emolliently: ‘Why don’t you tell them to go to h—?” Churchill turned in a flash: ‘You should not say those things: I am the servant of the House.’”
Hastings catalogues all of Churchill’s mistakes and disasters, and there were many throughout the war. But the author’s admiration and appreciation for Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II shines through. Churchill comes across in this slice of his biography as The Indispensable Man without whom Hitler and his Nazis could not have been defeated. I’m sure a counter-argument could be mounted, but Churchill himself would have brushed all argument aside, a demagogue in the most admirable and heroic sense of the word.