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Churchill. A volcano of words in the wilderness years before war


Boston: Little, Brown. 756 pp. $24.95

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`CHURCHILL?'' Lady Astor replied to Stalin in Moscow in 1932. ``Oh, he's finished.''

And so it seemed. The previous year Winston Churchill had resigned from the Conservative Party's shadow Cabinet over its India policy, retreating into exile, if not silence, on Parliament's back benches. To many in Britain's ruling circles he was a political anachronism and thoroughly washed up.

Churchill had sat in British Cabinets almost continuously since 1908, when he was 33. Despite Tory preeminence throughout the '30s, he would not hold a portfolio again until September 1939, when Nazi tanks roaring across Poland would compel Neville Chamberlain to bring Churchill into the government.

The first book in William Manchester's projected three-volume biography of Churchill, published in 1983, concludes with Lady Astor's sneering epitaph. This, the second volume, ends in May 1940 as Churchill accepts the prime ministership, replacing the broken Chamberlain.

With hindsight, Churchill's political resurrection seems foreordained. But it hardly appeared thus during those bleak years, when Churchill fell out of step, not just with his country's rulers, but with the very spirit of the age.

Churchill's years in the wilderness were also, not coincidentally, the appeasement years. With the horrible carnage of World War I still vivid in their memories, people in Britain were prepared to do almost anything to avoid another conflict. Churchill, with his increasingly dire warnings about German rearmament and calls for corresponding measures, was a skunk in the woodpile.

So thoroughly discredited is the word ``appeasement'' today that it is difficult to cast one's mind back to a time when statesmen could regard it as an honorable policy. But failure to do so makes the decade incomprehensible and also diminishes appreciation of Churchill's courage in the face of enormous resentment.

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Appeasement rested on three main legs. First, there was the death stench that still lingered from 1918. Second, many British leaders felt guilt over the vindictive terms, including the crushing reparations, that were imposed on Germany at the Versailles peace conference; easing Germany's burden and rationalizing the map of Europe, they reasoned, could only further peace. Third, a strong Germany was seen as an essential bulwark against Bolshevism.

But appeasement, if not inherently flawed, was a frail chain to bind a madman. Almost immediately after he gained power in 1933, Hitler began to rearm Germany and inaugurate the escalating demands that led inexorably to war. Whatever its original rationale, appeasement became in practice a policy of exaggerated hope, willful blindness, self-deception, and, as the shift in the balance of power became evident, defeatism and despair.

Churchill was one of the few European statesmen who had troubled to read ``Mein Kampf,'' and he took its rantings seriously as a blueprint for Hitler's ambitions. For six long years, at great political and personal cost, he took it upon himself to sound the warning.

Armed with facts and figures secretly provided by a remarkable network of informants in the Foreign Office, the military, and even Germany, Churchill detailed the German arms buildup - especially in air power - in the House of Commons (often to a nearly empty chamber), on lecture platforms, and in newspaper columns. He used every note in his wide rhetorical range to embolden a government that was, he said, ``decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.''

This tireless, defiant, indomitable performance was perhaps Winston Churchill's own finest hour, even more than his wartime leadership.

The public Churchill is inevitably at the center of Manchester's sweeping narrative, but the other parts of this complicated man also take the stage. We see Churchill the squire of Chartwell, his country home in Kent; Churchill the uxorious husband, the loving but sometimes peevish father, the exasperating employer, the painter, the bricklayer, the journalist and historian.

Churchill was a prodigious writer - partly because he was a volcano of words, partly because writing was virtually his sole source of income. (Even with his mammoth output, though, Churchill - a spendthrift - was nearly always on the brink of financial disaster, and in 1938 only a bailout by a banker friend spared him from bankruptcy and the sale of his beloved Chartwell.)

During these years he wrote hundreds of articles and speeches, his three-volume biography of the first Duke of Marlborough, and several lesser books, and he completed most of the work on his four-volume ``History of the English-Speaking Peoples'' (published after the war). In his study, night after night, he would work into the early morning hours, consulting with research assistants, dictating to shifts of stenographers, and correcting proofs as couriers waited to carry the manuscripts to his London publishers.

There was, to be sure, clay mixed with the Churchillian steel. He had lapses of judgment: His unpopular support of Edward VIII in the 1936 abdication crisis sent his military-readiness campaign reeling (Clementine Churchill called her husband the ``last believer in the divine right of kings''). Manchester tells us that, among other faults, Churchill was a poor political tactician; he was a matchless self-advertiser; he could be insensitive to the point of cruelty toward servants and political adversaries; he was megalomaniac and intuitively understood Hitler ``because of the aggressive drives lying deep in his own complex personality.''

Offsetting these, however, were his extraordinary quickness of mind, his vast capacity for friendship and loyalty, his legendary magnanimity, and his transcendent leadership skills.

He was, quite simply, the greatest statesman of our century.

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