One of the reasons I don’t write for a living (besides the main reason: that no one would pay me to write for a living) is that I have always been a better reader than a writer. I can be a voracious reader and I rarely get tired of reading anything from literature, science fiction, and fantasy to history, politics, philosophy, and religion. I tend to read for the sake of reading, however, and this often holds me back. As anyone who has tried it will tell you, it is very different reading for pleasure than reading in order to write a review. I have struggled in blogging to straddle that line. I have tried to read for pleasure and then write intelligently about what I had read. This is often difficult as I rarely take notes or organize my thoughts, feelings, and reactions as I read. I usually end up just winging it. I have shared the uneven results with you.
The subject of Winston Churchill has proved no exception from this struggle. Winston Churchill’s life and times is a fascinating subject full of complexity and controversy. After all, many consider Churchill the Man of the Twentieth Century. I recently read two works on Churchill:
The first was the Penguin Lives Biography of Churchill by renowned military historian John Keegan. Keegan shows why these brief biographical narratives are so useful. He artful weaves the story of Churchill’s life and situates it in the history of the period in less than 200 pages. Obviously Keegan can’t touch on every aspect of Churchill’s life or exhaust the scholarly debates in a work of this length, but he can give you solid grasp of his life and its place in history.
Perhaps the best feature of this book is its readability. Keegan avoids stuffy academic prose and tells an interesting story. He addresses important issues and ideas and yet communicates the excitement and fascination he has for his subject. I am in awe of his ability to capture someone larger than life like Churchill in such a brief and concise work. As anyone who has attempted to tackle write history knows, it is easier to write a lengthy over-detailed work than it is to gracefully and succinctly communicate a story.
To go along with this concise history I also read
Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian. by John Lukacs. If Keegan wrote a concise yet largely chronological narrative history, Lukacs work is more a series of essays on Churchill. He deals with Churchill’s vision, his relationships, his writing, and his strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately his place in history. Lukacs brings a great deal of knowledge to the subject having written a couple of books on Churchill as well as numerous books on Europe and WW II. The result is a fascinating and thought provoking look at Churchill as a visionary statesman.
For a number of days now I have been wrestling with how to best communicate the heart of these two fascinating books. I would write and erase, put it off and come back to it, write and erase. I never seemed to get a handle on what it was I wanted to say. The farther I got away from having read them the harder it was to put it all back together. What I have decided to do is just to focus on one question: what is it that qualifies Churchill for such a lofty honor as Man of the Century?
The answer lies not in the fact that he led a triumphal life but rather that at one particular pivot point in history he was there and did what was right. The fact is that, in an age of world war, revolutionary movements, and death and destruction on a colossal scale, Churchill got it right. He was right about communism and he was right about National Socialism. He was almost singularly alone in facing down Hitler in the early stages of WW II and he was nearly the only one who saw what Stalin was seeking to do in the aftermath of that war. Ironically, the greatest thing that can be said of Churchill is that when he stood alone in 1939 he found a way not to lose.
The death of Hitler and the total defeat of Germany in WW II have lessened our realization of just how close Europe was to falling under Hitler’s command in 1939. Churchill’s brave attack on appeasement and his insistence on preparing for war in the Thirties played a key role but it was his unique realization that Hitler was not just another German leader looking for respect and access to the World Stage that saved Europe from total self destruction. He was able to rally the British people behind him to valiantly fight and deny Hitler his victory. If not for Churchill it is easy to imagine the British government working out a deal with Hitler that gave him control of Europe. With such a deal Hitler’s conquest of Russia become a real possibility (his conquest nearly succeeded as it was). When the rest of the world wakes up to the danger of a Europe controlled by Hitler it is too late. Hitler would be in a position to increase and consolidate his power and use it as leverage to dictate terms to the rest of the world. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see a long dark time for Europe.
The second issue, in which history has vindicated Churchill’s vision, is the eventual communist control of large chunks of Europe. Churchill was an early and vociferous opponent of communism seeing in it an enemy of freedom and participatory democracy. Churchill is often criticized for his dealings with Stalin, however, as having compromised his principles in order to secure the alliance. What is remarkable is that Churchill was able to realize that Hitler was the more immediate threat and that Russia’s help was indispensable to the war effort. Churchill understood that communism was a dangerous and destructive force but he also knew that Russian Communism was also a mix of traditional Russian imperialism and revolutionary fervor. He also knew that the Soviet Union was weak and unstable, and therefore less an immediate threat. Churchill knew that Hitler was capable of controlling all of Europe whereas the Soviet Union would end up with half of Europe at best; it was a risk he was willing to take. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union he accepted Stalin as part of the coalition. Looking back it is clear that the Soviet People played a crucial role in the defeat of Hitler. Their sacrifice is mind boggling with the deaths of soldiers and civilians in the millions.
What Churchill sought to do, however, once he realized the war could eventually be won, was to seek to keep Stalin from controlling large parts of Europe. Where he failed was in convincing President Roosevelt to adopt this strategy. FDR believed that he could handle old Uncle Joe and that these pesky issues would be best left until after the war. Churchill, however, knew that whatever territory Stalin reached on his way to Germany was territory he would control. Churchill worked throughout the war to get allied troops to occupy territory farther east. He worked diligently to save Poland, the country for which England had gone to war. The intransigence and stubbornness of the Polish exiles combined with Stalin’s treachery kept Churchill from achieving his goal. Eventually, out of desperation he even tried to divide up Central and Eastern Europe with Stalin in his famous “percentage agreement.” This may seem like cold-hearted Realpolitik but it is actually a desperate attempt to salvage whatever he could from Stalin’s grasp. Again, after all was said and done Churchill could not prevent the Iron Curtain (in his memorable phrase) from falling. But it most be remembered that he did save Greece from communist control and that the state of Poland did continue to exist (historically its existence was precarious). A heavy historical burden rests on Roosevelt (and future President Eisenhower) for their inability to see that they were consigning large parts of Europe to the terror of Soviet control with their unwillingness to confront Stalin when the end of the war was in sight. In his fight with Hitler Churchill was able to rally the world to his side and stay the course. In his battle with communism, however, Churchill’s success was less clear. He wasn’t able to convince the United States to push farther east as WW II drew to a close and he wasn’t able to strengthen Roosevelt’s resolve to confront Stalin more directly. He never quit addressing the problem, however, even in the last days of his public life he was searching for a way to take advantage of Stalin’s death and break the division of Europe. His famous speech in Fulton Missouri bequeathed the term “Iron Curtain” to the world and in many ways stiffened the West to contain and oppose the Soviet Union. Churchill would not live to see a unified Europe but he inspired a great many people to work toward that end.
In summary, Churchill recognized and understood the ramifications of the two great “armed doctrines” of the Twentieth Century and he heroically fought them when practically no one else would. His courage, leadership, and eloquent words revitalized the English people and inspired them to once again fight for freedom and dignity. If not for this courage and leadership Europe could easily have sunk into a dark and tragic time of dictatorship. It is hard to think of that time and realize that it could have been worse but it is true nonetheless. The history of our time pivoted in 1939 because Churchill would not yield the stage to Hitler. Civilization owes him a great debt for that moment. If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating man and his place in history I heartily recommend reading these two great books. You will come away with a greater knowledge of and a greater appreciation for both Winston Churchill and these difficult times.