Why does Winston Churchill matter today during this time of isolation, social distancing and tough economic times for so many Americans?
The man who spent 55 years as a member of Parliament, nearly nine years as Prime Minister and published nearly 10 million words during his lifetime continues to give us lessons on how to govern and how to carry on. Churchill’s life story is one of courage, optimism, confidence and his own words, “never giving up” even when the going is tough.
Here are my six best picks for books on Winston Churchill and his family.
The most recent Churchill biography is a 1,000-page book by historian and biographer Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Roberts’ book has a strong political focus, but he also details Churchill’s personal traits and Churchill’s belief from an early age that he was “walking with destiny.”
While Roberts doesn’t sugar coat Churchill’s faults and foibles, it’s clear he has great admiration for the man.
By almost all accounts, Churchill despite his name and creature comforts had a difficult childhood: remote parents, a disapproving father, and an American mother who seldom showed up for the important events in young Winston’s life. As Roberts’ writes, “The neglect and emotional cruelty at the hands of his parents that could have crushed a lesser person instead gave Churchill an unquenchable desire to succeed in life, not only in general but in his father’s chosen profession of politics. Few have set out with more cold-blooded deliberation to become first a hero and then a Great Man.”
Churchill believed that great men of the 20th century saved their country – and Western civilization — from the evils of communism and Nazism. He was also a firm believer in Judeo-Christian values and their positive impact on civilization.
Roberts’ book is lengthy and quite detailed, but it is a gem for anyone who loves English history and the man who shaped so much of it in the 20th century.
The UK’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson, holds Churchill in great esteem, so much so that he wrote a book titled, The Churchill Factor. Johnson’s theme is that one man — not “vast and imperial economic forces” — can make all the difference.
Prescient commentary from the man who would be at the forefront of the UK’s planned exit from the European Union — Brexit.
William Manchester’s two volumes on Churchill were the best I’d read before Andrew Roberts biography. Much like Roberts’ book, Manchester in The Last Lion goes into great detail about the historical events that shaped Churchill’s outlook and view of statesmanship.
Both Manchester and Roberts comment at great length on Churchill’s role as Head of the Admiralty in the Gallipoli debacle. The Gallipoli campaign was an unsuccessful attempt by Britain and its allies to control the sea route from Europe to Russia during WWI. The campaign resulted in 250,000 casualties and 46,000 Allied deaths (Australians and New Zealanders were among the majority of the casualties). Churchill had been the strongest advocate for the campaign. Manchester and Roberts give objective commentary on Churchill’s role, neither completely absolving him nor completely blaming him. The Gallipoli campaign resulted in Churchill’s demotion to a much lower cabinet post and had a profound professional and personal impact on him. It affected his future governing style and led him to take up a lifelong passion – painting.
No one can write about Churchill without speaking to his use of language and the power of his rhetoric. Manchester refers to an observation made by the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin about Churchill’s rhetoric “ He [Churchill] imposes his imagination and his will upon his countrymen, idealizing them with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them. In doing so, he transformed cowards into brave men…”
If you’re looking for a short, concise biography of Churchill, I recommend Paul Johnson’s biography, Churchill. He sums up neatly why Churchill is worthy of admiration: he, “never allowed mistakes, disasters – personal or national – accidents, illnesses, unpopularity and criticism to get him down; always aimed high, worked hard, and separated politics from personal friendship, remaining privately affable with people he publicly denounced.”
Churchill “wasted little time on the meanness of life. This absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy…”
To have a real understanding of the personal side of Winston Churchill, you need to have an appreciation for the woman he was married to for 56 years, Clementine Hozier Churchill – a woman who accomplished much in her own right.
Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine explains why she was her husband’s closest adviser and greatest influence. She always had her husband’s back, possessing a keen instinct about her husband’s friends and foes. And in both good and bad times, Clementine served as his greatest support.
She also enhanced Churchill’s natural instincts and concerns for the plight of the common man, causing Churchill to take a lead role in many of the reforms in Britain that provided a better quality of life for those most in need.
The Churchills had five chiIdren: Diana, Randolph, Sarah, Marigold (who tragically died at the age of two years and nine months from septicemia of the throat) and Mary. Mary, born a few years after the tragic death of Marigold, was in some ways a consolation child for her parents. Her wonderful memoir, A Daughter’s Tale, gives great insight into her parents’ marriage.
Mary describes a conversation she had with her father about Marigold and how her parents dealt with Marigold’s death. She writes, “My mother never got over Marigold’s death, and her very existence was a forbidden subject in the family: Clementine battened down her grief and marched on.”
Having lost a child at a young age, Churchill was to meet in 1928 another child of a similar age to Marigold, the 2 ½ year- old Princess Elizabeth. About the young princess, Churchill wrote, “She is quite a character. She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.”
Churchill would become Queen Elizabeth’s first prime minister and by many accounts, her favorite.
Winston Churchill has been gone for 55 years, but his words and his life remain an inspiration today. Churchill serves as a reminder that history and our appreciation of it matters. He provided leadership during times of great national and international crisis. We are diminished if we fail to study and draw on his life and lessons. As Churchill wisely wrote, “How strange it is that the past is so little understood and so quickly forgotten.”
Churchill was not a perfect man, but he remains today a man worthy of our admiration. He was as Shakespeare wrote, “… a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.
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