Winston Agonistes

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Volume II, Alone, 1932–1940

by William Manchester
Little, Brown, 756 pp., $24.95

Churchill’s War: Volume I, The Struggle for Power

by David Irving
Veritas (Bullsbrook, Australia), 666 pp., A$49.95

Winston S. Churchill Volume VIII, ‘Never Despair,’ 1945–1965

by Martin Gilbert
Houghton Mifflin, 1,438 pp., $40.00

When Sir Winston Churchill died at the age of ninety in January 1965, he was accorded the most magnificent state funeral that a grateful and grieving Britain could give him. In life he had received, or refused, every available honor, and his death occasioned a final display of national thanksgiving and global homage, unique in its intensity and unrivaled in its scope. Setting aside both precedent and precedence, Queen Elizabeth II attended in person to mourn the passing of her greatest commoner and most illustrious subject. Never before, not even for the funeral of President Kennedy, had so many kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, assembled to do honor to one dead man. In Britain itself, and around the world, millions watched and wept before their television sets. At the end of the same year, the final volume of the Oxford History of England set down its authoritative verdict on Churchill’s life and achievements. It was written by A.J.P. Taylor, a historian known for his dissenting opinions and provocative irreverence. But in his eulogistic description of Churchill as “the saviour of his country,” there was not the faintest suggestion of irony or mockery.

Throughout the last decade of his life, Churchill was almost universally esteemed as “the greatest Englishman of his time.” As a soldier, journalist, biographer, historian, painter, orator, politician, parliamentarian, and statesman, he seemed prodigiously endowed with gifts of mind and spirit. Whether predicting history, making history, or writing history, he dwarfed the pygmy ploddings of ordinary mortals. As a young Liberal minister, he was responsible for social reforms that helped to lay the foundations for the modern welfare state. As first lord of the Admiralty, he had devised the scheme to force the Dardanelles, the only original strategic initiative of World War I. In the 1920s, and again in the late 1940s, he had been the first Western statesman to understand the nature of the Communist threat. During the 1930s, he had fought an almost single-handed campaign to alert the Western democracies to the evils of Hitler. In 1940, his “finest hour,” he expressed in unforgettable phrases Britain’s resolve never to surrender to Nazi tyranny. And thereafter, his many-sided genius led a united people, a united government, and also—in a harmonious collaboration with Roosevelt—the United States, onward to victory. In Isaiah Berlin’s famous words, this Churchill was “a gigantic historical figure…, superhumanly bold, strong and imaginative,… the largest human being of our time.”

Yet in fact, it took Churchill almost the whole of his astonishingly long and controversial life to persuade his contemporaries to accept him at his own magniloquent self-evaluation. During the 1900s, he was hated by the Tories as a turncoat who put personal advancement before party loyalty, and by the Liberals as an unprincipled adventurer whose commitment to social reform was never more than skin-deep. During World War I, his career almost collapsed when he was forced to leave the government in the aftermath of the …

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