Picking Up the Pieces

Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939-1941

by Martin Gilbert
Houghton Mifflin, 1,308 pp., $40.00

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Volume I: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

by William Manchester
Little, Brown, 973 pp., $25.00

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

Ten years after the end of the First World War, there was a sudden, powerful wave of antiwar literature. Nothing comparable has been seen, even a generation after the end of the Second World War. No one, knowing the facts of Hitler’s death camps, could dissent from A.J.P. Taylor’s judgment that it had been “a good war.” For Great Britian, it was also far less expensive in lives than its predecessor: in this respect, the fall of France was a blessing in disguise, for, their “finest hour” of 1940-1941 apart, the British could retire to their island and let subsequent, powerful allies take on most of the fighting. Their role in the war had something of a Hollywood flavor to it: romantic attitudes were struck while American money hired Russian extras to be shot at.

Winston Churchill, who was very good indeed at show business, attracts biographies such as Mr. Manchester’s. In more serious perspective, his historical function was to involve the United States in the maintenance of the European order. His life—despite Manchester’s effusions—was a failure until he obtained American support, without which his earlier ventures (intervention against the Bolsheviks, adherence to the gold standard, and maintenance of British rule in India) would not succeed. It was only in Churchill’s finest hour, when the country stood alone against Germany, that the United States came to support him, sometimes on grudging terms. This, implicitly or explicitly, is the theme of Martin Gilbert’s latest volume of his Churchill biography, a volume which matches the austere scholarship of its predecessors, and which has a tension that sustains the reader over its 1,300 pages.

The story that he has to tell is a straightforwardly heroic one, which no one British can read without being moved, whatever the qualifications that historians may make. Of course it was not sensible to go to war without some understanding with Stalin. It was also silly not to make sure of an immediate French offensive to save Poland from collapse. It was almost crazy to allow the Danzig issue to become as inflated as it did. Reason, by September 1939, had flown out of the window. Churchill himself had not been responsible for any of this—on the contrary, he had warned again and again, and had urged rearmament as the only way to deter Hitler. He described this war, early on, as “one of the most unnecessary,” but in May 1940 he had to pick up the pieces.

How he did this is Martin Gilbert’s theme. His method is chronological (at vast length), and there is some imbalance in that 1939 and 1940 receive more attention than 1941, where there is not much new to say. Gilbert sticks to original sources, and dispenses, by and large, with subsequent discoveries and judgments. The result is that the mistakes and miscalculations of the time are not as emphasized as they might…

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