- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005


By Richard Holmes

Basic Books, $27.50, 351 pages


Edward R. Morrow, reporting from London in World War II, said of Winston S. Churchill that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Churchill was at times stubborn, vain and immature, but he was also courageous, tenacious and imaginative. Still in the final verdict on his life, he is a man whose towering greatness is more often acknowledged by his American cousins than by the British nation he saved in the dark days of 1940-41. When terrorists struck America and then London, it was Churchill’s example, which was resurrected again and again.

His public career as a soldier, author and parliamentarian are well documented by a series of biographies and by his own self-serving histories. But British military historian, Richard Holmes, has written one of the finest and most sweeping of such memorials. Indeed if one wishes to read only one volume on Churchill, this could very well be the best done.

Mr. Holmes is not uncritical of Churchill, and he chronicles his errors in two world wars and the intervening peace. To him Churchill enters his decline as early as 1944, and did not serve his nation well after. Churchill misled the war cabinet in World War I in his estimates of military preparedness, and was often wrong in his economic and social polices before Wolrd War II. But still the war years of 1940-42 are the defining moment of his glory. More than the older and the younger William Pitt or Lloyd George in earlier times, he energized his nation and kept it afloat against the Nazi war machine until the Soviet Union in the east and later the Americans in the west entered the war.

Mr. Holmes is clearly a conservative nationalist who sees his nation poorly served in the past by its elites, especially after the carnage of the young upper classes in World War I that took the lives of so many men of talent. He has little use for romantic social movements and the strangle hold that the British trade unions had at times on the nation. But he skillfully integrates together military history, strategies, weaponry and the economic changes British society underwent into a first rate background for the biography of a giant whose career embraced so long a span.

Some of Mr. Holmes’ assertions are rather remarkable — such as the notion that Churchill before World War II (his time “in the wilderness,” as he called it) was given intelligence information by government agencies with the tacit consent of some of the pacifist prime ministers. They seemed to have wanted a powerful and informed voice to speak up against German and Nazi rearmaments. And Mr. Holmes insists that Churchill was deeply hurt by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vain attempts to charm Stalin at the prime minister’s expense. But Churchill knew that it was the Russians who bore the brunt of the war in the European theaters, while the British, remembering World War I, preferred to fight on the peripheries.

To Mr. Holmes, Churchill was a progressive in social affairs, who was forced to live usually in the confines of the Conservative party. But Churchill was too much of an upper class Victorian to fit into that easy a category. And he was as responsible as others in government were for severe defense cuts to support social programs before World War II.

Like many British historians, Mr. Holmes seems to lament that the blood-letting of World War II so wounded the Empire, a collection of nations that provided more support to Britain’ survival against Hitlerism than is generally known or supposed. But the unraveling began much earlier — with Britain and France decimated from the Great War.

So by 1938, Churchill was like his controversial father, Randolph Churchill, had been in the late 19th century — a brilliant man, but weighed down by enormous political liabilities. Then came his “finest hour,” the title of one his World War II history volumes, in which he celebrated what he viewed as the heroism of Britain in wartime. His Labor party contemporary, Clement Atlee, said that Churchill governed by poetry in the war, and indeed he did. Not since Shakespeare’s Henry praised his band of brothers, and Lincoln rededicated his nation at an obscure cemetery to a new sort of democracy did an English-speaking politician so use the language to glorify sacrifices in the name of liberty.

And so the war became worse and as the death camps became more vivid, the dark forces of Nazism nearly prevailed. But Churchill carried on, shoring up a domestic coalition that at times was shaky, to never yield, to never flinch, to never give up. The evilness of the enemy was so absolute, that even the harshest revisionists today have had tough going at cutting Churchill down too many notches. But one is often defined in life by the choice of one’s enemies. Churchill wished to become great, and to lead a great people, and for a time he did. This one volume embraces the full tapestry of English society, its class ethos, and the importance of leadership. For as you can see, one man’s life can indeed make a salutatory difference.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the “Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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