Best Books of 2021: History and Churchill
Just south of the plaza in Kansas City, there’s a statue of Winston Churchill. He’s sitting on a park bench with his beloved Clementine, looking out over the intersection, reclined, confident and at ease. I loved driving by this statue, not just for the delight of seeing WSC in the American Midwest, but because the whole posture is a tribute to what should be a settled and honored legacy.
The statue is a perfect contrast to the one in Parliament Square in London, which captures Churchill as he is more commonly remembered. Scowling and wrapped in his overcoat, the British bulldog presses forward in a perfect embodiment of his motto, “keep buggering on.” In the summer of 2020, in the upheavals of the race riots that spread across the globe, someone vandalized this statue, spray painting “was a racist” under Churchill’s name. The British government quickly covered the statue to prevent further harm being done, but the point had been made, not just about Churchill, but about every figure of history. The indiscriminate mobs tore down statues of Christopher Columbus, confederate soldiers, Robert E. Lee, abolitionist Hans Christian Heg, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others, many of whom were slaveholders, others were not.
History is under attack. If a figure as honorable and courageous as Churchill is under assault, no one is safe. In the shadow of every great figure in history there is a small cadre who’ve made a modest career criticizing them. That tribe is increasing. Tearing down heroes sells. If you measure greatness by this metric, Churchill has had an exceptionally good couple of years. The books released since 2020 have been more negative than positive, though there a few that will stand the test of time.
Richard Toye can’t stop thinking about Churchill. The Exeter historian has written at least six books on Churchill, the last two being Winston Churchill: A Life in the News and The Churchill Myths. Andrew Roberts called his most recent effort a “snarl of impotent rage.” Toye, among others, has allowed his distaste for Boris Johnson to bleed into his thoughts on Churchill. After all, Boris’ book The Churchill Factor is one of the very best recent Churchill books.
Not all criticism is bad, but not all critical biographies are created equal. Toye exhibits one of the more fashionable and less salient trends in modern history, wagging his finger at Churchill for the most grievous of historical sins; not being a 21st-century progressive. If there’s anything to watch out for in today’s biographies, this is it. It’s no tribute to the historian that they lay out a set of beliefs they’ve only subscribed to for the last decade and bludgeon their historical subjects. When it comes to race, sex, colonialism, Western Civilization, democracy, masculinity, and a score of other topics, this has become the norm.
In Churchill’s Shadow, Geoffrey Wheatcroft makes the case against Winston Churchill. In part, this book is an effort to ride the coattails of Andrew Roberts’ best-seller, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Though Wheatcroft claims his book is not a “hostile account” he does admit it’s an “alternative” look at Churchill’s legacy. He lampoons him over military failures, racial epithets, and other character foibles. He gives little time to Churchill’s military service and opposition to the Nazis.
There’s a difference between hagiography and appreciation. It’s one thing to gloss over character flaws, but it’s another thing to write a whole book about them. What is it about our deconstructionist society that can’t bear to have any heroes? We’ve passed the point where we need to start talking about yesterday’s heroes, warts and all; we’ve forgotten there’s anything but warts at all.
One reason why Allan Guelzo’s biography of Robert E. Lee was so impressive was precisely because he resisted this urge. Who in their right mind would write an even-handed biography of Robert E. Lee in today’s world? Anyone who wants to understand how people really were - and how they truly are - as Guelzo amply demonstrates. He also doesn’t become a relativist, relying on the easy explanation that they simply did what everyone else was doing at the time. Guelzo paints Lee as he was, in his context, and among his people, and only then begins to assess his life and legacy. Guelzo is not sympathetic to Lee or his cause in the Civil War, but he does capture who he was and represents him faithfully and charitably in his biography. Guelzo’s book will be read for a generation.
The bar for the historian and the biographer is neither myopia nor relativism, but the integrity required for understanding. Even in disagreement, the goal might be close to the way Clement Attlee, one of Churchill’s great political adversaries who put aside his differences to join his cabinet and win the war, described him after his death, “Winston was a most generous enemy, perhaps the most magnanimous of his generation.” Magnanimity, that’s what’s needed in history today.
In a review of Toye’s books in the New York Times, Kori Schake quotes George Eliot and perfectly sums it up: “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.”
Here are a couple of accurate, not uncritical, but insightful books on Churchill I read this year.
Churchill: Master and Commander by Anthony Tucker-Jones. Osprey, 2021.
Though he’s remembered as a political figure, Churchill was first a military man. From his enrollment at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point), through his time in active duty, to the Admiralty, and to serving as his own defense minister, Churchill was a warlord, to use Tucker-Jones’ term.
Being a warlord has its downsides. Churchill was on the hook for every military blunder of the nearly twenty-five years he served in a military role in the cabinet. Sometimes he was wrong, on the Dardanelles and mustard gas, but many times he was brilliant, when he raised the alarm against Hitler, spotted the evils of Soviet Communism, and dragged the U.S. into WWII. Tucker-Jones criticizes him when he was wrong but never fails to give the great man his due.
Appeasement by Tim Bouverie. Tim Duggan Books, 2020.
This book is not specifically about Churchill, but about his photo-negative leading up to the war, Neville Chamberlain. Along with a wide net of amateur ambassadors, Chamberlain undertook a campaign of appeasement with Nazi Germany all the way up to the point that Chamberlain declared “peace in our time!” as he returned from Germany, Munich agreement in hand, in 1938.
Bouverie traces the movement of appeasement up to the declarations of war. Chamberlain and the other “Guilty Men” don’t come out looking good, but they do look human. It’s not just that they missed the magnitude of Hitler, it’s that they could not find the courage or the inspiration to lead the British public toward the lesser of two evils. The sentiment among the British, from the slums to Buckingham Palace was decidedly anti-war. After WWI, no one wanted to get entangled in another European war. Chamberlain thought he could tame Hitler and secure peace for Britain. That role would fall to his successor.
There are two books missing from this list. The first, Churchill & Son by Josh Ireland is on my list, but I haven’t gotten a copy yet. It might make for a great summer read. The second, The Daughters of Yalta by Katherine Katz, looks like another gem, although it’s only tangentially Churchillian.
New to me:
Ministers at War by Jonathan Schneer. Basic Books, 2015.
Now, this was the book I’d been waiting to read about Churchill. There are a lot of excellent books that tell us the what of Churchill’s life, but few about the how. Following Doris Kearns Goodwin’s approach in Team of Rivals, Schneer talks about how Churchill managed to lead his cabinet through the second world war.
When Chamberlain’s government fell, Churchill was faced with the task of constructing a true coalition government, combining the leaders of all the major parties to band together against the Nazi threat. This would be somewhere close to the equivalent of Joe Biden adding Michael Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Rand Paul to his cabinet. He had rival members of his own party to deal with, leaders of the Labour Party, and independents, and somehow, he was able to focus these men on defeating Hitler and keeping the country together. In the process, he was subverted, outvoted, and after the war, supplanted, but he was never defeated and he was surely the only leader capable of delivering on the promise he made before the House of Commons in his first speech as PM: “victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.”
This year I’m breaking up my best books into categories. Check back this week for Christian, non-fiction, fiction, and nerdy deep tracks!
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.