Review: Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 by Max Hastings

August 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm Leave a comment

Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I began this book, I wondered whether I should be using time on another Churchill book, as I had just finished “Franklin and Winston” by Jon Meacham. I needn’t have wondered. As he did with Nemesis and Armaggeddon, his fast-paced histories of the final years of WWII in Europe and the Pacific respectively, Hastings avoids both the Scylla of hagiography and the Charybdis of utter deconstruction as he chronicles Winston Churchill’s tenure as war Prime Minister of Great Britain.

While flawed in many ways and wrong on many things, Hastings sees Churchill as most acknowledge him to be, the indispensable man of World War II and the towering figure of the history of the twentieth century. He was so because he was the only Briton of the times whose imagination was still fired by war, although Hastings refutes the charge that WSC was bloodthirsty. Hastings makes the convincing case that no other Prime Minister could have possibly held out against Nazi Germany without having to succumb to the realistic prospect of a negotiated peace settlement which would have left Hitler undisputed master of the world’s future for an indeterminate period of time. WSC’s idealism, as opposed to a political realism, carried Britain through 1940 and 1941, until events that could not have been foreseen in June 1940 changed the course of history.

A more realistic Prime Minister might not have insisted on ill-fated British interventions in Greece in 1941, against sending the
capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse into the Indian Ocean as an ill-fated “show of strength” against the Japanese, or in encouraging resistance movements in occupied Europe and committing British forces in ill-fated assaults on German-occupied islands in the Aegean in 1944. But, Hastings observes, if WSC had been been more timid, less willing to act, what would have been the consequences? Had he not been willing to risk defeat, for instance in Greece in 1941, would the West have been able to play a role in Greece in 1944 or beyond?

When Churchill’s idealism trumped his realism, there were often heavy consequences, but his idealism preserved the live option of Western democracy’s vitality in an age where Fascism and Communism were live options as well. While his idealism could not save Poland from Communism, nor restore the waning British Empire, it did play the crucial role in opening a future that, though very different from what he had hoped for, would at least not be dominated by Hitler’s Germany, and eventually would see the end of Stalin’s Communism as well.

Hastings consistently, and to my reading convincingly, debunks the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had what could be referred to as a “friendship.” Indeed, in reading “Winston’s War” after Meacham’s “Franklin and Winston,” one wonders how much wishful thinking went into Meacham’s book, or indeed whether the content of that book itself was wittingly or unwittingly contrary to the original idea.

It is tragic that William Manchester’s trilogy about Churchill, “The Last Lion,” went unfinished. It is romantic to think that with Hastings’s book, although it does not cover the final twenty years of Churchill’s life, the circle is complete. For although Manchester’s books are not in the select bibliography, one has the sense that Hastings would agree with Manchester’s assessment that Churchill was “The Last Lion,” the only man left in Britain who saw in Britain the “Land of Hope and Glory,” and for just enough time, made his country and the world believe as well.

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