Veteran historian Herman (To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, 2004, etc.) offers an ambitious, reasoned joint biography of two great men.
Each was a late-Victorian political figure who continued to lead into the mid-20th century. Each held an exemplary vision for his country that initially and spectacularly prevailed, but ultimately collided with new modern realities. Born to a well-to-do Hindu family in the western province of Gujarati, Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) was groomed in the English educational system to be a barrister and spent a formative period studying in London. His first experience of racial discrimination was in South Africa, where he worked for the enfranchisement of indentured servants. Winston Churchill (1874–1965), son of an aristocrat who was briefly secretary of state for India, inherited his father Randolph’s unshakeable belief in Britain’s imperial mission to the subcontinent. While both Gandhi and Churchill had absorbed the idea of empire as “a moral force, an institution of order and civilization,” Gandhi’s view would change drastically. He gradually repudiated Britain for its criminal subjugation and tyranny, fashioning a new spiritual creed from his deep philosophical readings, during his many jail stints, of Tolstoy, Ruskin and the Bhagavad Gita. Churchill rejected Gandhi’s brand of religious “fanaticism,” which he believed threatened to engulf the civilized Christian world in paganism and darkness. When Gandhi returned to India and joined national politics, he developed his belief in ahimsa (nonviolence) to embrace methods of satyagraha (passive resistance) in order to challenge the Raj’s paternalistic, restrictive policies. Churchill opposed him at every step, passionately rejecting, for example, Viceroy Lord Irwin’s advocacy of dominion status for India in 1929. Herman’s measured portrait of each man conveys his entire worldview, shaped by class, history and education. Each proved great and flawed in different ways.
A well-wrought historical narrative that adds significantly to our understanding of both figures.