A capable, brief study of Great Britain’s renowned wartime leader and the troubled course of his passionate—if hardly compassionate—conservatism.
Winston Churchill defined himself as both a military and literary man, and thus it makes perfect sense for the eminently literate military history Keegan (War and Our World, 2001, etc.) to add this volume to the rapidly growing Penguin Lives series. Keegan gives us a Churchill who, for most of his life, was essentially alone—“Churchill’s life,” the author remarks, “is remarkable for its paucity of friendships: few in youth, eventually none at all.” Friendless he may have been, but Churchill set out early on to accomplish great things as both an ardent student of the world (an indifferent scholar, he inhaled whole libraries of world literature and history) and a shaper of events. Often he succeeded, Keegan writes, but often he failed; he rose to eminence at the opening years of WWII after having been demoted and shuffled from one prewar government post to another, and his achievements leading the fight against Hitler took many of his contemporaries by surprise. Keegan gives us a Churchill who was at once aristocratic and populist, idealistic, and resolutely practical, strongly ideological yet capable of compromise (especially in the matter of accepting Stalin as a wartime ally, inasmuch as Churchill detested “Bolshevism” perhaps more than he ever did Nazism). Keegan faults much of Churchill’s wartime strategy, driven by his view that “the defeated peoples of Europe could be brought to wear down Germany’s control from within,” which Keegan rebuts with the observation that partisan resistance was largely ineffectual, and that somehow diversionary offensives on the flank of the enemy were preferable to full-on assault, such as that at Normandy. But Keegan also defends Churchill from the well-worn charge of alcoholism, and gives him in most other ways a respectful, if certainly not warm, treatment.
Sturdy and illuminating: of interest to students of modern British history and the conduct of WWII.