Credit to BoJo- this is a very engrossing book. I’d say it’s probably a better book to read if you have some foreknowledge of modern European history- otherwise blanket statements- some of which I agreed with and others I did not- may seem contentious. However, if you know even a little, it will not take you aback when he skims over, say, the origins of the First World War.
One interesting thing about this book that you will not get in a lot of biographies is that it delves in a little counterfactual history and asks the question what would the world have been like without Churchill? And let’s be honest the picture he paints is not pretty and conclusion he reaches is pretty dark: “With their superstitious habit of imputing justice and rightness to the course of history, human beings would have absorbed a dismal lesson: that the gods had smiled on the tyrannies, and that tyranny was therefore what our incompetent species required”. Now having seen such justifications for tyranny in modern regimes, I would contend Johnson’s vision of a fascist Europe is accurate. It’s not hard to imagine what Nazis would have done in peace given what they were able to do in war. That’s why the story of Winston Churchill is so important. It is the story of how one man can remake history.
Evidently, this post could easily become more devoted to Churchill than the book. And I am prepared to admit that my admiration for the man knows no bounds. As Johnson said, “He had the gift of language to put heart into people and to breathe some of his courage into others”. His words resonate with us still. Yet while this is mostly a positive view of the man, there were some hard things to read- namely about Bolsheviks being compared to monkeys. Such an injustice to monkeys! But no- in all seriousness, Johnson doesn’t gloss over the attack on Mers-el-Kébir and Churchill’s uglier role in the war. This book in no way tries to hide from Churchill’s complexities as a human being. He was the man that was capable of making the difficult decisions to win the war- and yet he was the man who cried when everyone else saw it as a victory.
This journey through history gets to the complexities of the man. It humanises him, talking of his difficult relationship with his father and loving partnership with his wife. More than that- the duality that is within all of us is brought to light. One can see this in the two sides of Churchill’s character- his bombastic pride and his insecurity that he would never live up to his family’s name. More than that, Johnson shows the contrast between the Churchill who argued against war in 1914, and the Churchill who knew they had to fight in 1939. Too often Churchill is painted as a warmonger by people who would rather praise the appeasers- and yet clearly he was not a man who hungered for war, he was a man who had seen too much of it. No one could argue with this knowledge that Churchill relished these decisions- but none could argue that he made the wrong choice.
What’s most interesting about this book is how revealing it is of Boris Johnson. This is not just biographical, but also autobiographical. Johnson is a politician and like any politician he spends an awful lot of time defending and condemning Churchill, in equal measure, to our modern sensibilities (not often the practice of historians)- it is this obsequiousness that makes me think BoJo does not have what it takes to be a great statesman. He admires the man but constantly feels the need to justify it. Even in this he is playing the political game. It is most revealing then how he describes Churchill of being constantly aware of how he might be perceived- for this is Johnson’s method in politics.
Overall, I’d say this is a great biography of Churchill and easy to read if biographies, or even history, aren’t your usual cup of tea.
Rating: 5/5 bananas
So will you be giving this a go? Let me know in the comments!