By Barry Strauss
November 2, 2018
Greatness is terrifying. The ancients understood this, but nowadays, we forget. Even after Alexander the Great’s death, the mere sight of a statue of him frightened one of his generals. When a tribune of the plebs tried to stop Caesar from breaking into Rome’s public treasury, Caesar threatened to kill him, adding, “You surely know, young man, that it is more unpleasant for me to say this than to do it.”
Plutarch, who reports this story, had no illusions about the interplay of sunshine and shadow in the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans. Now, like a modern Plutarch, Andrew Roberts gives us a biography in the round of Winston Churchill, one of the last century’s leading men. Roberts’s brilliant new book is not only learned and sagacious but also thrilling and fun. An award-winning historian and biographer, an expert on statecraft, leadership, and the Second World War, Roberts writes with authority and confidence. Enriched by such previously unseen material as King George VI’s wartime diaries, Walking with Destiny should stand as the definitive one-volume Churchill biography.
An infinitely more genial character than Alexander or Caesar, and much more respectful of constitutional limitations, Churchill nonetheless could be every bit as unreasonable. And, as Roberts points out, his pugnacity wasn’t always in the service of a good cause. He remained a convinced imperialist, for example, long after the inhabitants of Britain’s colonies sought independence. He opposed women’s suffrage. He underestimated Japanese military ability in 1942, largely because of his bigotry. His numerous military misjudgments spanned two world wars, and included sticking with the Gallipoli Campaign after its sell-by date in March 1915 and describing the rugged Italian Peninsula in 1943 as a soft underbelly. Yet Churchill got it right when it most mattered, on the three biggest threats to democracy: Prussian militarism, Nazism, and Soviet Communism.
Churchill might have been erratic, extravagant, and difficult, but Britain didn’t need a nice guy in 1940. A nice guy would not have rejected what many regarded as the “smart move” for Britain in 1940, after the fall of France: making a deal with Hitler. Only someone with a sharp mind, a silver tongue, and a heart of steel could have kept Britain fighting. And only a human dynamo, with deep knowledge of history and a sense of mission, could have led England to victory in those circumstances.
While Roberts devotes about half of the book to Churchill’s struggle against Hitler, he also offers a substantial treatment of Churchill’s first five decades. He makes a compelling case that Churchill’s early life prepared him well for his leadership during World War II. That life was a saga that no novelist would dare invent. From taking part in the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman in 1898 to escaping from military prison in the Boer War, from Conservative to Liberal and back to Conservative again; from the Gallipoli disaster in 1915 to the Munich Speech in 1938, from Dunkirk and V-E Day to the Iron Curtain Speech and the Nobel Prize in literature; from journalist to painter to statesman to visionary; from the Victorian Age to the Beatles—Churchill’s life spanned eras and occupations, and defied probability.
Roberts is most intriguing when he describes the personal qualities that Churchill cultivated before becoming prime minister, and then displayed to full effect during the war—such as his ability to cope with defeat, his capacity for ruthlessness when needed to pursue victory, or his astute management of civil-military relations. Roberts also points out how Churchill’s experience of Islamic fanaticism as a young soldier on India’s northwest frontier prepared him, decades later, to recognize Hitler’s extremism.
In his judicious conclusion, Roberts plumbs the paradoxes of a man who was a lifelong imperialist (and racist) but also a pioneering Europeanist; an egotist who was loyal to his friends; an aristocrat who accommodated the welfare state; the enthusiastic sponsor of bombing German cities who sought postwar reconciliation; and a man of courage who inspired millions but tended to be lachrymose in private. Roberts describes all this and more vividly, but perhaps his deftest touch comes in his choice of an opening epigraph, Churchill’s recommendation to a student: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” Roberts’s biography amply justifies this advice, and does honor to the historical profession.
Barry Strauss is the author of the forthcoming Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine.