This is the third volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill. I first read the second volume, about the decade leading up to the German invasion of France, 25 years ago and thought it was so good that I bought and read the first volume. I had, by now, given up hope of ever seeing the third volume, but Mr. Manchester appears to have asked Paul Reid to complete the book and, when I saw it available on Audible, I immediately bought it.
This book is billed as a biography (and so it is) but Winston Churchill’s life was so intertwined with the British participation in World War II (he served as both Prime Minister and Defense Minister) that this book also serves as a political (not military) history of British involvement in the war as seen through British eyes. There is little military coverage per se but the political decisions behind the military moves are discussed in great detail. While this book covers the period from 1940 through 1965 (beginning where the second volume ended) it is primarily concerned with Churchill’s actions during the war with approximately 90% of the book covering the period up to the end of the war in Europe and his loss of the office of Prime Minister.
The book’s description of the political views of the Allies, its descriptions of the leaders and their conferences is really first rate. Mr. Reid has added liberal excerpts from the diaries of many of those involved, both Allied and Axis, and the resulting picture of how the war progressed, how the decisions that had to be made were reached and how the various participants reacted to the decisions transcends anything I have read before. I have read many histories of World War II, but all of them spent a great deal of time covering the battles whereas this book dwells primarily on the political decisions to be made and how and why the decisions were reached. The portraits of some of the leaders presented in this book are the best I have seen outside of biographies of those people themselves. The picture of Joseph Stalin, as presented in this book, is very different from that presented in other books, presumably because it is the view of him as seen by Churchill and his aides, not as seen by Soviet Marshalls or allied diplomats and one is drawn to the assumption that Stalin, like all of the other leaders, could present many different faces as needed. Similarly the portraits of people like Harry Hopkins, Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden, Alan Brooke, John Dill and others presented in this book seem much richer than I have seen in other books.
One of the books on my wish list was Max Hastings’ book “Winston’s War”, but this book is so well done and covers Mr. Churchill’s wartime involvement so well that I am not sure there is anything in Mr. Hastings’ book that would contribute much new and I am now uncertain as to whether or not it is worth buying. I thought I knew the events of the war from my earlier readings, but after reading this book I realized that there was much that either I did not know or which I understood imperfectly. While I do not wish to spoil this book for others I can say that I did not know how fragile the Allied coalition was at times during the war or how much disagreement there was between the British and the US on strategy. Yes, I knew that the US favored a cross-channel invasion and the British wanted to pursue a Mediterranean strategy but I did not know how strong the disagreements were, how dedicated some of the military and political professionals were to one choice or the other or how the final agreements were reached. This book is a treasure trove of information about how and why the political decisions were reached and I recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in knowing the background behind these decisions. It is one of the finest books on the war that I have ever read.
The last 10% (or so) of the book covers Churchill’s life after he lost of the office of Prime Minister and after the end of the war. It covers, in considerable detail, his work in opposition to the Labor Party and his efforts to create a “United States of Europe”. While I understood how he, almost alone, understood the coming Nazi menace I was not aware of how he continued to predict the course of political events after the war. His foresight in seeing the coming cold war between the West and the Soviets and his efforts to preserve freedom and security during the late 1940s and early 1950s was new to me. It is also a very personal book and, at the end, I had tears in my eyes at the passing of such a great man.
The book is read wonderfully by Clive Chafer who does a passable impression of both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. One reviewer complained that the book is read by an American, but that is only true of the introduction, which is read by the author. The rest of the book is a pleasure to listen to. This is a worthy conclusion to the monumental first two volumes of this trilogy and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The first part of Edmund Morris' biography of Theodore Roosevelt is absolutely wonderful. This volume covers Mr Roosevelt's life from his birth through his selection as Vice President under McKinley and McKinley's assassination and is long enough, at 26, hours to cover everything of importance. While this is not the first Roosevelt biography that I have read it is the first that has covered all of the relevant parts of his early life with what seems like completeness.
Theodore Roosevelt led an extraordinarily varied life – young naturalist and student of animal life, Harvard student, New York assembly man, corruption fighting reformer, Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, cattleman in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner in New York, assistant Secretary of the Navy, mayor of New York City, Rough Rider and more and all of it comes to life in the wonderful writing of Mr Morris and the flawless narration of Mark Deakins. While parts of his life seem incongruous (for example his ability to be both a nature conservationist while, at the same time, engaging in hunting trips to kill wild animals and mount their heads and skins at his house) we need to remember that this occurred well more than 100 years ago and was perfectly in line with the common views of his day. What stands out above all are his enormous energy, his quick and subtle thinking and his absolute honesty. It is easy to see why he was so popular with the voters while, at the same time, so unpopular with some of the political class of his own party. His rise to power, given the unhappiness of some of the powerful politicians of his day, seems remarkable.
Mr Morris' writing of Theodore Roosevelt is largely positive, but not fawning. He writes about both the positive and negative sides of Mr Roosevelt's habits, views and opinions and his writing seems well balanced. However there is also a tendency to attribute the motives Mr Roosevelt's opponents to either meanness or greed and he (Mr Morris) seems unwilling to believe that those opponents might have held honest views which just were at odds with those of Mr Roosevelt. It is not enough to spoil the book but, while listening, I kept thinking to myself that perhaps the person in question honestly believed that Mr Roosevelt was wrong.
This is a very long book. All three volumes, in Audible format, add up to about 77 hours. While that length itself seems long it seemed even longer when compared to some of the other popular political biographies – Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington is about 42 hours, David McCullough's biography of John Adams is about 30 hours, H W Brand's biography of Ulysses Grant is about 28 hours, Jean Edward Smith's biography of FDR is about 33 hours and so on. As I said, this is a very long book. To find a comparably long biography one has to look at William Manchester's 3 volume biography of Winston Churchill which, at about 133 hours, eclipses even this book.
While listening to the Audible book I kept thinking that the book might have benefited from some judicious editing but I could never really put my finger on anything that should have been left out. It is long, but all of the information seems to be important, interesting or both. While 77 hours seems very long perhaps it is necessary for a life so varied, intense and central to the history of the US and the world. Theodore Roosevelt's life deserves a great biography and has found it in this book.
Highly recommended for those interested in history during the beginning of the 20th century.
Before reviewing this book it seems appropriate to mention that the author, Ian Kershaw, describes himself as a historical structuralist. He thus rejects the Great Man theory in which it is argued that history is created and shaped by the great personalities of history and instead believes that the structure of the society creates the environment which molds and creates the “great men”. Thus, in this argument, Hitler did not create the Third Reich and the associated Nazi tyranny so much as the structure of the German society at the time gave Hitler, as an opportunist, the chance to become dictator. But, if societal forces, rather than individuals, are responsible for great events there seems to be less need for biographies of those individuals and Mr Kershaw states as much at the start of the book. Thus this becomes a very different kind of biography, concerned with societal background as much as with Hitler and, as Mr Kershaw states, the blame for the human tragedy that was the Second World War comes to rest not on Hitler alone but has to be shared by the general intolerant and hateful society that existed in Germany during this period.
None of this means that the life and character of Hitler is ignored. I have read a great many books on the Second World War and the times leading up to The Third Reich and none of them have provided me with the wealth of information contained in this book. Here you will find details about Hitlers time in Landsberg Prison, the negotiation process that resulted in Hitler becoming Chancellor, the arguments involved in defining the German Racial Laws and much else, none of which I have seen in other books.
The book also does a wonderful job of describing Hitler’s early life, his years as a purposeless vagrant in Vienna, his change during his time in the German Army during World War I and how he was shaped and largely created by the years after the end of that war. The creation of the Nazi Party, the years during which it struggled, gained a niche in the German political scene and grew, the other people involved in the party development and their relationships with each other, are described in considerable detail.
While there is a thicket of information about people who do not normally get written into books like this (philosophers, writers, economists and so on), the book never loses the center of it’s attention. Hitler is always there, often being forced by circumstances to take actions, and the descriptions of societal forces never overshadow the subject of the book. It is hard to see how any other biography could be more interesting, more instructive or more compelling. This is a long book and only covers the period up to the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Still I found that it moved very quickly and frequently I had a hard time putting the book down. The narration is first class and a good match for the writing and the book is long enough to include information describing details normally left out of historic overviews. Rather than being a negative, the amount of detail clarified a lot of events and made me more interested in buying the second volume.
There is one negative. Sections of the book include considerable psychoanalysis of Hitler and his actions and sometimes they seem to degenerate into “psycho-babble”. With no live person to put on the psychoanalysis’s couch this seems like a futile and silly endeavor. It seems, at times, more than a bit annoying but the book is so complete and so well written and narrated that it seems worthy of at least 5 stars. I highly recommended for those with an interest in this period in history.