In May 1940, with France on the verge of defeat, Britain alone stood in the path of the Nazi military juggernaut. Survival seemed to hinge on the leadership of Winston Churchill, whom the king reluctantly appointed prime minister as Germany invaded France. Churchill's reputation as one of the great 20th-century leaders would be forged during the coming months and years as he worked tirelessly first to rally his country and then to defeat Hitler. But Churchill - regarded as the savior of his nation and of the entire continent - could not have done it alone.
As prizewinning historian Jonathan Schneer reveals in Ministers at War, Churchill depended on a team of powerful ministers to manage the war effort as he rallied a beleaguered nation. Selecting men from across the political spectrum - from fellow conservative Anthony Eden to leader of the opposing socialist Labor Party Clement Attlee - Churchill assembled a war cabinet that balanced competing interests and bolstered support for his national coalition government. The group possessed a potent blend of talent, ambition, and egotism. Led and encouraged by Churchill, the ministers largely set aside their differences - at least at first. As the war progressed, discord began to grow. It reached a peak in 1945. With victory seemingly assured, Churchill was forced by his minsters at war to dissolve the government and call a general election, which, in a shocking upset, he lost to his rival, Attlee.
Authoritatively recasting our understanding of British high politics during World War II, Schneer shows that Churchill managed the war effort by managing his team of supremely able yet contentious cabinet members. The outcome of the war lay not only in Churchill's individual brilliance but also in his skill as an executive and in the collective ability of men who muted their personal interests to save the world from barbarism.
©2014 Jonathan Schneer (P)2015 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
I have been reading books on World War II for more than 50 years now and all of those treat Winston Churchill as the single most essential figure in the defeat of Nazi Germany, properly in my view. I have also read numerous biographies of Winston Churchill and many of those concentrate on his actions during the war and how central a figure he was in how the US, Great Britain and its Empire pursued the war. In fact the concentration on Churchill and his actions is so pronounced in many of those books that it is easy to believe that Churchill alone was responsible for the decisions and actions taken by Great Britain in its fight against Germany, in both the strategic and public policy areas. Thus Mr Schneer's book describing the individuals of the British War Cabinet and how each helped prosecute the war comes as a welcome addition to my knowledge of the war.
Many of the figures in the British War Cabinet during World War II do not get sufficient mention in most histories of the war, often because their actions were less part of the public face of the war, even if no less essential, and this book attempts to correct that failing. Thus here we see how people like Ernest Bevin, Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps took actions that were essential in helping Britain prepare for and pursue Britain’s war aims even though many of them were either political foes of Winston Churchill or competitors for the position of Prime Minister. Here we also see some of the sub rosa political fights that occurred and some of the plans to replace Churchill with someone else as Prime Minister. Some members of the cabinet, like Bevin, were dedicated solely to the successful prosecution of the war. Others, like Cripps, had designs on the highest office in Great Britain and pursued those designs believing that they would be a better Prime Minister. And here we see how Churchill handled his political foes and remained what the author calls the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th century if not of all British history.
There is much in this book that was new to me and understanding the background politics of the war explained much that had been opaque to me before. While I found the entire book fascinating, it helped explain to me two things that had always puzzled me - why the British voted Churchill’s government out of office near the end of the war and why Churchill, superb politician that he was, never noticed the swing in public opinion. The book does a wonderful job of laying out what was happening, how the various people reacted and how they controlled (or, in some cases, failed to control) events. The only thing about the book that does puzzle me is why Mr Schneer himself fails to see why the British public felt free to vote Churchill out of office. When, at the early part of the war, they felt they were in danger they held fast to the one person who personified their defiance. When, toward the end of the war, they understood that they would win (or, at least, not lose), they felt free of fear enough to voice their grave reservations at some of the government’s economic decisions and what they felt the future held for them. The very fact that the British public finally felt that it could contemplate a future without seeing the specter of Adolph Hitler and all of the horror of Nazi Germany as inevitable shows just how great a job Churchill and the War Cabinet did in marshaling Britain’s forces.
This book is clear that Great Britain could not have won the war without the help of the US, the Soviet Union and the British Empire, but it explains much about how the essentially British institutions of the War Cabinet and Parliament helped Britain do its best given the resources it had and how it helped keep the country united during such a terrible time. Highly recommended for those interested in the European part of World War II.
This book reminded of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals depicting Lincoln's War Cabinet during the civil war. The book was well written and narrated. It focused on Churchill's ascendancy to Prime Minister in 1939-40 and how he was able to manage the personalities that made up his cabinet. Unlike Lincoln's cabinet, Churchill created a true coalition government in which he included leaders of key opposition political parties (Lord Beaverbrook of the Conservative Party, Atlee and Bevin of the Labour Party and Archibald Sinclair of the Liberal Party to name a few) as well as potential rivals (such as Sir Stafford Cripps). The author did a great job providing a biographical background of each person in the cabinet and how Churchill was able for the most part to "head them off" from trying to take the leadership of the party until the waning days of the war in Europe. My only criticism of the book is that the author failed to discuss the impact that Churchill's World War I experience as a member of the Asquith ministry (he served as First Lord of the Admiralty and was responsible for the failed Gallipoli campaign when he was forced from power as part of a coalition government that took power after that campaign) impacted his actions as Prime Minister of his own government. The author states that Churchill "resigned" from the Asquith government (and provides no further discussion of the same) when in reality he was forced out. I believe that the mistreatment of him by Asquith must have impacted his actions in leading the coalition government in WW II- but the author ignores it. Otherwise, I believe that this book is well worth the listen.
I am an avid eclectic reader.
I have read so much about Churchill over the years I hesitate to buy a new book about him. So much has been written; how can there be anything new on WSC. Schneer has actually said something original about Churchill that makes the book well worth purchasing.
Schneer writes a compelling portrait of Churchill’s cabinet members and puts emphasis on the importance of post war planning. The author discusses some remarkable characters such as Lord Beaverbrook, who wanted to mount a second front to support the Soviet Union and austere socialist Sir Richard Stafford Cripps who mounted a credible attack to WSC leadership.
Schneer stresses Churchill’s skill in managing such a disparate team of rivals in his three party administrations. Schneer demonstrates how this cabinet was driven by personal as well as political discord plotted to replace Churchill, but it was Churchill’s skills in management and administration that kept it altogether and focused on winning the War. He also explains why Churchill lost his post in 1945 in spite of his popularity.
If you are interested in Churchill or World War II you might want to read this book for some new information or view point. Matthew Brenher narrated the book.
I've always viewed Churchill as Britain's best loved wartime hero, garnering support from across the parliamentary political spectrum. But I've learned that Churchill's skill in military strategy pales in comparison to his skill in political strategy. An excellent treatment of the personalities and partisan antics of the British government's war cabinet.
I am a student of Winston Churchill, and this book is a great supplement detailing the important World War II British political figures that he worked with, and the book also illustrates Churchill's political skills at their best.
Report Inappropriate Content