Thursday, June 22, 2023

Books: "Churchill's Shadow" By Geoffrey Wheatcroft


Churchill's Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Norton; paperback, 656 pages; $22.00

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist who was the former literary editor of the Spectator, and he writes frequently for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and the New Republic. He is also the author of several books, including The Randlords, which was a History Book Club Choice, and The Controversy of Zion, a winner of a Jewish National Book Award.

Churchill's Shadow was originally released in 2021, and it was honored by The New York Times Book Review as one of its 100 Notable Books for that year.

In this deeply researched examination of Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II, Wheatcroft takes on his subject in his entirety, as he separates the man from the myth that he so carefully cultivated, and scrutinizes his legacy on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Churchill is widely considered one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, if not the greatest of all, as he was revered for his opposition to appeasement, his defiance in the face of German bombing of England, his political prowess, his deft aphorisms, and his memorable speeches.

As prime minister during the most perilous period in British history, the early 1940s, he became the savior of his country and is now perhaps even more beloved in America than in England. 

The American Churchill cult, which goes up to the present day, is not only an extraordinary phenomenon in itself, but it has had grave consequences. Every time Churchill's name is invoked, along with the names of "Munich" and "appeasement" which he turned into curses, it leads to disaster, form Korea and Suez to Vietnam and Iraq. 

When Churchill was appointed to the cabinet for the first time in 1908, a perceptive journalist referred to him as "the most interesting problem of personal speculation in English politics." 

That is certainly true well over a century later, as he is still a fascinating problem, as well as a source of adulation. Wheatcroft, in his unique writing style where he is pointed and employs a sly wit, illuminates key moments and controversies in Churchill's career, from the tragedy of Gallipoli to his shocking imperialist and racist attitudes, dealings with Ireland, support for Zionism, and complicated engagement with European integration.

Churchill was often in the wrong, starting with how he brazenly contradicted his own previous political stances, was frequently a disastrous military strategist, and inspired both dislike and distrust through much of his life. Before 1939, when World War II began in Europe, he doubted the efficacy of tank and submarine warfare, opposed the bombing of cities only to reverse his position, shamelessly exploited the researchers and ghostwriters who wrote much of the journalism and books published under his name, and he had a fondness for alcohol that had him drinking whisky before breakfast.

In this excerpt, Wheatcroft writes of when he witnessed a Churchill visit to the House of Commons in 1963, long after he retired: "A hush fell as he entered the chamber in a wheelchair and took his seat, not on the Treasury Bench where he had sat as prime minister at an exalted moment in his country's history, but in another hallowed place below the gangway, from where he had once delivered his warnings about the threat from Adolf Hitler, and before that about the threat from Mohandas Ghandi. Sir Winston Churchill had sat in the House since the beginning of the century, but hadn't spoken for some years, was visibly frail, and may not have properly followed proceedings: by now more sacred talisman than elder statesman.

That day in the summer of 1963 was the one occasion when I ever saw Churchill plain and close at hand. I was a schoolboy absorbed by politics, and a friend's father, a Labour Member of Parliament, had given me a pass to the gallery of the House of Commons. For all that he was aged an infirm, I was glad to have seen him for myself, and to have seen him where I did. 'This little place,' Churchill had once said, 'is what makes the difference between us and Germany.' He was talking to another MP as they left the darkened chamber late one night in 1917, but he might have used the same words still more truly in 1940: 'This little room is the shrine of the world's liberties.' He left Parliament at last the year after I saw him, and died only months later, in January 1965 aged ninety, as if the last drop of political lifeblood had been drained form him when the initials 'MP' no longer stood after his name.

This book is an attempt to make sense of the man I saw that day long ago; to look hard at his reputation during his lifetime, and his influence since he died; to make a reckoning with his life and with his legacy, the long shadow he still casts; and to understand what he really meant to his contemporaries, and what he means to posterity. When I saw Churchill, no reminder was needed of how much he had loomed over our lives; what I couldn't have guessed then was how large he would still loom so long after his death - and yet how hard to grasp the reality of Churchill it would still be."

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