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July 2016: Biography Memoir > The Last Lion: Winston Churchill Alone, 1932-1940--William Manchester (5 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments This second of three volumes by the masterful biographer covers the critical period of European history that encompasses the run-up to World War 2. The read is not quite as fun as the first volume because for most of this period Churchill was excluded from the governments in power. But it made for a thoroughly engaging tale of his persistent efforts to wield influence to counter the unfortunate policy of appeasement that Britain and France took while Nazi Germany grew ever more powerful and aggressive.

Due to his imperialist slant of not giving ground toward independence for India and work against tariffs, he was not invited to be a Cabinet member of MacDonald’s National government in 1931 and was considered too much of a warmonger to be accepted in the subsequent Conservative regimes of Baldwin and Chamberlain. We spend a lot of time with Churchill in domestic life at his estate in Kent, Chartwell. Gardening, landscaping, building walls, painting, and writing his massive tomes on a history of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and a history of English speaking peoples. Totally dependent on his pen for his income, he expanded his journalistic output on an impressive array of topics from literature and history to politics and foreign policy. In the latter area, his opinions on the dangers of Hitler and poor readiness of Britain to deter his aims were muffled by restrictions on his opinions being aired in the London Times or on BBC radio. However, his columns were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers throughout the world, and his speeches of warning as a Member of Parliament, ignored time and again, slowly gained allies when he was able to share details on the pitiful military readiness of the U.K. compared to Germany from his own network of contacts among insiders in the British government and in Europe.

From the perspective of the war, it is easy to lapse into a simplistic view that it was inevitable once Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 and took supreme dictatorial power with the abolishment of democracy in Germany in 1934. But with each escalation of Nazi boldness and might—remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, annexation of Austria in 1938, seizure of the Sudenenland part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and military invasion of the rest in 1939—there is plenty of room for Monday morning quarterbacks to point to alternative interventions that might have been effective. However, Manchester makes it clear that the appeasement policies of Baldwin and Chamberlain were a tragic series of mistakes often founded on deception and self-interested politics, the British public was fully collusive. Compared to France, Britain’s populace didn’t care what Hitler did in Eastern Europe. A strong Germany would be a bulwark against the treat of godless communist aggression by the Soviets in Europe. The Munich Agreement handing over the Sudetenland without Czech participation for promises of future good behavior was heralded as a glorious achievement by Chamberlain for “peace in our time.” Writing to Lloyd George at the time, Churchill noted how the choice was between war and shame, and Britain’s pick of shame meant a less favorable war later.

The Blitzkrieg invasion of Bohemia and Moravia parts of Czechoslovakia was founded on Hitler’s prediction that France and Britain would do nothing. Manchester sides with Churchill and many historians that more efforts at deterrence through the League of Nations or alliance efforts among Britain, France, and the Soviets would have been effective. The Czech’s were militarily strong though poorly equipped. The German military led by General Beck was ready to stand up to Hitler should it appear other nations would come to their aid, especially in light of a Franco-Soviet Pact. When turnover of the French government made that appear unlikely, the potential “strike” by the generals was quelled. The steamrolling of the rest of Czechoslovakia and killing of up to 250,000 in Prague alone, half of them Jewish, made a mockery of the appeasement strategy and gave the Nazis the needed success to pursue Poland only months later. Mussolini’s invasion of Albania with Hitler’s permission made it clear that alliance with Italy was no longer in the cards. With Britain and France so compliant against Nazi expansion, Stalin made a deal with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to divide Poland with Germany and gain free rein for the Baltic states.

Against this backdrop, we experience all the detailed efforts of Churchill to get Britain and its potential allies to work together at collaborative deterrence and rearmament sufficient to match Germany’s four million men in arms and growing air and naval power. When the invasion of Poland kicked off in 1939, treaties made it inevitable that France and England declare war. Finally, Chamberlain was forced by public pressure to bring Churchill into the cabinet, giving him the post of the Admiralty like he had in World War 1 until the Gallipoli disaster. Poland put up a noble fight with a million soldiers, but the Panzer tank corps and massive bombings quickly won out, with France committing only to only a pitiful salient under an incompetent general. The only positive outcome was the escape of about 100,000 soldiers who later served admirably with the Allies in many venues of the war. Neither France or Britain wanted to bomb the munitions factories of the Ruhr for fear of reprisals by the supremely strong Lufwaffe. Aside from lots of devastating U-boat attacks in the face of Britain’s attempt of a naval blockade, there was a long pause in action for preparation.

It was a great pleasure to experience Churchill in operation at the Admiralty House. But he soon got in trouble when U-boats got into the middle of the fleet at Scarpa Floe in Scotland and sank some capital ships. His ingenious plan to gain control of Norwegian ports as a means to block the critical transport of iron ore from neutral Sweden turned out to end in a disaster in execution. The soldiers put ashore to take the ports were not prepared with skis to manage the three feet of snow, and the cabinet chose to concentrate on the well defended port of Trondheim instead of a more critical remote northern port. Unlike Gallipoli, this debacle didn’t stick to him, but instead it served as the nudge to replace Chamberlain with a new Prime Minister and national coalition government. Lord Halifax was preferred by the leaders of Parliament, but he refused, making Churchill the only real choice. Thus, this phase of the biography ends with him making his famous speech to the House of Commons:

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.' We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Certainly this 900-plus page read takes some commitment, but it's worth it to fill in one's gaps in understanding about the momentous events that led to the war that killed so many millions and Churchill working behind the scenes. Most of all I came to feel the tragedy of how Churchill was wasted as the man who might of led the world to peace but ended up leading the war.

message 2: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 6895 comments I'm going to keep these in mind for when I am feeling more ambitious.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Booknblues wrote: "I'm going to keep these in mind for when I am feeling more ambitious."

I did it by audiobook on my commute along the Downeast coast to work each day. About 30 hrs (makes for the equivalent of a 3 season miniseries). You get impending war in the bones and the dream of a better path if humanity only could have got its act together.

message 4: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 6895 comments Sounds like a good way to do a commute. Mine is about 5 minutes so it would take forever.

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