John Keegan describes Winston Spencer Churchill (“Spencer” is a surname, indicating Winton and Diana, Princes of Wales, were related) as a “moral oddity: a man who was world-wise without being a man of the world.”
Keegan, a noted military historian, notes in his Churchill that Winston was largely a self-educated man, filled with the burning ambition to equal or better his illustrious ancestor, General John Churchill, who largely gave Europe its current shape and was created Duke of Marlborough as a reward.
Keegan`s book is just shy of 200 pages in length and can thus be best described as a solid introduction to the man now most remembered for his fiery oration during the Battle of Britain. His pithiness did not end there. After World War Two he coined the term "Iron Curtain" and defined the paradigm that underlay the Cold War and international relations until September 11, 2001.
Churchill is now widely regarded a war leader, but Keegan says this overshadows his valuable contribution as a social reformer. "Had peace persisted (i.e. World War Two not happened) he might now be remembered, if only by political historians, as a pioneer of Britain`s welfare state." There is some irony that Margaret Thatcher, the greatest Conservative leader since Churchill, built her career on dismantling that welfare state, but that is another story.
The great man, of course, also had a life-long link with South Africa. Some readers may recall that he served as a lieutenant with the SA Light Horse, an Uitlander unit, during the Boer War (1899-1902), was captured and taken to Pretoria as a prisoner, from where he escaped to Mozambique. (After entering politics, he would continue to serve in the reserves and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.
During World War One he served as a battalion commander in the trenches with the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.)His other South African links included his service as Colonial Secretary during which time he was tasked with supervising the repatriation of Chinese labourers from the Natal Colony and his friendship with Jan Smuts. The latter is still internationally regarded as a towering intellectual and statesman, although his aloofness and disinterest in affairs at home would cost him and his party dearly in 1948 and usher in more than 40 years of Apartheid. But one digresses.
Great leaders mostly also have great flaws. In Churchill`s case this included a propensity for distraction, During World War Two his military staff spent most of their time dissuading him of the merits of some new impractical scheme. They were not always successful; three cases in point being the British strategic bombing campaign, Norway and Special Operations Executive (SOE). With regards to Norway it can be said his violation of that country`s neutrality cost it and Denmark five years of Nazi occupation. Bomber command and SOE was to the British what the U-boats were to the Germans – vastly expensive in life and without a commensurate return in investment. Keegan says "Churchill`s belief in the power of resisters to weaken the Nazi grip on occupied Europe belonged with other flights of his strategic imagination."
Keegan observes that to the present generation Churchill seems to be a "figure of exaggerated stature," a view our grandchildren may hold of that other 20th Century icon, Nelson Mandela. Both deserve better. In Churchill`s case his enduring charm lies in his turn of phrase, the result of years of reading and writing. The hand, much like the tongue, is a weapon that gets sharper through use, causing Keegan to write: "Churchill the war leader was literature in action and written history in realisation."
And who can forget, once heard, stirring this stirring rhetoric: "We have differed and quarrelled in the past; but now one bond unites us all – to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and agony may be." And: "If we can stand up to [Hitler] all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States… will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age…"
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
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