Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Churchill Series – Jun. 17, 2008

Readers Note: An Anon commenter noted on the thread of yesterday’s series post that I hadn’t included in the post that part of Churchill’s letter excoriating American newspapers circa 1895. The commenter also noted the NY Times was publishing then.

Hmm. Perhaps I was too kind or maybe just careless.

Whatever the case, the comment made me smile and I thank Anon.


Something different today: from Foreign Affairs (Summer, 1992) Fritz Stern’s brief, informative and judicious review of three outstanding works:

Hitler And Stalin: Parallel Lives. Alan Bullock. New York: Knopf, 1992, 1081 pp.

De Gaulle.
Vol. II: The Ruler, 1945-1970. Jean Lacouture. New York: Norton, 1992, 640 pp.

Churchill: A Life. Martin Gilbert. New York: Henry Holt, 1991, 1066 pp.

By some special cunning of history these three weighty tomes have appeared simultaneously in the United States-and furnish excellent accounts of the European leaders who dominated the political scene of so much of our century.

These biographies, with their expert summaries of historical contexts, once more document what most people once knew-that in some historical circumstances individuals do matter and matter decisively.

The best of these works deals with the worst of men: the master historian and brilliant biographer Alan Bullock has written a gripping study of the two tyrants who transformed their countries and much of the world. Bullock details the public careers of Hitler and Stalin, while shrewdly analyzing the inner dynamism that made triumph and unparalleled terror possible.

In reconstructing their lives, he reminds the general reader (for whom the book is felicitously written) just how important was the German-Russian axis in the first half of the century and how the interaction between these hostile yet similar regimes shaped world politics. A synthesis of vast scholarship, the book is also riveting reading.

Lacouture's second volume of his biography of DeGaulle is a thorough, splendid account of the great political dramatist, the very conscious creator of his own legend.

Lacouture, France's best known political biographer, continues in this volume to set DeGaulle in the context of mostly adversarial conditions, beginning with his conflicts with the Anglo-Americans during the Liberation. As ever, DeGaulle merged his ego with the demands of France's honor, damaged by defeat and collaboration.

Lacouture depicts the complexities of French politics and corrects the general's own version of his "withdrawal" after 1946; he sought his return to power and understood that Algeria offered both the means and the test of that return.

A balanced, indispensable work about a man whose personal power was so much greater than his country's. As Abba Eban noted when he visited DeGaulle on the eve of the Six Day War: "Authority flowed from him like a steady tide." There was also a dark and disagreeable side; in June 1940 Churchill, referring to the newly arrived self-proclaimed savior of France, described it as "an aptitude for suffering."

Lacouture's work, based on the rich literature and many interviews, depicts a shrewd and cleverly opportunistic man-as well as a realistic and courageous leader, as attested by his ending of the Algerian war.

Churchill depicts the engrossing life of perhaps the most appealing European statesman of the century. Narrowly focused on the essentials of Churchill's public and private life, Gilbert (the authorized biographer who has completed a magisterial, multivolumed biography) nevertheless recreates a large slice of British history.

A compelling story-from the earliest days of Churchill as radical reformer-much of it told in Churchill's own incomparable voice, including his letters to Clementine, recording triumph and failure in two wars and in the never peaceful years in between. Gilbert is understandably under the spell of Churchill's greatness-at which other historians and writers are trying to chip away.

Churchill, the romantic realist, the rebellious traditionalist, had a horror of Bolshevism and yet grasped Soviet help in order to defeat the still greater horror of Hitler, against whom he had relentlessly warned. In material power weaker than either, Churchill was Hitler's most determined enemy and understood Stalin better than most.

For anyone who wants an authoritative account of our epoch, these three works would make a good beginning-and they suggest that serious biography can recapture the true drama of history.