Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
Gilbert the Incomparable
Churchill: The Power of Words. Hardbound, illus., 536 pp., $30, members $24; Winston Churchill—The Wilderness Years: Speaking out Against Hitler in the Prelude to War, by Martin Gilbert. Softbound, illus., 240 pp., $17.
By David Freeman, Ph.D.
Professor Freeman teaches History at California State University Fullerton.
In addition to writing most of Churchill’s official biography and editing sixteen volumes of documents, Sir Martin Gilbert has produced numerous specialized Churchill studies, making him the undisputed king of the field. Each of his contributions is worth reading and re-reading. This reviewe provided the opportunity to both.
Churchill: The Power of Words offers quite a new way to learn about Churchill: a guided tour through his life in the words of Churchill himself and conducted by his Boswell. Gilbert has selected 200 readings from Churchill’s books, articles, speeches and letters that highlight the main events and themes of an extraordinarily full and lengthy life. Arranged in chronological order, the readings tell Churchill’s life story in his own words, with each section placed in context by Gilbert’s brief introductions.
The result is a kind of autobiographic supplement to Churchill’s My Early Life. Although WSC wrote many volumes of memoirs and accounts of his adventures, he never produced a narrative covering his whole career. This book is the closest thing to such a work.
Churchill introduces the reader to his life in brief, beautifully written installments. Gilbert’s book makes an ideal gift for those new to the subject and old hands alike. In fact, the next time someone asks you why you are so interested in Churchill, hand him a copy of this book and say: “Read!”
Originally published more than thirty years ago as a companion to the homonymous television mini-series, The Wilderness Years deserves to be considered on its own merits. Many remember Robert Hardy’s brilliant performance in the title role, still the longest and best dramatization of any period of Churchill’s life. The book could easily have been a mere afterthought, but Gilbert is too good a historian to have rushed into print a book unworthy of himself or his subject.
When this work was first published Gilbert had just produced the relevant Volume V of the Official Biography, along with the three massive companion volumes of documents that went with it. These lengthy works inform his story of Churchill’s time out of power during the decade preceding the Second World War. These were the Appeasement years, when Churchill was the lonely voice “crying in the wilderness” against the rising menace of Nazi Germany.
Eighty years on, the story is still shocking. Three successive prime ministers refused to take many necessary steps towards safeguarding the country against aggression, believing that rearmament would only hasten war, not deter it. Repeatedly Churchill was dismissed as a warmonger, yet he never flinched, never failed to try new initiatives, and had the satisfaction of seeing former opponents in all parties come round to reality, however belatedly, one by one.
Churchill wrote of these events himself in The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his World War II memoirs. But even after the war, WSC did not have all the facts: much still remained classified or hidden away in the private papers of former government ministers. With access to all of the relevant documents, Gilbert threads together the full story of the arrogance, foolishness and subterfuge against which Churchill had to struggle.
If you seek a thorough but accessible account of Appeasement and Churchill’s battle against it, without all of the scholarly trappings that can so easily confuse and bog down the general reader, The Wilderness Years is a perfect fit. It deserves to rank as one of the finest monographs in Churchill studies.
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