It could be argued that for the preservation of western ideals and culture, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was the most important man in the 2oth century. Not only was he crucial to the survival of democratic Europe, he was immensely talented, hardworking, funny, cunning, adventurous, joyful, articulate, ambitious and artistic. Winston wore many hats during his lifetime; soldier, parliamentarian, prime minister, master orator, painter, husband, world leader, and prolific writer. In this book, author and historian Paul Johnson does a masterful job of walking the reader through Winston’s life – the highs and lows, the battles won and lost, the personal shortcoming and remarkable attributes that made Winston who he was.
In the 1930s, Churchill, like a prophet, decried the build-up of Nazi Germany whilst most of England and the world shouted him down with chants of “Peace, peace, peace!”. The world had just recently gone through the first World War, and most were not eager to entertain the idea of yet another, more horrific war to come. As a result, western European countries did nothing (to the dismay of Churchill) when Hitler invaded Czechloslavakia in 1938 – perhaps the best and biggest army outside of Germany at the time. Hitler continued into other countries and eventually turned his sights to the west.
When the Nazi crisis had reached it’s boiling point in 1940, and almost all was lost, England finally gave way to the leadership of Churchill. As Prime Minister, Churchill began the tireless task of defending the island, building up war supplies, luring the Americans into battle, and encouraging the troops and public masses. Churchill did not tell the people what they wanted to hear, he told them the hard and difficult truth… but he did so in a way that infused hope and courage. My favorite quote of Churchill comes from this dark hour of history:
We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
The epilogue alone is worth the cost of the book. In it, Paul Johnson offers five insights as to what we can learn from the life of Winston Churchill.
1. Always aim high. As a boy, Winston did not receive positive encouragement from his parents, and he struggled in school. Throughout his life he had many failures and embarrassments, but he always aimed high.
2. There is no substitute for hard work. Winston worked extremely hard to master whatever he put his mind to. He worked up to 16 hours a day. He also played hard and made sure to get plenty of rest to keep up a high level of efficiency when he did work.
3. Churchill never allowed mistakes, disaster – personal or national – accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down. “He had courage, the most important of all virtues, and its companion, fortitude.”
4. Churchill wasted an extradinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting the blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas.
5. The absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in Churchill’s life.
Oh that a Winston Churchill would rise up again in world history – America could really use a leader like him right now.