It has taken me quite a while to sit down and write this review of Andrew Roberts’ remarkable biography of Winston Churchill. There are a few reasons why it has taken me so long. Churchill-Walking with Destiny challenged many of the notions I have had of Churchill since I was a young student of history. It took me a while to come to terms with some of these long-held opinions and evaluate them against the new evidence that Roberts provides. The fact that my reading this book coincided with the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of many of the closing acts of World War II in Europe also delayed my writing this review. Roberts presents evidence and arguments that have led me to re-evaluate not just Churchill’s actions during World War II and the Cold War, but also the roles of Britain, the Commonwealth, and other nations.
Enough excuses! On with the review!
I think the most important aspect of this book is that it draws on materials that have not been available to historians and researchers until very recently. Accessing diaries from notables such as King George VI and parliamentary documents from the House of Commons, Roberts is able to explain many of Churchill’s actions and thoughts with much more certainty than could the historians and biographers of earlier generations. Written evidence, especially that of the King, provides insights into some of Churchill’s more questionable decisions and beliefs. Even if the new evidence does not absolve Churchill of complicity in some events for which he has long been criticized, it does provide greater context and begs consideration of the options that Churchill might have had before him. Roberts carefully reexamines events such as the Tonypandy Riots, the Indian Famine, Churchill’s role in the defense of Antwerp in 1914, and his early opinion of Mussolini. It is the reassessment of Churchill’s roles and actions in these and many other events that really invite readers to reassess Churchill himself. Also explained in several instances is Churchill’s perception of himself and his careful assessment of when to fight for a cause and when to back off. Roberts acknowledges a certain amount of hero-worship for the protagonist, but also criticizes where criticism is due, and asks readers to evaluate certain actions and thoughts within the context of new evidence.
Context, itself, is a critical part of this examination of Churchill’s life. While many biographies present decisions, events, and motivations in a rather matter-of-fact manner, Roberts manages to show that decisions were not always simple and straightforward. In fact, most decisions Churchill made—especially during his middle age and through World War II—were well-considered and based on history and a careful reading of his contemporaries, but we’re far from simple. Roberts points out, as have others, that Churchill was often motivated by his perception of how history would judge him—and Britain. He considered how history would judge him and England when advocating for the Dardanelles campaign, resisting the appeasement movement in the 1930s, and many other critical points in history. His use of history to support political and military arguments, and his awareness that he was writing several chapters of history himself helped him arrive at some decisions that might be seen technically and practically as misguided, but morally correct.
Regarding the man, himself, Roberts paints a great picture of a man who loved his country, his wife, his friends, and his many artistic and scientific passions. Roberts provides ample evidence of Churchill’s work ethic and his demands for loyalty and facts. Churchill’s abilities to absorb mountains of information (especially when he wanted to) and compartmentalize that information is evident. So to is his ability to (usually) organize military and administrative advisors into cohesive u its. The book abounds with humorous anecdotes and sets them in context to allow the reader greater appreciation for his quick and devastating wit. Roberts also shares the moments where Churchill’s pride colored his thoughts and writings, allowing readers to understand the flaws in his histories and other writings.
As the biography wound down, I found myself wanting more. This want is not a reflection on Roberts, but is actually a compliment. While other biographies and histories left me thinking I “knew” Churchill, Roberts provided so much new information and much fuller context, that I now feel like there is much more to know. I am hopeful that others will pick up where Roberts left off and help us all better understand the enigma that was—and is—Winston Churchill.