Pursuant to the discussion here and the podcast Scott and I produced about Darkest Hour, a number of readers have asked for recommendations for good biographies and books about Churchill. Here are ten recommended authors and titles.
Right off the top, it should be acknowledged that even the most ambitious reader might not be up to getting through all eight volumes of Martin Gilbert’s official biography (the longest biography ever written, I am told), though that’s what you’d do if you really want to know the story in complete detail. Gilbert did produce an excellent one-volume biography, Churchill: A Life, back around 1996. It’s still over 1,000 pages, though, and therefore requires some commitment.
William Manchester’s three-volume biography, The Last Lion (the third volume being completed ably by Paul Reid) is marvelous reading, as Manchester was a wonderful narrative stylist, although there are some factual errors and mistakes of interpretation in these books. (You can find my review of the last volume here.)
Roy Jenkins produced a good one volume biography in 2002, Churchill: A Biography, in which he offered the conclusion that Churchill was the greatest prime minister in Britain’s history—a judgment not necessarily to be expected from a former Labour Party grandee like Jenkins. Jenkins, also the author of a good biography of William Gladstone, ends the book thus: “When I started writing this book I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all of his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.”
For those not inclined to tackle a large biography, there are a number of excellent shorter books analyzing Churchill while providing ample biographical detail. Start with Paul Johnson’s very brisk and concise Churchill. Rather than trying for a compressed biography, this 192 page book concentrates on 10 key “factors and virtues” of Churchill. “These ten points,” Johnson concludes, “are essential to answering the question: Did Churchill save Britain? The answer must be yes. No one else could have done it.” (My review can be found here.)
No Churchill reading list would be complete without the excellent work of John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian who writes with great perception and insight about Churchill (also Hitler and Stalin). Start with The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler. This covers the period from Churchill’s ascension to the premiership in May 1940 through late August, after which the German conquest of Britain became impossible.
Then see his Five Days in London: May 1940, which tells in great detail the story that is the climax of Darkest Hour—the clash with Lord Halifax and the remaining appeasers over whether to seek a mediated peace with Germany through Italy. (Lukacs is mentioned in the credits of Darkest Hour as the historical consultant for the film.)
Finally, not to be missed is Lukacs’s Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian, which like Paul Johnson offers a good crisp analysis of the varying facets of Churchill’s life. Here I should pause to note that Lukacs and Roy Jenkins both explicitly repudiate the tacit premise of the Manchester biography contained in the title—The Last Lion—which embraces the historicist premise that Churchill’s greatness derived from the fact that he was a man of the past, specifically the high Victorian era in which he grew up. Jenkins wrote at the end of his biography that explaining Churchill as a product of Victorian aristocracy is “unconvincing. . . Churchill was far too many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth.” Lukacs adds: “Contrary to most accepted views we ought to consider that [Churchill] was not some kind of admirable remnant of a more heroic past. He was not The Last Lion. He was something else.” The “something else” at the root of Churchill’s greatness in 1940 derived not from being a Victorian man, but from being, in a larger sense, an ancient man—the kind of “great-souled man” contemplated in Aristotle and other classical authors. The ultimate putdown of the historicist view of Churchill came from Leo Strauss in a private letter to the German philosopher Karl Lowith: “A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalopsuchia [the great-souled man] exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C.”
For a good account and analysis of Churchill’s statesmanship, see Larry P. Arnn, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government. This, along with a very short and hard to find Martin Gilbert book, Churchill’s Political Philosophy, is the best analysis of the substance of the man.
Finally, anyone with genuine curiosity about Churchill should include some of the great man’s writing, and not rely solely on biographers and other secondary treatments. His major multi-volume works, Marlborough: His Life and Times, The World Crisis, and The Second World War, are probably more than most readers are up for. Try either his short and charming early autobiography, My Early Life, or one of his terrific essay collections, Great Contemporaries and Thoughts and Adventures.
There are a lot of excellent specialized studies of Churchill—two excellent books on the Dardanelles fiasco, for example—that would require another long list to enumerate. Perhaps I’ll do this some other time. There is, however, one specialized study that everyone should have on their shelf: Richard Langworth’s Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality: What He Actually Did and Said. Langworth, a meticulous researcher, corrects the record on many of the inaccurate or apocryphal Churchill quotes (there are a ton of these), and corrects the record on some of the irrepressible attacks on Churchill.
Postscript: Somewhere in the back and forth with Scott and others about Darkest Hour, a reader suggested to me—I forget where exactly—that I check out Ian Kershaw’s account of the Churchill-Halifax clash in his book Fateful Choices. I dashed out and got a copy, and the reader is correct that Kershaw’s account lends some verisimilitude to the somewhat equivocal portrayal of Churchill and his position in May 1940 in Darkest Hour:
It is not easy to imagine, in the light of later events, how insecure Churchill’s position was in the middle of May 1940. His hold on authority, soon to become unchallengeable, was still tenuous. No raptures of the Conservative benches greeted his first appearance in the House of Commons as Prime Minister on 13 May. The cheers that day, apart from those from the opposition side, were for Chamberlain, not Churchill. The latter’s speech that day, later seen as epitomizing Churchillian rhetoric, promising “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” met with a cool reception among Conservatives. The distrust remained. Some thought it would be a short-lived premiership. . .
[T]here was no such dominance as the crisis worsened. Churchill could not override or impose his will on the other members of the War Cabinet. He recognized his dependence, in particular, on Chamberlain and Halifax. As Chamberlain had written privately of his successor the day after he took office, “I know that he relies on Halifax and me and as he put it in a letter, ‘My path depends largely on you.’”
Kershaw goes on to relate that there was a War Cabinet paper prepared on May 26, entitled “Suggested Approach to Signor Mussolini.” But this initiative died within two days as Churchill outflanked Halifax in his dramatic speech to the full Cabinet. Kershaw returns to the scene in at the end of the book:
The immediate context of military catastrophe in France, together with the known readiness of some figures in the British establishment—including, at the very heart of government, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax—to consider such an outcome [as a negotiated peace], and the relatively weak position at this point of the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, meant it could not be dismissed out of hand. But when three days of debate in the War Cabinet eventually concluded with a firm decision to fight on, it was on the basis of reasoned argument, led by Churchill but accepted by a collective decision of all those involved, including Halifax.
So you know what to do: Go see the movie.