Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings

Max Hastings’ Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 is an elegantly written, consistently gripping account of Churchill’s tenure as wartime prime minister.churchill

The author’s central purpose in the book is to demonstrate Churchill’s historical greatness. However, paradoxically, it is the clarity of this purpose that is the book’s central flaw. Mr Hastings’ effort to show the giant that was Churchill is such a dominant theme in the book that it tends to submerge some rather uncomfortable facts. For example: Churchill’s deeply ingrained racism and the degree of his culpability for the wartime Indian famine are only lightly touched upon; Hastings deals very superficially, and wholly in Churchill’s favour, with the persistent historical controversy regarding Churchill’s sacking of Auchinleck in North Africa in the immediate aftermath of the general’s successful reorganisation of the British Army into battle groups and his defeat of Rommel; he barely mentions Bill Slim and the fact that Britain’s greatest wartime general was relegated to the theatre that Churchill thought least of; and he excuses the prime minister’s flights of fancy and disasterous choices later in the war as the result, in large measure, of old age and stress.

This is not to deny the importance of Churchill as war leader: his insistence on continuing to fight after the fall of France was a demonstration of enormous moral courage; his understanding of the importance of drawing the USA into the war to have any hope of victory was more clear sighted than most of his contemporaries; his decision to sink the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir displayed the sort of ruthlessness that was essential to winning the war; his unsucccessful efforts at establishing a democratic Poland at the end of the war show a sense of decency and honour that contrast favourably with Stalin’s monstrousness and Roosevelt’s disinterest on this issue.

Mr Hastings book would have been even more interesting if he had allowed his portrait of Churchill to emerge from this sort of evidence rather than seeking to impose such an overwhelmingly heroic impression on much more complex material.

Nevertheless, it should be said that few readers could ever feel short-changed by Hastings’ historical writing, which is as ever humane and lucid, and the breadth and depth of his research is, as always, awesome.

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2 thoughts on “Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings

  1. Pingback: All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945, by Max Hastings | aidanjmcquade

  2. Pingback: The Final Run, by Tommy Steele | aidanjmcquade

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