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Churchill: The Unexpected Hero Paperback – 13 Jul 2006
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...this volume is ideal as a very short introduction to a very big man. (David Reynolds, The English Historical Review)
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill won two resounding victories. The first was a victory over Nazi Germany, the second a victory over the legion of skeptics who had derided his judgment, denied his claims to greatness, and excluded him from high office on the grounds that he was sure to be a danger to King and Country. Churchill was the only British politician of the twentieth century to become an enduring national hero. The curious thing is that it happened at the age of 65, at a time when he was considered to be a spent force, with a track-record of disastrous decisions. All but the most hostile of his adversaries conceded that he possessed great abilities, remarkable eloquence, and a streak of genius. But it was almost universally agreed that he was a shameless egotist, an opportunist without principles or convictions, an unreliable colleague, an erratic policy-maker who lacked judgment, and a reckless amateur strategist with a dangerous passion for war and bloodshed.At one time or another in his career, he had offended every party and faction in the land, yet despite this he became the embodiment of national unity, an uncrowned king who threatened to eclipse the monarchy. In this incisive new biography, Paul Addison tells the story of Churchill's life in parallel with the history of his reputation. He seeks to explain why Churchill was transformed into a national hero, and why his heroic status has endured ever since in spite of the attempts of iconoclasts to debunk him. He argues that we are now in a position to reach beyond the mythology - both positive and negative - to see the real Winston Churchill, a warrior-statesman whose qualities were remarkably consistent through all the vicissitudes of his career. See all Product description
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Despite this there was a problem with the printing of pages 111 and 112 which were printed on the wrong side of the paper.
The paperback edition has good print, and is on high quality paper, but lacks illustrations.
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=== The Good Stuff ===
* Paul Addison creates a reasonably balanced portrait of Churchill. He was a man of many talents, and at least a fair share of foibles. And while some biographers seem to think it their task to tear down the subject, Addison keeps to an even keel.
* We see some of the darker side of Churchill. He was a man of ambition, probably a borderline alcoholic, and capable of switching loyalties and promoting half-baked schemes. We see some of his racist tendencies, although to be fair these were well within the realm of respectable opinions in the 1920's. We also get a glimpse of Churchill taking a hard line against striking workers, a stance for which labor leaders never forgave him.
* Addison's writing style is easy to read, although he is prone to long paragraphs, something that seems to bother me more on a Kindle than in print.
* There were at least a few viewpoints and opinions which were new to me. Churchill evidently harbored some blame of the United States for the rise of German dictatorships. His logic was that the US forced Britain to repay their WWI debts. Britain had no choice but to force Germany to make their reparations ordered under the WWI peace treaty, which forced Germany into a deeper depression. This paved the way for Hitler's rise to power. A bit of a stretch in my opinion, but an interesting hypothesis.
* Most of us think of Churchill has a skilled forecaster of world political events. But this book highlights some of his miscues, several of which are fascinating. For example, in 1925, we find Churchill unwilling to invest in the defenses of Singapore, because he does not believe the Japanese to be a threat to seek territorial expansion. Oops.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* Addison gives me more credit for understanding the British system of government and politics than is justified. Some of the narrative was a little hard to follow, simply because I didn't understand the nuances and details of Churchill's maneuvering.
* Churchill was capable, at least in my opinion, of saying things in public that he really did not mean. His motive may have been to confuse his enemies, pursue some longer term agenda, or to maneuver opponents into an untenable position. In any case, Addison doesn't always give the reader the context to separate Churchill's postures from his actual opinions and beliefs.
* I would have preferred less pages spent on Churchill's political dealings in the 1930's, and more pages spent on the war years. As it was, the war years seemed to be about 15% of the total narrative, far too little in my opinion.
=== Summary ===
I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to any Churchill or history fan. The book was a bit of a slow read, and took a couple days to get through. But it was full of interesting and at least for me, new information. I would have liked better explanations of the British politics described, and more details of the war years.
Yet every so often the man and the hour are truly met. In World War II, Churchill proved himself to be a towering leader. He was still vain, a poseur and a bit of a clown, but he roused the English people like no other modern orator and stuck grimly to his purpose in the darkest days of the war. In spite of everything he was a truly great leader.
On the other hand, it is no accident that the English people turned him out of office as soon as the war was won and replaced him with a welfare state government that Churchill despised. Churchill was a contradiction, but his accomplishments in his "finest hour" truly outweighed everything else.
This book is a good general biography of a great man, warts and all. It serves as an excellent introduction to Churchill's life.