Monday, February 09, 2015

Churchill Biography, The Last Lion, "Alone"

 A book, a man, a period of history that thrills the soul and fills it with sadness, compassion and  regret. A reading experience that consumed a lot of my life the past week and leaves me with a bit of the same feeling that one has upon returning from a wonderful vacation.  A true joy in reading.

To those that ever utter the thought "What can one man do"? or to those of us that ever get depressed feeling "Woe is me, nobody is on my side and my life is difficult", READ THIS BOOK!

 This volume covers the years that Winston stood alone in his dogged opposition to Hitler and National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany while the official policy of the world (League of Nations), and especially Great Britain was "appeasement". This was carried on vigor by the British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Nevill ("Peace in our time")Chamberlin in the '30s. Churchill, once a prominent office holder -- Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Defense, etc, but has now lost face after the disaster in Gallipoli unfairly blamed on him, and his unpopular stand against releasing India from the Empire, as well as the fact that he is pugnacious, bows very few, and has a wit that can be very biting if you are on the receiving side of it.

Churchill is the lone voice crying in the wilderness on the subject of building up the military so Hitler can be stopped, and then when Hitler starts to take countries, as the voice saying that if Britain, France or some other alliance stands up to Hitler, he will be overthrown and the Nazi menace stopped. Nobody listens.

Churchill's finances were terrible at this time due to both is mismanagement and stock reversals in '29 and '38, and he nearly lost Chartwell (his home). He was forced to keep up a difficult writing and speaking schedule to bring in money to keep his family afloat. Old friends deserted him, his son turned against him, one of his daughters entered into a marriage that was doomed to fail and not approved by either Winston or Clementine. Life is not good for Winston.

 If anyone had a cause for depression he did -- and while I know he had some very significant bouts at times in his life, this book did not dwell on any in this period in particular. He took some things hard, but he kept soldiering on. His family motto, "Faithful but Unfortunate" was very appropriate at this time.

While there are a NUMBER of times that Hitler could have EASILY been stopped, this discussion of his invasion of the Rheinland is especially instructive"
Hitler had acted in defiance of their advice [his generals]. The generals knew that the occupation, stripped of the Fuhrer's  thespian eloquence and his hand-picked carefully rehearsed battalions now camped on forbidden soil, was a gigantic scam. By canceling leave and putting every trained poilu [French WWI infantry] into battle dress, France could retake the Rhineland in a matter of hours. Outnumbering the half-trained, inadequately equipped Wehrmacht ten to one, the French infantrymen would be supported by tanks and the finest artillery in the world. Blomberg [German general in Rhineland] had agreed to assume command only after receiving written assurance from the Fuhrer that he could take "any military countermeasures" he felt appropriate. If he so much as glimpsed a single French bayonet, he intended to beat a hasty retreat back across the Rhine.  
And that, in he opinion of the German High Command, would be the end of Adolph Hitler. 
That was not the last opportunity -- Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland each provided their own potentials for ending Hitler's reign,  with very limited diplomatic and military actions well within the capabilities of Britain and France in even their woefully weak military status at the time.

In one of the saddest displays of spinelessness in human history, the appeasers were not convinced and as a result millions died needlessly.

We need to understand the times a bit --  the Oxford Pocked Dictionary, circa the 1950's:  "Jew, noun, a person of Hebrew race; figurative : unscrupulous usurer or bargainer; colloq - Cheat, overreach"

Churchill would not allow Jewish jokes at his table, nor laugh at them with others. He also generally liked Americans, and was 1/2 American himself. He was certainly an upper crust English Gentleman, but he was an original of one.

He was witty -- a wit that was often loved and often got him trouble, but in the end was just what England needed to get them through Hell. An example: "British leadership likes to take their weekends in the country, Hitler likes to take his countries on the weekend." ... it was witty and very true. The Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland ... all on the weekend, and it made it hard for Britain to take action -- not that the appeasers would have been so inclined.

The book is long but extremely well written, and it's subject and the period makes one see that God has moments where he is a playwright of exceptional timing and skill. We love the story of the person cast away, unsung,  maligned, that returns against great odds and in twists and turns to lead the forces of good to triumph -- King Arthur, Joan of Arc ... right up to "The High Plains Drifter", and versions of nearly every action film. The bad guys always think they have won, but they overlooked that one guy ....

And so it is with Churchill. The very day that the Germans are marching into France is the day that he is finally going to be named Prime Minister -- the government has fallen in debate over the past two days on the issue of Britain's response in Norway. What is now happening in France is a complete surprise.

On the morning of May 10th, 1940, with the news of the Wehrmacht on the move into France, a couple of service ministers enter the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston is aware at this point that the news of his elevation to Prime Minster will come that day, but he is going about his business as he does on every other day. The ministers note:  " We had little or no sleep, and the news could not be worse, yet there he was, smoking his large cigar and eating fried eggs and bacon, as if he had just returned from an early morning ride" ...he is  reading his morning papers as he did each day.

Manchester seems a little disappointed ... he writes:

"Before the mists of legend envelop him, before he comes to power and assumes leadership of the struggle to crush the monster in central Europe -- while he is still so to speak, Drake bowling when informed that he armada has been sighted -- it is useful to glimpse the entirely mortal Winston. The vision is less than inspiring; unlike some earlier heroes, Winston is engaged in no mundane but memorable act when the news arrives" ...

I disagree. While Winston is a bridge to the earlier ages -- a throwback to the Victorian era, he is also modern. He is more like Dirty Harry, being interrupted in his lunch or dinner and being called to stand alone and take down the bad guys.  But oh, with so much more eloquence!

As he rises in the House for the first time as PM:

I would say to the House,
  as I have said to those who have joined this Government:
       I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat ...

You ask, what is our policy?
     I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air,
         with all our might and with all the strength God can give us ...
            That is our policy

You ask, what is our aim?
     I can answer in one word: It is victory,
        victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror
            victory how ever long and hard the road may be
                 for without victory there is no survival.

The volume in which WWII is fought is on order and should show up this week. I'm anxious!

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