Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him by David Reynolds - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Foes in High Places

Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him


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Like many gregarious men, Winston Churchill had few friends. After Lord Birkenhead (F E Smith) drank himself to death in 1930, he probably had none. There were, of course, admirers. The most important of these was Churchill’s one-time private secretary John Colville, who celebrated the prime minister’s achievements, covered up his failures and curated his memory. There were also those whom Churchill admired. These were, though, rarely of his own age. His collection of essays Great Contemporaries is, at least so far as its British subjects are concerned, about men a generation older than Churchill. Churchill had got to know Lord Curzon, Lord Rosebery and Joseph Chamberlain partly because he had entered politics so young but also because he had sought them out when he was writing his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. Celebrating such men in the 1930s was, of course, partly a means of celebrating the pre-1914 world, for which Churchill sometimes expressed nostalgia; it was also a means of suggesting that Churchill himself was the last survivor of a race of political giants, casting his shadow over the pygmies of his own time.

Things were more complicated when it came to foreign leaders. From 1929 onwards, Churchill’s gaze was primarily focused on questions of empire, war and diplomacy. This in turn meant that many of those who mattered to him were foreigners. He wrote about some of them with understanding and sympathy, and his verdicts were often unexpected. He hoped, at first, that Hitler might turn away from war and confine himself to the revivification of Germany. A year or so later, he wrote in more hard-headed terms about Stalin. Years before the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1941, he recognised that the monstrous internal repression within the Soviet Union did not necessarily pose a threat to the interests of the Western democracies and that Stalin (in contrast to Trotsky, whom Churchill always despised) was just a very nasty incarnation of Russian nationalism. He admired Roosevelt, though it is interesting to note that the New Deal could seem dangerously radical to a British Conservative and that Churchill disliked what he believed to be the persecution of the rich in the United States.

The two most notorious relationships of Churchill’s life were probably those with Gandhi and Charles de Gaulle. He fantasised about having the first trampled under an elephant ridden by the viceroy and joked about the second, ‘he thinks he’s Joan of Arc, but I can’t get my bloody bishops

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