In recent months, I’ve been re-reading Sir Winston Churchill’s monumental, six-volume history, The Second World War.
At present, I’ve just passed the halfway mark in Volume V, Closing the Ring, which is – like the penultimate volumes of many works – a bit of a slog. It’s late 1943, and here’s the situation:
On the Eastern Front, the Soviet Army – which has, for two-and-a-half years, been absorbing most of the energies and manpower of Hitler’s Wehrmacht – has turned the tide and is slowly rolling westward. Soviet premier Josef Stalin – pointing to the extraordinary burden being borne by his country’s army and people – ceaselessly demands a “Second Front Now” in western Europe.
In the Pacific, American and Allied navies have gained the upper hand over Japan’s Imperial Fleet, but – as the Allies have declared Europe’s priority – the process of recapturing the islands and Asian territories conquered by Japan has just begun.
In Southeast Asia, Britain and the U.S. are scraping together troops and landing craft for a campaign to liberate Burma and restore supply lines to Chinese troops under Chiang Kai-shek.
In Italy, British and American armies have bogged down south of Rome, unable to press forward as elite units and landing craft are withdrawn in preparation for Operation Overlord – the D-Day invasion of France.
Finally, U.S., British, Canadian, French and Allied armies are gathering in England for D-Day – the massive, high-stakes invasion across the Channel to open the “second front” Stalin has been urging. The assault is scheduled for May. It will ultimately begin on June 6.
All this preparation will lead to stirring events – and hundreds of war movies in many languages.
Not that many movies have been made about the stuff in Volume V. This is a story of long months of careful planning; painful debates about priorities; and the portentous gathering of the Big Three – Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt – in Tehran, to plan the final campaigns of the European war and begin negotiating the shape of the post-War world.
For history lovers, Churchill’s The Second World War remains a touchstone. Historians have uncovered much new information in the seven decades since Hitler’s downfall. In some particulars, Churchill’s version has been challenged.
But, as the man at the heart of these huge events, Churchill writes authoritatively – and largely in the first person. This is more than great historiography. It’s a chance to be present at the summit when decisions are taken which will save the world from the most malevolent tyranny ever faced.
Churchill is a master of English prose. Of the historians whose work I’ve read – and their names are legion – only Gibbon ranks with Sir Winston. And not that many people will tackle Gibbon’s eight-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Besides, where Gibbon’s wit is incredibly dry, Churchill can be downright funny.
For those who find the prospect of a six-volume history daunting, I offer this indulgence: Only a true history geek would plow through the whole thing.
But everyone over the age of eighteen should read The Gathering Storm.
In it, they will follow Churchill – one of the few major statesmen to understand the true dangers inherent in Hitler’s rise to power – as he vainly attempts to persuade Britain, France and the United States to take action to prevent a second world war.
Churchill’s first volume is still the best thing in print about the risks run when free peoples choose to ignore – or encourage their leaders to ignore – dire threats that simply will not go away.
The Gathering Storm is a warning to every generation – and particularly to the citizens of democracies. Throughout history, self-governing nations have a terrible track record when it comes to seeing peril on the horizon – or even much closer.
Churchill’s first volume is also a study of the difficulties faced by any politician who seeks to warn a public which is unprepared to face bad news or to pay the price of dealing with it sooner – rather than later.
Finally, it is a wonderful guidebook for leaders and ordinary citizens who decide to prepare for the worst – even as their colleagues and fellow citizens continue to deceive themselves.
From my perspective, in today’s world, The Gathering Storm has its greatest application in the field of climate change – or, to be more accurate, anthropomorphic global warming (AGW). AGW is, I feel certain, the single greatest danger facing our own society and human civilization in general.
But that’s a topic for another time.
Churchill’s lessons are, first and foremost, a guide to dealing with military aggression by autocratic states.
At this moment – when Vladimir Putin’s Russia has boldly invaded the Crimea, the lovely Black Sea peninsula which is the sovereign territory of Ukraine – we face a situation familiar to anyone who has read The Gathering Storm.
More on that next week.