William Manchester’s magisterial biography (volume I) of Winston Churchill called The Last Lion stands out as a sweeping detailed discussion of probably the greatest leader of the twentieth century. Not only does one learn a tremendous amount about the complex personage but also about the traumatic century itself. One learns about Churchill’s sad childhood, his coming of age and his courage in the cavalry, his mother’s eventual loyalty to him, his wonderful successful marriage, his bouts with melancholy, his fierce sense of truth and character. He is depicted as the mirror image of Adolph Hitler – with both having insatiable appetites for power yet Churchill shows great inclination toward empathy and magnanimity, qualities lacking in Hitler. Although the author puts Churchill in the past, one who relished in history, perhaps even dwelling in the past, he nevertheless describes his subject’s uncanny ability to size up and evaluate situations accurately (e.g. Churchill saw a future “iron curtain” in the East and early on recognized the scourge of Socialism). The author makes the point that Churchill consistently sided proudly with the Zionists even though he confused Jews and socialists by equating them early on in his career. Churchill, the great imperialist is seen as a fierce loyal patriot to the empire, but understands that ultimately it can’t sustain itself under the immense financial stress.
Churchill’s childhood is really a study in parental neglect and had he realized this fact and not had the comfort of an extraordinary governess, he would have greatly been flawed. One learns about the general immoral behavior of Victorian society and how Churchill’s mother played such a significant role in the life British royalty; there’s intimation that she was a favorite of the King and even Churchill’s brother probably had a different father. Motherhood comes second to being mistress. His relationship with his father is tragic: although the son idolizes the father, the father is completely disgusted by the son’s lackluster efforts in school and never lives to see his son’s absolute genius. His mother shows interest only when Churchill is ready to enter politics and then shows absolute loyalty in making sure all the correct avenues are opened for her son.
As a subaltern the reader learns of Churchill’s personal courage in battle and his heroic escape to Pretoria which catapults him into politics. He confuses Jews and Communists when warning against socialism and is given an education about the differences: not all Jews are communists or socialists! His marriage is seen fantastically successful because of their constant communicating even when taking separate vacations. In an immoral environment, his marriage is a standout model. He leaves notes for his wife; they could easily be categorized as ‘love notes’. He values his wife’s opinion, despite occasions when he disagrees.
When Churchill takes the fall for the WWI Dardanelles fiasco, and he is out of politics for a spell, he keeps busy with 3 basic activities that become great antidotes for depression: painting, building (bricks at his home at Chart Well, Kent) and writing (everything from articles to books). His talents are so impressive that he does not stay out of politics too long.
Manchester makes the astute observation that Churchill is the mirror image of Adolph Hitler. He points out there similarities of thirst for power and gigantic egos. Churchill, however, comes off more magnanimous. Both are considered patriots and fighters. As a matter of fact, Churchill is depicted as believing the normal course of human affairs is not peace but war. Mankind is usually in a state of struggle. And even though Churchill was pejoratively called a ‘war monger’ he is not. He just understands the course of the direction of human affairs before others do. This is part of his genius. He recommends preparing for the worst and expecting the best. He reads ‘Mein Kampf’ and understands immediately that Hitler is not a bluffer. He goes on fearlessly warning against the Nazi menace.
Those who want to be inspired by genius, great leadership and a deep understanding of the WWI and the first half of the 20th century should read this book.