Winston Churchill

The master statesman stood alone against fascism and renewed the world's faith in the superiority of democracy

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The political history of the 20th century can be written as the biographies of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The first four were totalitarians who made or used revolutions to create monstrous dictatorships. Roosevelt and Churchill differed from them in being democrats. And Churchill differed from Roosevelt--while both were war leaders, Churchill was uniquely stirred by the challenge of war and found his fulfillment in leading the democracies to victory.

Churchill came of a military dynasty. His ancestor John Churchill had been created first Duke of Marlborough in 1702 for his victories against Louis XIV early in the War of the Spanish Succession. Churchill was born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, the house built by the nation for Marlborough. As a young man of undistinguished academic accomplishment--he was admitted to Sandhurst after two failed attempts--he entered the army as a cavalry officer. He took enthusiastically to soldiering (and perhaps even more enthusiastically to regimental polo playing) and between 1895 and 1898 managed to see three campaigns: Spain's struggle in Cuba in 1895, the North-West Frontier campaign in India 1897 and the Sudan campaign of 1898, where he took part in what is often described as the British Army's last cavalry charge, at Omdurman. Even at 24, Churchill was steely: "I never felt the slightest nervousness," he wrote to his mother. "[I] felt as cool as I do now." In Cuba he was present as a war correspondent, and in India and the Sudan he was present both as a war correspondent and as a serving officer. Thus he revealed two other aspects of his character: a literary bent and an interest in public affairs.

He was to write all his life. His life of Marlborough is one of the great English biographies, and The History of the Second World War helped win him a Nobel Prize for literature. Writing, however, never fully engaged his energies. Politics consumed him. His father Lord Randolph Churchill was a brilliant political failure. Early in life, Winston determined to succeed where his father had failed. His motives were twofold. His father had despised him. Writing in August 1893 to Winston's grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough, he said the boy lacked "cleverness, knowledge and any capacity for settled work. He has a great talent for show-off, exaggeration and make-believe." His disapproval surely stung, but Churchill reacted by venerating his father's memory. Winston fought to restore his father's honor in Parliament (where it had been dented by the Conservative Party). Thirty years after Lord Randolph's death, Winston wrote, "All my dreams of comradeship were ended. There remained for me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory."

Churchill entered Parliament in 1901 at age 26. In 1904 he left the Conservative Party to join the Liberals, in part out of calculation: the Liberals were the coming party, and in its ranks he soon achieved high office. He became Home Secretary in 1910 and First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Thus it was as political head of the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that he stepped onto the world stage.

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