Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Churchill's ' The Second World War' Vol. I 'The Gathering Storm'

This volume has no key point or argument, but concerns itself with explaining the military and political landscape which will be the site of War as soon as the reader opens volume two. It ranges over European politics and diplomacy from the Treaty of Versailles to the beginning of the Second World War without attempting brisk overviews or detailed dissections of those issues upon which it touches.

Churchill never writes as if impartial or detached from his subject matter, always maintaining a personal voice and perspective. His understanding of those years is not the result of systematic inquiry or debate but the result of personal experience; his observations flow from his experience quite naturally, though at times diverted or enlarged by later events and understanding. The quotation of his contemporary speeches and thematic snippets of poetry give a powerful impression of the author's mood and draw the reader deeper into his confidence and perspective.

The focus is placed not upon general trends or forces but the events and actions of individuals which demonstrate or resist those trends. It is a work about people, many of whom Churchill knew personally, and how their actions produced other actions in a series of steps towards conflict which Churchill presents as chaotic but always explicable. Churchill's railings against British policy of the time, mentioned quite calmly in the work, seep through in his general approach: if my understanding now and then is so congruent, it cries, how could it ever have been unclear to the governments of the time? Though Churchill understands the motivations of the actors in this phase he remains perplexed by their reasoning. He does not rant or apportion blame but leaves the unanswerable questions to dog the reader as they turn the last page.

The volume is unmistakably the first part of one larger work, but might be read on its own to give background to twentieth century European politics, or as a case study in the interplay between domestic and international polities, or as an account of the collapse of the League of Nations from a British point of view. Written by a man who lived and led in those years, it does not shy away from equal measures of conclusive statements and suspensions of judgement. Challenging, grand and warmly personal, the first volume of Churchill's The Second World War is an impressive work of history.

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