There are multiple benefits of reading history and here are a few: avoiding mistakes made by others in the past; grasping how few ideas in humanity’s collective head are new but merely recycled from one age to another; and how life and people are never as black and white as we might have thought as teenagers. If we read deeply and properly grasp history’s lessons, it can be a guide.
Ideas, institutions, and the type of society one lives in do matter, as do individuals. One such historical figure is Winston Churchill, as significant to world history as any: his leadership was world-consequential, helping to keep much of the civilized world away from the abyss of tyranny.
Churchill did so at a pivotal point between May 1939 and December 1941, when a different prime minister of Great Britain might well have acceded to a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler. Had that occurred, imagine Europe carved up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with imperial Japan running roughshod over much of Asia, and in or exerting leverage over Australia and New Zealand.
Churchill’s de facto leadership of Western allies in the early months of the Second World War mattered to preserving the possibility for an eventual victory.
Six possible Churchill books for Christmas
As a suggestion this Christmas season for those keen on history, here are five books on or by Winston Churchill with a few also relevant to Canada.
Let’s start with a 1948 book authored by Churchill himself, Painting as a Pastime with reprints paintings from his collection (in colour) from Lake Como, Quebec, Chartwell, Lake Lugano, and other locales.
Painting was Churchill’s escape from the other side of his brain and politics. He wrote of how one must find a hobby unlike one’s work. If you’re a writer, as Churchill was, don’t think that reading allows for escape. Instead, you must find a pastime that brings out another side of you.
Thus, in this slim volume of 50 pages, Churchill expounds on his life as a painter. “Painting is complete as a distraction,” writes Churchill. “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.”
While that book doesn’t contain the Canadian paintings that Churchill created in 1929 on his visit here—he put brush and paint put to the canvas in Banff, Lake Louise, and Grouse Mountain, another book does describe his love for Western Canada and its majestic mountains.
In Bradley Tolppannen’s Churchill in North America, 1929, the author details Churchill’s three-month visit to the United States and Canada. Churchill increasingly favoured the scenery the further west he travelled, perhaps because it appealed to his aesthetic side. Of Lake Louise, after noting he’d visited four continents, he exclaimed how the beauty of Lake Louise had “never been surpassed.” He also referred to the Rockies as “Twenty Switzerlands rolled into one.”
In British Columbia, Churchill proclaimed Victoria “English with a splendid climate thrown in.” In Vancouver, he was late to a dinner, this after taking in a sunset at Grouse Mountain to paint. He apologized to the hosts noting he stayed at Grouse until he captured the essence of what he saw, “afraid I might lose that light and colour. I wanted to get that exact colouring before it disappeared.” He pronounced the view from Grouse Mountain to be the “most beautiful he had ever seen.” He also described the Pacific coast as “beautiful and luxuriant.”
Another book on Churchill, also relevant for Canadians, is historian Neville Thompson’s “The Third Man: Churchill, Roosevelt, MacKenzie King, and the Untold Friendships That Won WWII”.
Thompson is a professor emeritus of history at Western University where he taught modern British and European history. He explores the relationship between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt—and the mysterious and momentous nature of the same. He notes how those fiercely independent leaders worked together to defeat Hitler’s Germany. He also records how King was determined to serve as a “lynchpin” between the great powers.
As it happens, Churchill and Roosevelt both relied on him as their next most important ally. Thompson notes how they routinely confided in King but never suspected he was recording “every word, prayer, slight and tic from their countless interactions in his voluminous unpublished diary.”
Getting past a one-dimensional, cardboard approach to history
As the decades pass, historical figures become cardboard characters to much of the public. To counter that, consider a few books that bring out other elements of Churchill.
Chicago author Catherine Grace Katz ably tells the story of three intelligent, glamorous young women who accompanied their famous fathers to the Yalta Conference with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in February of 1945. The Daughters of Yalta, The Churchills, Roosevelts and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War is a true-life narrative of fierce loyalty to families and nations. It includes intertwined romances, affairs, and other rather complex relationships.
The three daughters profiled are Kathleen Harriman, a champion skier and war correspondent and the daughter of Averell Harriman (the American ambassador to the Soviet Union); Franklin Roosevelt’s only daughter, Anna, who accompanied her father to Yalta instead of her mother, Eleanor; and lastly, Sarah Churchill, an actress and an officer in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and of course the daughter of Winston and Clementine Churchill.
Another historical account of family life comes from English author Rachel Trethewey in The Churchill Sisters: The Extraordinary Lives of Winston and Clementine’s Daughters. Trethewey draws on unpublished family letters from the Churchill archives to bring Winston and Clementine's daughters into the limelight.
That includes the utter sadness of the loss of one daughter, Marigold, who died at two years, nine months, from septicaemia. “Winston recalled that at the time of her death Clementine let out a series of wild shrieks like a wounded animal,” writes Trethewey, in one of the most poignant passages.
There’s also a Canadian connection. Here’s an excerpt about Mary Churchill and her wartime service: “On her return to Canada, Mary became a celebrity in her own right. Showing herself to be her father’s daughter, she rose to the challenge of making unscheduled speeches, talking to the press, and meeting hundreds of people. She flew 900 miles to Kitchener, Ontario to see the Canadian Women’s Army Basic Training Camp. She was most impressed by the West Indian girls who were being trained there. After sitting on the grass talking to her, they sang her calypsos.’”
The Churchill Sisters is a moving account of the Churchill daughters from toddlers to late adulthood including coming of age in the Roaring Twenties and to war-time service and post-war difficulties, to the carving out of their own lives and careers—Mary had the least trouble finding contentment in life, a one example.
The focus on the Churchill’s daughters makes for a better look at Churchill’s family life, which included a very non-traditional British approach to family life on the part of Winston himself. He would buy his own gifts for his daughters—no assigning staff to do that; he built a play fort for his children; and he would read to them before bedtime.
Lastly, as a Christmas recommendation, consider a well-researched, entertaining account of Winston Churchill’s visit to Washington D.C. 80 years ago in December 1941. One Christmas in Washington was released in 2005 by two University of Calgary professors, David Bercuson and Holger Herwig, and the audio version is now available.
The Americans has just joined the Second World War after the attack by imperial Japan on Pearl Harbor. Churchill, ever-conscious of the need to engage with American president Franklin Roosevelt, thought it best to show up the White House—and he did, staying for weeks and acting every bit the politician and statesman at war, but also as a guest accustomed to enjoying himself and ordering up his favourite meals, apparently annoying Eleanor Roosevelt at the same time.
Still, the houseguest Churchill, who stayed three weeks at the White House over that Christmas and New Year’s, also made his stay worthwhile to his hosts, addressing a joint session of Congress and urging Americans to press on and take courage in the war they had just joined.
Do individuals matter to history? Indeed, they do, and to their and other families as well.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. He is also president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary which is raising funds for a statue of Churchill to be erected in Calgary in the summer of 2022.