Des­tined for great­ness

The lat­est Churchill bi­og­ra­phy man­ages to be both en­gag­ing and scrupu­lously re­searched

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Through­out his long life, Win­ston Churchill was con­vinced he was des­tined for his­toric great­ness. At 16, he pre­dicted to a school friend that he would one day “save Lon­don and Eng­land from dis­as­ter... in the high po­si­tion I shall oc­cupy, it will fall to me to save the cap­i­tal and the Em­pire.” Half a cen­tury later, on May 10, 1940, just as Hitler was un­leash­ing his bl­itzkrieg on Western Europe, events pro­pelled Churchill into 10 Down­ing Street as Bri­tain’s prime min­is­ter. In his war mem­oirs, he wrote: “I felt as if I were walk­ing with des­tiny, and that all my past life had been but a prepa­ra­tion for this hour and this trial.”

In Churchill: Walk­ing With Des­tiny, An­drew Roberts achieves the rare dis­tinc­tion of pro­duc­ing an emi­nently read­able book un­der­pinned by scrupu­lous aca­demic schol­ar­ship. It is an ab­sorb­ing read – a com­plete, doc­u­mented ac­count of an ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich and his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant life lived to the full.

It was the Bri­tish class sys­tem, Roberts be­lieves, al­lied to Churchill’s in­nate re­silience, that pro­vided the where­withal to over­come a des­per­ately un­happy and emo­tion­ally de­prived child­hood. Churchill was born into the aris­toc­racy – the grand­son of the sev­enth Duke of Marl­bor­ough – and, as Roberts puts it, had the “un­con­quer­able self-con­fi­dence of his caste.” Per­verse by na­ture, and al­most to­tally in­dif­fer­ent to what the world thought of him, Churchill sailed through, or rose above, a myr­iad of per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ters.

Not the least of these, of course, was the fact that as he be­came prime min­is­ter, Bri­tain faced the im­mi­nent prospect of in­va­sion and de­feat by the Nazis. Some­how Churchill man­aged to rally his col­leagues, and even­tu­ally the whole na­tion, and im­bue them with his own courage, res­o­lu­tion and self-be­lief.

Roberts, him­self a founder mem­ber of the in­ter­na­tional Friends of Is­rael Ini­tia­tive, is per­haps more alive to Churchill’s “philo-Semitism,” as he puts it, than other bi­og­ra­phers have been. As a young man on the brink of his par­lia­men­tary ca­reer, Churchill re­fused to sub­scribe to the well-nigh uni­ver­sal an­ti­semitism of his peers. On the con­trary, says Roberts, back­ing his as­ser­tion with facts and fig­ures, he was an ac­tive Zion­ist then, and re­mained so through­out his life.

Churchill was elected to Par­lia­ment for the first time in 1900. Re­turn­ing a na­tional hero from the Boer War be­cause of his dare­devil ex­ploits, re­counted to the na­tion in his news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, he stood for Par­lia­ment as a Con­ser­va­tive. Three years later, out of step with his party on sev­eral is­sues, he changed sides and moved across the House of Com­mons to sit with the Lib­er­als.

On the day he did so, Churchill pub­lished a let­ter in The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle, The Times and The Manch­ester Guardian, ex­plain­ing the par­tic­u­lar is­sue that lay be­hind his change of al­le­giance. The gov­ern­ment’s Aliens Bill was in­tended to re­strict the im­mi­gra­tion into Bri­tain of Jews es­cap­ing from pogroms in czarist Rus­sia, and Churchill re­fused to sup­port it. He be­lieved the pol­icy was an ap­peal to prej­u­dice.

Roberts be­lieves Churchill’s affin­ity for the Jew­ish peo­ple stemmed from his fa­ther, who had had a wide cir­cle of Jew­ish friends, and both ad­mired Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, Bri­tain’s first prime min­is­ter to have been born Jew­ish. Churchill ap­plauded the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, which, is­sued in Novem­ber 1917, ex­pressed Bri­tain’s sup­port for a Jew­ish na­tional home in what was then Pales­tine. Pre­scient as ever, Churchill wrote: “If, as may well hap­pen, there should be cre­ated in our own life­time, by the banks of the Jor­dan, a Jew­ish state un­der the pro­tec­tion of the Bri­tish Crown...” this would be “from ev­ery point of view ben­e­fi­cial.”

In Jan­uary 1921 it fell to Churchill, as the newly ap­pointed colo­nial sec­re­tary, to make po­lit­i­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive sense out of the Mid­dle East man­dates handed to Bri­tain by the League of Na­tions. Be­liev­ing di­rect rule to be an im­pos­si­ble un­der­tak­ing, he de­volved Iraq and a newly con­ceived Tran­sjor­dan to the charge of Arab emirs. Carv­ing Tran­sjor­dan out of the area pre­vi­ously known as Pales­tine was prob­lem­atic, since the League had man­dated Bri­tain to cre­ate a na­tional home for the Jew­ish peo­ple in Pales­tine as un­der­stood at the time.

Nev­er­the­less, Churchill stood staunchly by his be­lief in Jew­ish self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“It is man­i­festly right that the scat­tered Jews should have a na­tional cen­ter and a na­tional home in which they might be re­u­nited, and where else but in Pales­tine, with which Jews for three thou­sand years have been in­ti­mately and pro­foundly as­so­ci­ated?” he wrote.

THE UNITED STATES rec­og­nized the new State of Is­rael on the very day it was cre­ated – May 14, 1948. Bri­tain’s Labour gov­ern­ment waited a full year be­fore grant­ing recog­ni­tion, but Churchill him­self, speak­ing to a Jew­ish au­di­ence in New York in March 1949, said “I was for a free and in­de­pen­dent Is­rael all through the dark years... so do not imag­ine for a mo­ment that I have the slight­est idea of de­sert­ing you in your hour of glory.”

Churchill re­turned as prime min­is­ter in 1951 – a na­tional hero but, at 77 and after sev­eral strokes, well past his prime. Roberts de­scribed it as his “In­dian sum­mer premier­ship.” He saw the 25-year-old El­iz­a­beth crowned queen in 1953, and fi­nally handed over the reins of gov­ern­ment in April 1955.

Nearly 10 years of ac­tive re­tire­ment fol­lowed. He re­mained an MP and re­signed from the Com­mons in 1964, only a few months be­fore he died.

To the end, his wit elicited the laugh­ter of MPs on both sides of the House. Asked once if he feared death, he said, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is pre­pared for the great or­deal of meet­ing me is an­other mat­ter.”

The en­counter took place on Jan­uary 24, 1965. Never have the events lead­ing to it been more ab­sorbingly de­scribed.

(Yousuf Karsh)

WIN­STON CHURCHILL

CHURCHILL: WALK­ING WITH DES­TINY By An­drew Roberts Vik­ing1,152 pages; $40

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