Manchester challenges the assumption that Churchill's finest hour was as a wartime leader. During the years 1932-1940, he was tested as few men are. Pursued by creditors-at one point he had to put up his home for sale-he remained solvent only by writing an extraordinary number of books and magazine articles. He was disowned by his own party, dismissed by the BBC, Fleet Street, and the social and political establishments as a warmonger, and twice nearly lost his seat in Parliament. Churchill stood almost alone against Nazi aggression and the British and French pusillanimous policy of appeasement.
It is a shame that Manchester was not able to complete this work (which I guess would be at least two more volumes -- World War II and then his twilight years); I understand that someone else is going to, but it probably won't be the same.
From the outset Manchester indicates that a biography is not just about a person, but also the times that individual lived in. It was a subtle hint that the “wilderness” years of Winston Spencer-Churchill’s political life wouldn’t follow one man be an examination about how the 1930s saw the rise of darkness on the continent and the willingness of the British upper class to do everything possible to acquiesce with it in the name of never going to war again. With the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933, Churchill found his nemesis and began signaling the danger to the British Empire and the peace of Europe to an empty House of Commons for years while challenging the government on preparedness of the armed forces in comparison to Germany, only to be lied to in response and knowing it due to his “spy network” amongst the civil servants and military officers that saw the dangers of the Nazi. During these years, Churchill would write columns and articles in various British media and around the world warning the dangers of the Nazis only to be labeled a warmonger until Hitler set his eyes on territorial expansion and many around the continent looked to him to plead for them in front of the British public while the Nazis would always attack him in their propaganda newspapers and complain to the appeaser British ambassador. In 1936 it seemed that Churchill’s call to action had caught the national mood when suddenly his support of Edward VIII as a person if not his decisions made him the scapegoat to the national anger of the constitutional crisis by the King’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson, thus with the public angry at Churchill the national leadership dismissed his calls for action even as Hitler moved his eyes towards Austria and Czechoslovakia. With the rise of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister the enabling of Hitler through appeasement and undermining of their alliance with France while discouraging the German military from overthrowing Hitler which would have precluded the start of another war. Once war seemed inevitable as 1939 continued, Churchill’s outsider status for the previous decade and call for preparedness had the public calling for him to in the cabinet something Chamberlain didn’t want to do until he finally had to form a War Cabinet after declaring war. Once again First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill literally led the British war effort as it was the Royal Navy was instantly was fighting the Germans not the Army or Air Force until the Norway and the invasion of the Low Countries in 1940 at which time the Conservative backbenchers and Labour forced Chamberlain to surrender his office and nominating Churchill to George VI.
Covering eight years of a person’s life would not normally take almost 700 pages, but as Manchester implied at the beginning of this book this is more a history of the times almost as much as it was a biography. Though Churchill is the focus throughout, the lives and actions of Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, and many others are covered especially in their reactions to and from Churchill. Manchester’s bias against “the Men of Munich” is overwhelmingly apparent though as an individual who fought in the war—admittedly in the Pacific—it shouldn’t surprise the reader that a veteran would not shine a good light on someone who kowtowed to Hitler’s wishes instead of having a spine. The political drama surrounding Chamberlain’s loss of support in the House and the rise of Churchill even in the shadow of the German invasion of the Low Countries is literally the best part of the book even though the reader knows the outcomes, how the two were both independent of one another though both played off one another.
Alone, 1932-1940 portrays the low ebb of Winston Churchill’s political and real life as all his eloquence falls not on deaf years but those who simply do not care until it is too late. William Manchester not only follows Churchill’s life during these eight years, but also the nation and the world he was living in and those in power that allowed Europe to go to war twenty years after the last one. Today we think it was inevitable that Churchill would rise to become Prime Minister, but to even Churchill during these years it wasn’t and this book explains why.