Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and His War Cabinet by Jonathan Schneer (2015)


I listened to Ministers at War and really enjoyed it, for a variety of reasons.

It was a perspective of World War II that I had not previously read about or been exposed to.  Of the cast of characters in this book, I was most familiar with Winston Churchill; several were bit players in other books I had read about Churchill; some were names only (Clement Attlee, for example) and others were totally new to me.  I liked that.  Schneer isn't the liveliest of writers; but all the same, he was able to more than adequately give breath to these long dead men.  

In books,  Winston Churchill usually looms like a giant above the landscape; Schneer brings Winston down to size a bit.  Here, he's not the brave hero of World War II, or merely friend of Roosevelt; rather, he's a canny politician who is often in the a fight not just for the country but for his political life as well.  What we usually don't get is Winston the politician, but that's who Schneer gives us, and it was refreshing.  Winston knew how to stroke and cajole, berate and make deals, and almost always got what he wanted.  He was not always very trustworthy; it sounds like the conservatives trusted him less than the Labour party most of the time.  He walked a fine line, rather well, and created one of those celebrated "team of rivals" that kept Britain alive.  All the while being overly loquacious and semi-megalomaniacal.   


"It is useful to remember that Churchill’s colleagues did not treat him with the reverence he so often receives today. They did not know how posterity would view him. They saw him at the time as a great and brilliant man, no doubt, but also as a difficult and flawed one. He seemed to them too fond of his own voice, too dictatorial, too sure of his own judgment. Some thought he drank too much. Some worried about his health. In short, they viewed him as a human being, imperfect like all human beings. During late 1941 and early 1942, not everyone viewed him as the inevitable and irreplaceable prime minister, even if that is how most of us view him three-quarters of a century later. Churchill had to maneuver with great cunning to defend his position from Cripps; he had to demonstrate a steady hand and steadier nerves to keep it from Beaverbrook. He could not count on the loyalty of either man, even though Beaverbrook was a friend of long-standing. There is no loyalty at the pinnacle of politics: only calculation, ambition and ideology."  

This entire passage was great; I think it's a nutshell of what this book was about; that last line is so very, very true.

"Dictators may compromise on occasion, but often they do not have to. Democracies depend upon the willingness of politicians to compromise sometimes: if a democratically elected government sticks to an unpopular policy, voters will punish it for having failed to compromise. Coalitions depend upon compromise always—or at any rate upon permanent give and take. Refusal by any party to a coalition to bargain and deal will doom the coalition."

The last two books of nonfiction I've read have led me to find parallels between our own government right now, and the governments I was reading about.  One was ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy; now World War II, when a coalition of rivals is what saved Britain from destruction.  These very different men, with different ideas about almost everything, had to come together on the same page and work towards a common good.  It's scary to think our current government - with shades of the last eight years thrown in as well - can't get it together.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a perspective of World War II that I had not read before. Essentially, a group of very different men in almost all ways, especially on the role government should play in the lives of individuals, had to work together in unity and harmony towards a common goal. They did so, and very likely staved off the destruction of their country. Of the cast of characters in this book, I was most familiar with Winston Churchill; several were bit players in other books I had read about Churchill; some were names only (Clement Attlee, for example) and others were totally new to me. I liked that. Schneer isn't the liveliest of writers; but all the same, he was able to more than adequately give breath to these long dead men.

In many books, Winston Churchill usually looms like a giant above the landscape; Schneer brings Winston down to size a bit. Here, he's not the brave hero of World War II, or merely friend of Roosevelt; rather, he's a canny politician who is often in the a fight not just for the country but for his political life as well. What we usually don't get is Winston the politician, but that's who Schneer gives us, and it was refreshing. Winston knew how to stroke and cajole, berate and make deals, and almost always got what he wanted. He was not always very trustworthy; it sounds like the conservatives trusted him less than the Labour party most of the time. He walked a fine line, rather well, and created one of those celebrated "team of rivals" that kept Britain alive. All the while being overly loquacious and semi-megalomaniacal.

The audio version of this book started out as quite dry; bits and pieces throughout remained so. The reader isn't the best I've ever listened to, but for this type of book, his voice and narration was quite good. 







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