Friday, May 7, 2010

The Second World War (Six-Volume Set) (Winston S. Churchill) (9.4/10)

Now this is a man’s work, and for more reasons than one. In six long and annotated volumes, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill holds the reader’s attention masterfully through the years of blind pacificism and the rise of the Nazi menace in Germany (The Gathering Storm) through the blitzkrieg campaigns that brought all of Europe, and very nearly England, to its knees (Their Finest Hour) to the reluctant entrance of both Soviet Russia and the United States into the war (The Grand Alliance) and the gradual turning of the tide as the massive capabilities of all three were harnessed to overcome German war production (The Hinge of Fate) to the storming of the European continent and the discovery of German concentration camps (Triumph and Tragedy) to final victory over Nazi Germany by traditional warfare and imperial Japan by the reluctant use of atomic weapons (Closing the Ring).

Please understand, I am not generally a fan of military history or of war tales in general. And I am certainly not a fan of all of Churchill’s works (his four-volume work, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, has me begging for release only halfway through volume two). But this is quite simply the greatest story of the twentieth century, and this set of six volumes records the events through the eyes and ears and hands of one of its primary architects. Churchill is a fantastic storyteller here, though he does have a weakness for prolonged and verbose defense of his decisions in the moment. Nevertheless, the urgency of actual events moves the story along at a comfortable pace, and Churchill generously excerpts from his own correspondence and the archives of the British government’s to tell the tale.

Especially interesting is the tremendous correspondence that passed and the friendship that developed between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt before America’s entrance into World War II. Even as the population of Great Britain was huddled underground in subway stations during the Battle of Britain, Churchill had faith that reason and right would win out in the hearts of the American people and he repeatedly expressed that faith to Roosevelt, while also pleading for increased military support under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Equally engaging is Churchill’s hot and cold relationship with Joseph Stalin, whom Churchill variously considered his closest ally and, by the end of the war, the embodiment of evil upon the earth. But the facts don’t lie, even in Churchill’s hands, and there can be no doubt that England and America would have very likely lost the war to the Axis powers if the Great Bear had not made its timely entrance and proceeded to sacrifice the greater share of its manhood for victory.

The Second World War is not for the feint-hearted. The reading of it is an enormous project to undertake. But the rewards are tangible not only in the beautiful prose which graces its pages, but also in the significance of the events that it relates. Overall, it is simply one of my favorite works.


  1. You have the whole set! Call me a green eyed monster because I am jealous! I got the middle two books at a library book sale and can't seem to find the rest of them anywhere. They sit on my shelves, mocking me.

  2. I waited a while to buy the whole set. I read the first volume electronically, and picked up the second in paperback. That's my favorite btw, Their Finest Hour, it's a real tribute to the stoicism of the English. When I realized that I was in for the full story, I picked up the set relatively cheap on eBay.