Book Review: Ministers at War
by Jonathan Schneer
Basic Books, 2015
Neville Chamberlain’s assessment of the situation in May of 1940 was more realistic than that of Winston Churchill, as Jonathan Schneer writes in his new book Ministers at War; he knew that Britain alone could never defeat Nazi Germany, and Lord Halifax knew it too, and as Schneer continues:
Possibly Churchill knew it, too; he may already have been pinning hopes on American entry into the war. But he understood a greater truth, one that his two Conservative colleagues failed to grasp. You could never count upon a deal with Adolf Hitler, and it was indeed better to go on fighting him, even to the death, if necessary, than to try to negotiate one. Precisely because he was a rogue elephant who did not fear but rather understood war and gloried in battle, Winston Churchill comprehended more deeply than the wise old elephants did.
Anyone familiar with the monstrous glut of hagiography that’s attended the figure of Winston Churchill for the last seventy years will immediately feel their hackles (and perhaps their gorge?) rise at this kind of talk. Bull in a china shop, bulldog tenacity, rogue elephant – usually, whenever an author strikes up an animal metaphor in writing about Winston Churchill, what follows is virtually guaranteed to bear a strong resemblance to the stuff animals periodically leave behind them in little piles on the forest floor.
Schneer’s book examines the conflicting personalities in the War Cabinet Churchill assembled when he became Prime Minister in 1940, and it makes for a brisk and very entertaining 260 pages, especially since Schneer is genuinely talented at the kind of character-gallery dramatics that far too few working historians today can muster. Since clashing characters were at the heart of this War Cabinet, the fact that Schneer brings these men so vibrantly to life is a godsend. It’s also a revelation, since it reminds his readers that even in the midst of the most dangerous war England had seen in four hundred years, party-line bickering was still the primary thing public figures relished. How shocking, along these lines, to find the “distinguished and hugely ambitious” William Beveridge (Schneer also calls him “prickly and egocentric”) in February of 1943 issuing a damning report on the domestic conduct of the government and gleefully enjoying the havoc that report would cause even though the war was raging at its height:
That afternoon, as MP s of all parties began filing into the Debating Chamber, tensions ran high. A Labour Cabinet minister spied one of his party’s left-wingers “rushing about with a maniacal glint in his eye. He reminds me of the chap who was so determined to set fire to the house and burn it down for his own delight.” Beveridge, with his great beak of a nose and longish, thinning white hair, appeared in the lobby looking, according to Harold Nicolson, the National Labour MP, “like the witch of Endor.” “Well, are you enjoying this?” Nicolson asked him. “I am having the fun of my life,” Beveridge replied. “My Report … may bring down the Government.”
Schneer follows these men through the war years and beyond, and he does a fine job of balancing their domestic and international efforts. But there’s a big black hole at the center of the book: the Winston Churchill in these pages is elided, half-quoted, and polished to near-perfection by a writer who clearly went into the project already intending to celebrate a hero rather than sift evidence. This Churchill is fixated on the Big Picture – fighting the war, heroically standing ground against the forces of Hitler – but still finds time to marshal the varied talents of his ministers to best effect. He’s a master psychological orchestra conductor, keeping everybody on-focus and working together. It’s a comforting picture, but it’s a fantasy.
The reality is that Churchill was divisive, bullying, heedless, and often almost delusionally misinformed. Every single man in that War Cabinet kept his own records in some form or other of those days, and Schneer has clearly read those records, but he ignores the one thing that could be said to unite them all, which was a distinctly unimpressed view of the man in charge – and often an appalled or even alarmed view. Reading Schneer’s summaries of War Cabinet meetings can at times be almost surreal. Take this description of the upshot of a meeting in 1942, at which an idea being advocated by Churchill was voted down:
This particular discussion reveals Churchill’s ministers in a characteristic light when considering affairs outside of Britain. The prime minister, combative as usual, demanded swift, dramatic action; Bevin, the sledgehammer, supported him. Then most of the others chipped in to moderate the tone. Attlee once said to Eden that he thought their main achievement in the War Cabinet had been to restrain the prime minister from his wildest schemes.
Reading that “wildest schemes” in isolation, you might imagine old Winnie was proposing mounting British cavalry on camels, or mandating ostrich plumes on infantry helmets. But the wild scheme he was advocating at that meeting was the RAF should bomb a group of German villages, and he was voted down by horrified colleagues who didn’t want to start competing with the Nazis to see who could be more “frightful.” Calling a Prime Minister’s urgent desire to terror-bomb civilians “swift, dramatic action” is a lot less history than it is spin.
Also: Ministers at War makes only one mention of Churchill’s drinking, and the mention comes in connection with his physical deterioration from 1945 onward, not during the war. A Winston Churchill who was often weavingly, pitchingly drunk at War Cabinet meetings, no matter how often he might appear in the accounts of the men who were there, makes no appearance in these pages. Instead, we get a very well-mannered rogue elephant.