I am reading history lately. This is so I can better foresee if my country is heading towards political dissolution. That’s all I’ll say about my motivations.
TL;DR: The book succeeds due to Churchill’s strong narrative, accessible style and intense focus on political development.
This is not a new book, of course. Originally written in the mid-1950s, after Churchill’s time in politics, his four volumes represented a well-researched, comprehensive review of history from pre-Christian Roman times to the eve of the First World War. This version is a single-volume abridgment by Christopher Lee, originally released in 1958.
Given this history was written by a man who was a Anlgo chauvinist and full-throttle behind Britain’s ambition on the world stage, the tale stops short of any self-criticism regarding Britain’s colonial ambitions. Thus, this book’s narrative needs to be taken in context with other works. For instance, there is no reflection on the rightness of what Great Britain’s leaders did to grasp control in South Africa and India, for instance. He includes brief histories of Canada and Australia as well, and his glossing over the treatment of both lands’ original inhabitants is callous to the extreme. He does say, on page 556, that of the Tazmanian aborigines: “Their defeat was inevitable; their end was tragic.” He never addresses, why was their end inevitable? They are assumed to have had no rights. “The Black Drive of 1830 was a failure.” It was an attempt at genocide. His complicit tone cannot be ignored.
Churchill almost never reflects upon whether exercises of blatant military or political power were ‘right’. He does, of course, discuss the political imperatives driving the decisions of the men (mostly) and women who controlled the state at the time. That is his major contribution, and despite his blind eye towards Britain’s expansionist sins, much of his history is useful and accessible to the modern reader.
I’m a long-time Anglophile and have read many accounts covering periods of British history. But given how confusing and convoluted was the genesis of Modern Britain from the small kingdoms of rude warriors to a democratic world power, I never had a clear vision of how Britain got from point A to point Z. Churchill gives us that. His mastery of political evolution finally clarifies how a country lurched from ‘off with their heads!’ religion-dominated tyranny to a more civilized state; he explains how the powers of the kings and queens grew and waned. He puts the great personalities of British politics in context, from their rise, struggle, mastery and fall.
Along the way the prose is rich but not impenetrable. There are occasional words that even my reasonably deep vocabulary stumbles over. Very early in the book his syntax lost me a few times; the narrative appeared garbled and I assumed it was an editing error. Later sections are unerring. For the most part, Churchill writes clear prose.
As a storyteller Churchill is engaging. He tells a story all along the way with a lively narrative rich with details from historical texts and insights which humanize his subjects. He is particularly good bringing the past to the present. For instance, speaking of Viking raids in the 9th century: “The Danes had fortified themselves in Benfleet, and it is said that their earthworks can be traced to this day. Thence, after recovering from their defeat, they sallied forth to plunder…”
He then quotes the Saxon Chronicle while describing the battle during which King Alfred destroyed that garrison. Churchill notes that when a rail line was built in the 1800s, they found burnt remains of ships in that spot. Thus he ties events from a millennium-old chronicle to the Churchillian present and near past.
One crucial aspect to British history to which Churchill did justice was conveying the depth of fervent in which religious beliefs were held and political rights were pursued. The change over time has been great; today, a small minority in Europe attend church regularly and Britain devolves power through the vote. In Britain’s history, some of the bloodiest struggles had major religious components to them. They had economic aspects as well, and Churchill explains the intersection of religion, politics and economics in the revolts, such as (p248-249) the Pilgrimage of Grace, which as its impetus included reaction to the Reformation but also new taxes and enclosure of pastures. Henry VIII reacted with energy, threatening to “burn, spoil, and destroy their goods, wives and children with all extremity.” — italics mine. Wowser. No surprise, following that proclamation, the Commissioners reported “The common people as a whole were prepared to recognise the King as Supreme Head of the Church” as opposed to the old order of bishoprics reporting to the Pope. One can assume he got his taxes as well.
I ended this book with (finally) a clear picture of Britain’s evolution as a state. I found it almost continually gripping, his oversights notwithstanding. There is enough detail on the political evolution that anyone wishing to understand how a modern democracy could be built, or how it could be destroyed, will come away with a firm understanding of how the attendance of politicians and the public to events, their fervor, courage and energy, can shape history.