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Damning With No Praise

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Churchill, The Greatest Briton Unmasked, by Nigel Knight. David & Charles, 400 pp., $23.80.

Review by Michael McMenamin

Damning with No PraiseI think it was Carlyle who wrote that “No book that will not improve by repeated readings deserves to be read at all.” That pretty much sums up Nigel Knight’s new book on Churchill. If you want to read a book on Churchill that is unreservedly negative on almost all aspects of his career, pick up Clive Ponting’s biography instead. Or even David Irving’s. Really. You’ll thank me for it.

Two-thirds of Knight’s book is devoted to World War II, which the Allies won despite Churchill’s best efforts to give the game away. Chapter 7’s title, “Dunkirk: Churchill’s Defeat,” lets you know where Knight is coming from. The last paragraph in the book tells you where he ends up:

[I]t was Hitler who made Churchill a historical figure. If it had not been for Hitler, Churchill … would be largely forgotten today. It is because of Churchill’s role in World War II…that we remember Churchill, above all else, for Hitler’s defeat. Hitler, however, is remembered for himself.

No, I’m not making this up. That’s the last sentence in the book. What does it mean? You tell me. I can think of several explanations.

First, maybe Nigel just isn’t that good a writer. I almost didn’t make it past the first page after reading this sentence: “In 1895 Churchill endured the deaths of both his father and  his childhood nurse, to whom he had been very attached as his American mother, Jennie, had ignored him.”

Of course, Jennie hadn’t ignored him and Churchill certainly wasn’t “very attached” to his father. Perhaps Knight only meant Churchill was attached to his nurse “Woomany,”  and not his father as well? The sentence doesn’t say that but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and read on.

A second explanation is that he just doesn’t know that much about Hitler or the Nazis—a flaw which tends to put a Churchill biographer at a disadvantage. I confess that I didn’t make it past Chapter 3, “Disarmament: Weakening Britain’s Defence in the 1920s” before I started skimming. Hey, what’s good enough for Carlyle is good enough for me.

Knight’s thesis is that when Churchill was at the Exchequer in Baldwin’s first government from 1924 to 1929, “Churchill’s desire for disarmament in the 1920s weakened national defences just at the time when the threat from the active  Nazi movement in Germany was becoming apparent.”

Give me a break. Apparent to whom? Hitler was in jail during 1924 when Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Nazi Party was banned in Germany as a result of its failed putsch in Munich the year before. Hitler began to rebuild the party in 1925 and was so miserably unsuccessful at it over the next four years that the party received only 2.6% of the vote in the 1928 Reichstag elections good for a paltry twelve seats. By the spring of 1929, the Conservatives and Churchill were out of power. The “threat from the active Nazi movement in Germany” didn’t become apparent to anyone until 14 September 1930 when, thanks to the worldwide depression, the Nazis went from 2.6% and twelve seats to 18.3% and 107 seats, making them the second largest party in Germany.

With this level of scholarship, I wasn’t about to give Knight any more of my time than necessary to write this review. (The editor said, “We must review everything.”) If a writer can get one thing so spectacularly wrong in order to fit a preconceived thesis, why trust him on anything else?

So, you’ve been warned. If despite all this, you’ve got to have this book to complete your collection, for goodness sake, don’t pay retail. The price is sure go down.

Michael McMenamin is the co-author with Curt Zoller of Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and his American Mentor, a trade paperback of which will be published by Enigma Books in April 2009.