The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (2020) – Nonfiction
There have been hundreds of books and movies about Winston Churchill. The bulldog, the leader, the boss, the fighter. He was everything a leader needed to be and was a leader when the world needed him to be one.
The Splendid and the Vile is an amazing book. What a time for this book to also come out as well. With the pandemic occurring and billions of people sheltering in place and social distancing, the British people experienced similar shut-ins, with nightly terror of bombs and government-imposed blackouts and food rationing.
The book spans a little over a year from 1940 to 1941 during the German aerial blitz on England. WWII is a topic covered in high school and history college classes alike, but unless you take a class specifically about the blitz or have watched documentaries about it – it sometimes gets thrown into the thousand other details of the war.
The German army flew aerial bombers over England for over a year. While they did not fly every night, the Luftwaffe waged significant damage on English citizens and their morale. But for Churchill and his leadership and his astounding ability to keep the courage of the people afloat, the Nazi Army may have defeated the Brits and the world to this day would probably look a little different. As the book notes, between September 7, 1940, the first large-scale attack on London and May 11, 1941, nearly 29,000 London citizens were killed and 28, 556 were seriously injured. In total, the United Kingdom suffered 44,652 civilian deaths. Of those deaths, 5,626 were children.
As the cars headed back to the train station, the crowd followed. For all the laughing and cheering, it could have been a city festival from more peaceful times. Men, women, and children walked beside Churchill’s car, their faces gleaming with delight. “These are not mere fair-weather friends,” Mary wrote in her diary. “Papa has served them with his heart [and] his mind always through peace & wars – & they have given him in his finest & darkest hour their love & confidence.” She was struck by this strange power of her father to bring forth courage and strength in the most trying of circumstances. “Oh please dear God,” she wrote, “preserve him unto us & lead us to victory & peace.”
As the train departed, Churchill waved at the crowd from the windows, and kept waving until the train was out of sight. Then, reaching for a newspaper, he sat back and raised the paper to mask his tears. “They have such confidence,” he said. “It is a grave responsibility.”
One of the hardest aspects of discussing war is the casualty number. When written in a textbook about a war 50+ years ago, when you see 44,000 lives lost, you can’t really imagine it. One thing that the current pandemic has put into place is what those numbers truly mean in today’s world.
The book passes over the Churchill biographers who spend thousands of hours pouring over the entirety of Churchill’’s life and instead brings you into the daily life of the man and the British people. The book also peels back the lives of those around Churchill who were instrumental to the war effort, either by their service to their country or by their service to Churchill personally. John Colville, one of Churchill’s secretaries, kept extensive journals of his time. You see the life of a young 20-something, personal aide to the most important person in the world at the time, who also is hopelessly in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back. You also are thrown into Mary Chuchill’s world – Churchill’s daughter. You see a young woman of 18 grow up up quickly, worried about her father and worried about saying yes to the wrong man.
These details make everything more personal. Like all of Larson’s books, he is able to take history and dust off the stuffiness and make you feel like you were living in that time period – like you understand the British struggle. Larson shows in detail how demanding of a leader Churchill was and how much he asked from those who worked from him. He was not an easy many to live with nor work for. But he was what was needed for a country. Sprinkled throughout are speeches and lines that many of those who our fond of this time know but Larson shows how some of these were passed over at the moment. Many didn’t realize how these lines would be cemented in the history books as some of the greatest speechwriting ever.
Churchill’s words and actions during the harrowing moments of the blitz brought the British people comfort and steeled their resolve. His words may be able to do the same in the time that we live in now.
“If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science.”
He issued an appeal to the greater spirit of Britons everywhere. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Lover of the written word.