You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Mirrors of Greatness

Mirrors of Greatness

A new book on Winston Churchill offers insight into the British bulldog's bracing individuality.

Justin Reash
Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him
by David Reynolds (Basic Books, 464 pp., $32.50)

On December 24th, 1940, Mahatma Gandhi wrote an open letter addressed to Adolf Hitler. It was addressed as “Dear Friend.” 

The letter noted that Gandhi believed Hitler was not “the monster described by your opponents.” Nonetheless, he appealed to the German führer to cease hostilities because his “acts are monstrous and unbecoming…. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.”

Although this open letter was suppressed by British censors, it is reasonable to believe that Winston Churchill—then in the first months of his wartime prime ministership—would have been informed that his most aggravating political opponent was openly appealing to the then single greatest threat to Western civilization. And one can envision the fury that might have consumed Churchill upon hearing this.

David Reynolds describes this letter in his new book, Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders who Shaped Him. Reynolds’ reputation as a leading scholar of Churchill and the 20th century is undoubted. He has published nineteen books, many focusing on Churchill (one of which, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, earned him the prestigious Wolfson History Prize in 2004). Mirrors of Greatness is the culmination of Reynolds’ longtime search of understanding the individuality of Winston Churchill. He has examined Churchill’s wartime leadership, his writing, and his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

Yet, despite the great success of his past works, Reynolds Has been hawking his wares on a crowded street corner. It hardly seems like a month passes without a new book detailing Churchill’s wartime leadership, his love of the finer things in life (as he once said, “I am a man of simple tastes—I am quite easily satisfied with the best of everything”), or his warnings about the rise of Nazi Germany. So many books are produced about Winston Churchill that it would be completely understandable if one stood in the middle of the non-fiction section at their local bookstore and cried “enough!”

Not that I am complaining; every new book about Churchill, even the negative ones, breathes life into his legacy, encourages public discussion, and sustains his place in the modern collective historical discussion.

Refreshingly, Mirrors of Greatness is genuinely different from these familiar literary forays. One could argue it is the second volume of Churchill’s Great Contemporaries. Published in the late 1930s, Great Contemporaries was Churchill’s attempt to profile a selection of his most intimate peers: Arthur Balfour, H. H. Asquith, Charlie Chaplin, and others. The profiles are essentially his judgments on the relationships he had with the most influential leaders of his time, published just a few years before he assumed the ultimate role of his destiny.

What Reynolds has accomplished in Mirrors of Greatness is to turn the mirror that Churchill had trained on his contemporaries toward Churchill himself, with the mirror being the great figures, both allies and foes, of his long life. Ultimately, Reynolds is able to pick apart Churchill the individual and to detail how his interactions with others formed the historical figure recognizable today. 

Mirrors of Greatness profiles a who’s who of the usual suspects: Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill; President Franklin Roosevelt; Josef Stalin; even Churchill’s wife, the quietly powerful Clementine. These chapters do not disappoint, especially the one detailing Churchill and Franklin’s multifaceted, essentially codependent relationship (Reynolds sets the tone immediately with this quote by Churchill on Roosevelt opening the chapter: “How I loved that man.”)

The most compelling chapter, however, is that of Mahatma Gandhi—no other individual in Churchill’s political life got under his skin more than the nonviolent campaigner for Indian independence. Unfortunately, for those who do give much credence to historical context, their understanding of Churchill’s views on Gandhi goes as follows: Churchill the imperialist racist could not accept Gandhi’s desire to gain independence for his nation from the British Empire, thus Churchill went to great lengths to sabotage both India and its people.

Proponents of this view would do well to read Reynolds’ chapter on Gandhi. Not only does it dismiss many of the mainstream perceptions that Churchill acted only out of racist hatred, but it also accomplishes this by wielding a forensic lens of a leading historian who is unmoved by emotional appeals.

Reynolds’ conclusion is that Churchill and Gandhi’s worldview, personalities, and political tactics were all polar opposites. Churchill, he argues, saw the world as a battle between civilization and barbarism. He viewed the British Empire through a benevolent lens which brought civilization to the peoples in need of it. Subsequently, he frowned upon those whom he regarded as lacking civilization, regardless of their religion, race, or nationhood. This worldview is encapsulated in a 1938 Churchill statement: “Civilisation will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.”

To illustrate this point, Reynolds recounts how, according to his contemporary Leo Amery (without any primary source, it should be noted), Churchill said “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion.” Yet, Churchill also referred to the German language as “beastly” and the Nazis as “mechanized barbarians.” 

It was Gandhi's earnestness and popular appeal that most aggravated Churchill. Furthermore, Churchill thought Gandhi more an actor than a genuine campaigner. Churchill once referred to him as a “half-naked fakir” (a comment of which Churchill’s critics remind us all at any opportunity). According to Reynolds, however, this comment was not so much a pejorative one, rather it was Churchill mocking Gandhi as a fraud by deliberately conflating “fakir” with “faker.” It is fair to say that at every turn of Churchill’s political life beginning after the First World War, Gandhi’s distracting presence, however far physically, was always lingering. 

The clash of these two opposites came to a head during the Second World War, which saw over 2.5 million Indians serve the British Empire in uniform. After Gandhi's “Dear friend” letter to Hitler in December 1940, and in the wake of continued nonviolent yet incredibly obstructive mass protests, Gandhi was imprisoned from 1942 to 1944. In the end, of course, Gandhi and his movement won the day. 

Mirrors of Greatness comes at the beginning of 2024, which is the sesquicentennial of Churchill’s birth; it is certain to be a year bursting with books about Churchill and his times. One that has recently been published is Fighting Retreat by Walter Read, which has received negative reviews from many, but most importantly from the preeminent Churchill author of the day, Andrew Roberts. 

Still to be published are Churchill's D-Day: The British Bulldog’s Fateful Hours During the Normandy Invasion by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre; and Churchill, Chartwell and the Countdown to War by Katherine Carter, curator of Chartwell, Churchill’s longtime family home in Kent.

For the reader who is a staunch Churchillian, they may find that Mirrors of Greatness does not contain high levels of originality. However, that is not the book’s essential purpose. The originality—and joy—of Reynolds’ book is in its structure. Much has been written, of course, on Churchill’s words of approval of Benito Mussolini’s leadership in the early years of his dictatorship. But not many know of Churchill’s deep appreciation for Roman history and culture, which, Reynolds argues, was one reason for his ambivalence about the Italian dictator. Mirrors of Greatness’ strength is the enveloping context it provides of Churchill’s complex and varying relationships with leaders from numerous nations and backgrounds.  

Reading all of the books scheduled to be published this year on Churchill will certainly require full-time effort. Nonetheless, if one would like to start off the New Year on a high note, one could not err by picking up Mirrors of Greatness

Justin Reash is the executive director of the International Churchill Society and the director of the National Churchill Leadership Center at George Washington University. 

Image: Foreground: Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives); Background: Handwritten letter (Wikimedia Commons: Lainey Powell)

DemocracyCulturePolitical PhilosophyBook Reviews