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Book review: The Gathering Storm [Book I], by Winston S. Churchill

Note: This is the first volume of Churchill's six-volume memoir of the Second World War. It is in two parts. Book I describes events in the years preceding the outbreak of war, and Book II deals with the start of the war. This review is of Book I; a review of Book II will follow later.

The central idea that runs throughout the book is that the war was avoidable. It happened because we—meaning the victors in the First World War, especially Britain—believed what we wanted to believe rather than what was happening. Time and again opportunities were lost. The main reason for this was the understandable wish for peace, which was what led to the establishment of the League of Nations. Germany was supposed to be disarmed, but so too were the victorious nations. During what Churchill calls the Locust Years (1931–1935) British security was neglected shamefully, principally by the Conservatives but also by Labour and the Liberals. The result was "a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even as far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience".

Churchill traces Hitler's seemingly inexorable rise to power after 1933 and shows time and again how he thinks this could have been at least checked for a time and possibly completely prevented. The German invasions of the Ruhr, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were all gambles; in all of them resolute action by Britain and France could easily have called Hitler's bluff, but nothing was done. I was familiar with this in outline but there were many surprises. For example, it seems that the German generals were so appalled by the risks that Hitler was running in his plan to invade Czechoslovakia that they were plotting to arrest him.

I was also surprised at the complexities of the relationship between Mussolini and Hitler; the two dictators were initially not as cooperative or friendly to each other as they became later. And I hadn't realised how close Russia had come in 1938 to forming an alliance with Britain and France against Germany; this might have happened if the Western powers had been less lukewarm to the idea, although Poland and the Baltic states were also unwilling to allow Russian troops to traverse their territories

Statesman are not called upon to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself. Having got ourselves into this awful plight of 1939, it was vital to grasp the larger hope.

Throughout the period he describes in Book I Churchill was a Member of Parliament but not a minister, so his role was that of a spectator and adviser but not an actor. That was soon to change. We leave him in his home at Chartwell, accompanied by a retired Scotland Yard detective; they are both armed and taking it in turns to sleep, in case one of Hitler's Nazis, of whom there were known to be twenty thousand in Britain, should come to assassinate him.

Not the least remarkable thing about this book is its sheer readability. Before starting on it I had expected to find it rather hard going, but quite the opposite. I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time and tend to alternate between them according to my mood, I soon found myself returning to this one in preference to anything else, as I might to a thriller—which, in a sense, it is.


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