Thursday, August 26, 2010


William Manchester died before finishing his massive three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, having completed Visions of Glory - Churchill’s childhood, military career, and early politics - and Alone, covering the period of relative political inactivity from 1932 to the start of World War II.

This is a biography which covers both Winston’s personal life and political career.

The first volume of the set is gripping, Manchester having a subject of almost unparalleled interest, a bright but very difficult child who finally finds his place as a soldier and uses his family connections – his father being a descendent of the Duke of Marlborough – to gain assignments in zones of danger from fighting on the frontiers of Afghanistan to fighting the Boers in South Africa. His adventures in faraway realms of the Empire are absolutely absorbing, sort of Boy’s Own stuff for adults. Churchill was almost fearless and often extremely lucky. He also later served as a brave officer on the front in the Great War.

Manchester’s style is clear and direct, but there are times he enters into subject areas I prefer he hadn’t, as speculations on Winston’s sexuality or rather lack of it, but Manchester had a remarkable memory and did extensive research so that all kinds of interesting little facts are scattered through the text. He also follows the custom of periodically giving little vignettes of the kind of events which were happening at the time.

Churchill’s childhood was not one anyone would envy, despite the wealth and privilege and great connections with history. His father, who died fairly early, was one of the most promising men in Parliament, having been marked out as a future Prime Minister. However, he simply did not like Winston, and theirs was a cold and often unpleasant relationship. His mother was a handsome East Coast American from a well-off family, a woman who was regularly unfaithful to her husband and reportedly even slept with the future king. She simply had no time or even interest in Winston, although there was some change when Winston’s father died.

Winston had a temperament as a boy reminding me of several historical figures who simply could not get on well in school and yet were immensely successful later, Einstein coming first to mind. Winston’s brilliance was evident to teachers but his application was slim to non-existent.

I do think Manchester goes out of his way at times trying to justify some of Winston’s schemes such as the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in World War I, an event over which others have roundly condemned Churchill. He is clearly in his subject’s corner, something I generally prefer to hostile biographers, but still it is worth pointing out that he is at times a bit excessive in this.

The second volume is less interesting, and there are two reasons for this. First, it is simply a much less engaging chapter in Winston’s life, but, second, I think Manchester plays too strongly on the word “appeasement,” even offering up a definition early on. The word and its variants, such as “appeasers,” are repeated over and over in the text, communicating to me the chilling tone of Right-wing American language.

After all, Americans barely were scratched in World War I while Europe experienced what was to that time the greatest, most pointless carnage in history. Efforts to stop a repeat of that vast horror only twenty years later remain to me not contemptible. In general, too, it was less the appeasers that eased Hitler’s path than it was a French government, in possession of the strongest army in Europe by far during the early thirties, which was unstable and uncertain and failed in the simplest, almost bloodless acts such as opposing the re-occupation of the Rhineland.

The second volume does have some nice tableaux of Winston, from his painting, which became a major hobby, to his trudging around the estate in overalls building brick walls for his gardens.

Churchill was extraordinary, and this biography captures a good deal of the flavour or tone of the man. It is recommended for students of history, leadership, world affairs, politics, psychology, and those who love a good biography.

Apparently, Manchester, before he died, selected a writer, Paul Reid, to finish the third volume. The last I read it was due in 2011.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I first read this book the best part of fifty years ago.

It stands up remarkably well, even when read with a subsequent background of many books about World War II, several biographies of Hitler and other major war figures, plus smaller specialized studies.

This is not a full biography, Hitler’s early years receiving fairly brief treatment. It is precisely what its subtitle says of it, a study in tyranny, and I don’t believe another book offers quite the same intense exploration of the subject.

Allan Bullock writes as a genuine scholar, albeit an unusually articulate one. When Bullock is uncertain about the factors contributing to a certain event, he says so, along with giving readers a clear explanation of the alternatives. Bullock had studied the vast literature available in his time and little of substance escaped his analytical mind.

Hitler surely represents three extraordinary historical phenomena.

First, the outline of his rise is remarkable, almost unparalleled in history, rising from a tramp, would-be artist, a man with limited formal education, to become absolute leader of Europe’s most important nation and then achieving a series of dazzling successes until megalomania struck, sending Europe into a ghastly spiral of horrors and destruction.

One of the few comparable rises I can think of is that of a man who shared none of Hitler’s dark obsessions and hatreds: I refer to Lincoln, a man who rose from life in a dirt-floor cabin and a year and half of formal education to become a successful corporate lawyer, president of the United States, and leader of what remains America’s bloodiest war.

Second, Hitler is, in a number of ways, the most important historical figure of the 20th century – not the greatest, not the most gifted, and certainly neither admirable nor heroic, but the most important as measured by his impact upon great events both in his own time and after.

Hitler’s career contributed to the rise or success of some of the century’s most able and heroic figures – Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle. And the gigantic destructive events Hitler unleashed profoundly affected the world to this day – the establishment of the Soviet empire, decades of Cold War, and the agonizing events following the creation of Israel.

Third, few people in all of history wielded such immense, unquestioned power over others as he did – Stalin, Napoleon, Henry VIII, Cromwell, Augustus, Genghis Khan, Attila, and a few others come to mind. Understanding the mind and methods of such a person is beyond question an important study of the human condition.

This is an essential book for students of history, statesmanship, World War II, politics, human character, and psychology. It is well enough written to hold the attention of those who are not scholars but interested in any of these subjects.

One of the most interesting qualities of Bullock’s book is his avoidance of what has now become an almost de rigueur, politically correct minimizing of Hitler’s skills and talents, very much a flaw in Ian Kershaw’s biography, and preaching about his evil, something which is apparent just in telling the true history.

Bullock makes clear that in every relationship and project Hitler ever had, the need to be regarded as final authority was an intense, overwhelming psychological drive. He also clearly had developed something of a Messiah complex, something not unknown in our own day among politicians and religious leaders. His vision of Germany’s expansion in the East was filled with ghastly concepts, yet the basic idea of a larger national landscape for Europe’s most technically and perhaps culturally advanced nation, similar to the space claimed by the United States on its rise or by the British Empire, was rational if not ethical.

We know from well-regarded psychiatric studies that Hitler was not mentally ill, yet he did more damage than any mentally ill person I can think of. That fact alone makes understanding him immensely important and should serve as a continued warning concerning those who seek power in our societies. The all-too-common “Hitler the madman” is not helpful and shows no genuine learning from history.

True madmen have little chance of gaining serious power anywhere: they are eschewed by democracies where the least evidence of experience with mental problems is an absolute disqualifier and they are not supported in tyrannies because, as Bullock shows, a tyranny requires many insiders to make it work.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the Third Reich that Bullock so ably brings out was the endless creation of special fiefdoms to replace older fiefdoms and new offices for ambitious lieutenants to balance off against other ambitious lieutenants. It is for this reason that I believe all true tyrannies, at least in otherwise advanced states, are doomed not to last: they are actually far more unstable and inefficient than people generally realize.

If you are reading about the Third Reich, this is, quite simply, an indispensable book.


It is difficult to know just how to treat this book. It has many serious faults.

It is well-written, was a best seller, but its very subject is to my mind a rather eccentric notion, and the author does some quite annoying things in writing about it.

By the term “end of science” the author does not mean a return to the Dark Ages but a time when all the large and exciting discoveries and theories all will have been established, leaving only relatively small subjects to science. It is the kind of notion that might pass through any thoughtful person’s mind, but I think it one that is quickly dismissed.

The interest in the book has to do with the eminent figures interviewed and not with the author’s speculations.

The author is not a scientist, but he is scientifically literate and does write pieces for magazines like Scientific American, and I am not automatically put off by the idea of inspired non-experts writing on any subject.

Perhaps the first serious fault is the way the author approaches the subject. What we have is a series of interviews with eminent figures, many of them scientists but many are social scientists or philosophers. A great deal is hidden in that word “interview.” These are relatively short interviews or conversations at conventions or discussions on the telephone.

With every live interview, no matter how brief, the author offers a concise description of the subject, some being amusing or interesting, but all highly colored and none strictly appropriate for a book on science or ideas. I regard this as padding, especially in light of how little of the subjects’ thoughts on the book’s theme the author captures. One also could fairly argue, in light of what we eventually learn of the author’s views, that these are used as devices to prejudice readers towards or away from interview subjects.

The subject is provocative, of course, thus perhaps giving the author entrée in some cases which he otherwise might not have been given, and, of course, it also helps sales

I do think, considering at least a half dozen of the world’s eminent intellects were interviewed, that the space allotted to each subject’s thought is sketchy at best. This perhaps stems from the author’s experience in writing relatively short articles but also likely reflects the effort to keep things zippy rather than genuinely thoughtful – what one might expect from most best sellers I’m afraid.

The author insists on using words that to my mind no longer are part of science, chief among these beings “laws” and “truth.”

Law is a genuinely outdated concept applied to science, although it is still somewhat carelessly used for theories of long standing. What we have in modern science are hypotheses or theories or conjectures which seem to describe our observations of phenomena but are subject to being endlessly tested against new observations and perhaps discarded.

Science is quite ruthless about ideas. When they cease working, they are set aside and replaced by others that work better. So long as a theory continues to fit new observations – and remember our scientific instruments are almost constantly improving in accuracy and scope of application and even in the measurement of things never before measured – it is viewed as useful and, in a strictly limited sense, valid.

But there are no laws in science truly today, even if phrases carrying over from the 19th century are sometimes used. Each time we rise to another perspective in looking at a phenomenon – as by the new acuteness of our instruments or building upon a new and very convincing theory or doing a kind of experiment never before done - we sometimes begin to see observations, including previous ones, in a new way. A new theory or conjecture replaces the established one, and the process continues so long as we are able to progress.

Einstein replaced Newton, but Newton still serves perfectly well under limited conditions to give the results he always did, and, as Einstein himself suggested, he will himself one day be displaced in the same way by an even more encompassing perspective.

None of these great men’s works is regarded as law: they are useful relationships which are valued and retained so long as they continue to be useful.

And none of these theories represents “truth” except in the highly limited sense that when under such-and-such conditions we may expect this-or-that.

Nothing in all of physics has any existence in reality – if we may posit such a thing as reality – neither quarks nor electrons nor electromagnetic spectra: these are our way of describing phenomena to ourselves in useful, consistent, and measurable ways, but they are not, as it were, snap shots of nature.

There is no reason known for this process ever to stop, unless we bump up against limits of perception or understanding, a possibility discussed briefly in the book but which is as utterly speculative and useless today as notions like the mind-body problem of philosophy.

I’ll leave it to readers to discover the intense experience of years ago that motivates the author: I would only suggest that someone dropped LSD into something he consumed.