Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him by David Reynolds

Every public figure has cause to regret things that they once said, often as recently as yesterday. In 1926 Winston Churchill applauded the government of Italy “under the commanding leadership of Signor Mussolini”, and after meeting the dictator in Rome the next year told journalists: “I could not help being charmed … by his gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers.”

On the other hand Churchill’s oft-professed wartime enthusiasm for Franklin D Roosevelt, the US president, was never reciprocated. Roosevelt said of the British politician in December 1939: “I have always disliked him since the time I went over to England in 1918. He acted like a stinker … lording it all over us.”

David Reynolds notes that the prime minister, in his turn, found Stalin a much more interesting companion than Roosevelt: “A totally unfamiliar human being who intrigued him deeply — far more so than the ‘country gentleman from the Hudson Valley’.” Indeed, one of Churchill’s most foolish misjudgments, rooted in vanity about the power of his own personality, was to report to the cabinet after visiting Stalin in Moscow in August 1942: “We got on easy and friendly terms. I feel I have established a personal relationship that will be helpful.”

This book, by a Cambridge academic who has studied his subject over a lifetime perhaps more closely and shrewdly than any other writer, is not a collection of Churchill’s biggest clangers. Instead, it is almost a second volume that Churchill himself never wrote, of his 1937 Great Contemporaries. Reynolds explores the influence of ten men and one woman — Clementine, of course — on the Greatest Englishman. Mahatma Gandhi was one. Churchill told a 1931 political meeting that Gandhi was “posing as a fakir … striding half-naked”. Reynolds says of the speaker: “This was the artistic showman in full flight.” But some of Churchill’s other phrases about the Indian nationalist had a “pungency, almost nastiness” to them. Gandhi was “alarming … nauseating … seditious”.

Gandhi had the best of those exchanges — enduringly ugly, on Churchill’s side — when he wrote to the prime minister in May 1944 after a long spell in British detention. “You are reported to have the desire to crush the simple ‘naked fakir’ … I have been long trying to be a fakir and that naked — a more difficult task. I therefore regard the expression as a compliment, though unintended.”

Winston Churchill’s oft-professed wartime enthusiasm for Franklin D Roosevelt was never reciprocated.

Hitler also gets a chapter. Reynolds observes that “through the looking glass, Churchill and Hitler each saw a man who was essentially the agent of greater forces”. The former viewed the latter as the standard bearer of a totalitarian militarism that must be destroyed — merely killing the Führer would not be enough. Meanwhile Hitler considered Churchill the puppet of the international Jewish conspiracy.

And those who today aspire to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain, another of Reynolds’s profiles, must struggle against his own words in 1939: “How I do hate and loathe this war … I was never meant to be a war minister.” Chamberlain deserves to be remembered as an admirable minister of health and an effective chancellor. But he was never fit to confront Hitler.

Reynolds’s 2004 book In Command of History, about how Churchill wildly distorted the record to compile his own narrative of the Second World War, is one of the best things ever written about its subject, highlighting his awesome ruthlessness in establishing his own place in history. This work is more in the nature of a collection of footnotes — always shrewd and sometimes brilliant — to the author’s massier tomes.

It includes wonderful anecdotes, some unfamiliar. Even the stories that we know bear retelling, such as Churchill opening a conversation with Clementine Hozier at their first meeting in 1908: “Have you read my book?”

Reynolds notes his subject’s insensitivity about the impact he often made on others: Charles Masterman, a fellow Liberal MP, remarked of an evening with Churchill in 1908 that he seemed “just an extraordinarily gifted boy, with genius and extraordinary energy”. Masterman never forgot the former saying: “Sometimes I feel as if I could lift the whole world on my shoulders.”

Reynolds observes that “Churchill tended to see what he wanted to see”, wildly overrating the durability of the British Empire. Indeed, Churchill was wrong about much — India, race, the abdication of Edward VIII, wartime strategy, many people. He despised Clement Attlee, who served him wonderfully well as wartime deputy prime minister. Yet Attlee was an incomparably more appropriate postwar leader for Britain than his predecessor would have been.

Churchill nonetheless got one transcending thing right — the irredeemable, irreconcilable evil of Hitler. He empowered Britain to stand among the Second World War’s victors as probably no other contemporary Englishman could have contrived. For that most of us can forgive him all the blunders, even if no historian should properly forget them.

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist at The Times of London, and a former editor at The Telegraph