- LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0216
- LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0216
Winston Churchill (b. 1874–d. 1965) was a British politician who became prime minister during the Second World War and whose identity and reputation are indelibly linked with Allied victory in that conflict. Celebrated for his oratory, especially for his warnings about the dangers of appeasing Hitler and his defiance in the face of direct German attacks on Britain, he also published over forty major works and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was rare in being both a man of words and action, briefly serving as a soldier at the end of the Victorian period, before embarking on a long and often controversial political career. Starting out as a Conservative in 1900, he defected to the Liberals in 1904 and worked alongside Asquith and Lloyd George on social reform at home, before becoming first lord of the admiralty at the beginning of the First World War. His involvement in the Dardanelles operation almost ended his career, although he was to return as minister of munitions, secretary of state for war and air, and then colonial secretary in the immediate postwar period. He rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924 and served as chancellor of the exchequer under prime minister Stanley Baldwin until 1929. Churchill was a lifelong imperialist with a belief in racial hierarchies, and refused to support greater independence for India. Relegated to the political backbenches, it was his persistent opposition to Hitler that led to a gradual restoration of his reputation, culminating in his return as first lord of the admiralty on the outbreak of war in September 1939. He became prime minister in May 1940 as the leader of a coalition government, ultimately forging a “special relationship” with President Roosevelt and the United States and a more uneasy alliance with Stalin and the Soviet Union. Following his defeat in the 1945 general election, he remained an important figure on the world stage, advocating an Anglo-American alliance and greater European union as bulwarks against Soviet expansionism. He served as a peacetime prime minister between 1951 and 1955 and was accorded a state funeral on his death in January 1965. Churchill’s legacy has been complicated by the role that 1940 has assumed in British national mythology. He has become a contested figure, celebrated as a national savior or denigrated as a racist imperialist. His words are regularly evoked and debated in the context of contemporary issues.
Churchill’s official biography was published in eight volumes between 1966 and 1988. The project was started by Sir Winston’s son Randolph (Churchill 2006–2007), who produced the first two volumes, and was completed by Sir Martin Gilbert, who had served as one of Randolph’s literary assistants. It is accompanied by a series of twenty-three companion volumes of key documents. Volumes 17 to 23 of the Companion Series were edited by Professor Larry P. Arnn and published by Hillsdale College, Michigan, after the death of Sir Martin. The official biography chronicles Churchill’s life in great detail and is a key reference work for any study of the life of Churchill. However, it is heavily based on Churchill’s own archive and writings and tends to reflect his interpretation of events. In addition to the official biography, there have been many other biographies of the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Gilbert 1991 is an abridged one-volume version, Manchester 2012 is a dramatic telling of the Churchill story, while Addison 2005 and Brendon 1984 are valuable brief lives. Jenkins 2001 and Roberts 2018 are both representative of the positive biographical tradition that views Churchill as a great man, although Jenkins approaches his subject through a more Liberal lens than Roberts, who emphasizes Churchill’s conservatism. Charmley 1993 and Ponting 1994 are important early revisionist biographies that seek to present an alternative and more critical view. They both question Churchill’s character, stability, and judgment. Yet while Charmley critiques Churchill for his failure to maintain Britain’s position in the world, Ponting emphasizes his ambition, classism, sexism, imperialism, and racism.
Addison, Paul. Churchill: The Unexpected Hero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
A scholarly introduction to Churchill’s life by the author of Sir Winston’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Brendon, Piers. Churchill: A Brief Life. London: Secker and Warburg, 1984.
A colorful and entertaining account in a relatively short single volume providing a good introduction to Churchill’s life.
Charmley, John. Churchill: The End of Glory: A Political Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.
A well-researched account of Churchill’s political life up to 1945 which critiques his role in ending British isolationism and contributing to national decline.
Churchill, Randolph. Winston S. Churchill. 2 vols. Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 2006–2007.
The first volumes of the official biography written by Churchill’s son, Randolph and drawing heavily on Churchill’s own archives and writings. Originally published in 1966 and 1967 (London: Heinemann). The titles are Vol. 1, Youth 1874–1900 and Vol. 2, Young Statesman 1901–1914.
Gilbert, Martin. Churchill: A Life. London: Heinemann, 1991.
An abridged single-volume version of the official biography providing a narrative and largely nonanalytical overview of Churchill’s life.
Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. 6 vols. Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 2008–2013.
The subsequent volumes of Churchill’s official biography, originally published by Heinemann between 1971 and 1988. The titles are Vol. 3, The Challenge of War 1914–1916; Vol. 4, World in Torment 1916–1922; Vol. 5, The Prophet of Truth 1922–1939; Vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939–1941; Vol. 7. Road to Victory 1941–1945; Vol. 8. Never Despair 1945–1965.
Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Macmillan, 2001.
Written largely from secondary sources but with an insider’s knowledge of the workings of the British political system and concluding that Churchill was the greatest occupant of 10 Downing Street.
Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill. 3 vols. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
An evocative and dramatic telling of the Churchill story but the first two volumes were written without access to the Churchill Papers and other key primary sources. The first two volumes were originally published in the 1980s (London: Michael Joseph). The final volume was completed by Paul Reid.
Ponting, Clive. Churchill. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.
The first major biography to attack Churchill for his political views on class, gender, and race.
Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. London: Allen Lane, 2018.
Drawing on new evidence and written largely as a defense of Churchill as a great man.
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