Winston S. Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on the strength of “his mastery of historical and biographical description.” Nowhere is that mastery more evident than in Great Contemporaries—which features Churchill’s profiles of many of the major figures of his time.
These short biographies cover political and cultural personalities ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Lawrence of Arabia, and Leon Trotsky to Charlie Chaplin, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw. This edition includes five previously uncollected essays and a number of photographs, plus an enlightening introduction and annotations by noted Churchill scholar James W. Muller.
Written in the decade before Churchill became prime minister, these essays focus on the challenges of statecraft at a time when the democratic revolution was toppling older regimes based on tradition and aristocratic privilege. Churchill’s keen observations take on new importance in our own age of roiling political change. Ultimately, Great Contemporaries provides fascinating insight into these subjects as Churchill approaches them with a measuring eye, finding their limitations at least as revealing as their merits.
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The Earl of Rosebery
It might be said that Lord Rosebery outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty. The brilliant prospects which had shone before him until he became Prime Minister in 1894 were dispersed by the break-up of his Government and the decisive defeat of the Liberal Party in 1895. The part he took as an Imperialist and a patriot in supporting, four years later, the South African War destroyed his hold upon the regard and confidence of a large section of the Radical masses. His resignation of the Leadership of the Liberal Party had already released them from their allegiance. By his definite declaration against Home Rule when Mr. Balfour's fall in 1905 was approaching, he cut himself off deliberately and resolutely from all share in the impending Liberal triumph and long reign of power. He severed himself by purposeful action from his friends and followers. 'Content to let occasion die,' he withdrew from all competition for leadership in the political arena; he erected barriers against his return which he meant to be insurmountable; he isolated himself in cool and unaffectedly disdainful detachment. It was known only too well that overtures would be useless. By 1905 his political career was closed for ever. It was only in 1929 that his long life ended.
Dwelling in his wide and beautiful estates, moving frequently from one delightful house and one capacious library to another, he lived to sustain the burden of an eightieth birthday, lighted by the refinements of profound and astonishingly wide-ranging literary knowledge, amused by the Turf, and cheered and companioned by his children and his grandchildren. The afflictions of old age fell successively with gathering weight upon him in his ever-deepening retirement; and when he died his name and actions had faded entirely from the public mind, and were only revived and presented to the eyes of a new generation by the obituary notices. But those actions, and still more the character and personality which lay behind them, are worthy of most careful study, not only for the sake of their high merit, but at least as much for their limitations.
Lord Rosebery was probably my father's greatest friend. They were contemporaries at Eton and at Oxford. Although apparently divided by party, they moved in the same society, had many friends in common, and pursued the same pleasures and sports — of which racing was ever the sovereign. Their correspondence was sparkling and continuous, and their intimate personal relations were never affected by the fierce political struggles of the 'eighties, or by any vicissitudes of fortune.
I inherited this friendship, or rather the possibility of renewing it in another generation. I was anxious to cultivate it for many reasons, of which the first was to learn more about my father from his contemporary, his equal and his companion. With some at least of those feelings of awe and attraction which led Boswell to Dr. Johnson, I sought occasions to develop the acquaintance of childhood into a grown-up friendship. At first he did not seem to approve of me: but after the South African War, when I had at least become well known and was a young M.P., he began to show me marked kindness. The biography of my father by which I was soon absorbed opened a wide and fertile field of common interest. He assisted actively in the enterprise, drew richly upon his fund of choice reminiscence, collected letters and documents, read proofs, criticized sympathetically but penetratingly both the subject and the work. This formed a theme of common interest between us and built a bridge across the gulf of a different generation.
During the years of my literary task, from 1900 to 1905, I was often his guest in all his houses, at Mentmore, in Berkeley Square, at the Durdans hard by Epsom Downs, on the Firth of Forth at Dalmeny, at his shooting lodge, Rosebery; and we also met year after year on long visits to common friends in the delicious autumn of the Scottish Highlands. Politics provided additional links and ties; for we were both adrift from our parties. He was out of sympathy with the Liberals: I was soon quarrelling with the Tories. We could both toy with the dream of some new system and grouping of men and ideas, in which one could be an Imperialist without swallowing Protection, and a social reformer without Little Englandism or class bitterness. We had certainly that solid basis of agreement and harmony of outlook upon middle courses, which is shared by many sensible people and was in those days abhorrent to party machines. Need one add that the party machines always prove the stronger?
Over the biography one awkwardness arose. Lord Rosebery's interest was so strong and his desire to help delineate his friend so keen, that he took the trouble to write a considerable appreciation of Lord Randolph, which he suggested I should incorporate textually in my account. I was deeply touched, and at the same time embarrassed: for after all I had my own way of doing things, and the literary integrity of a work is capital. Moreover, his picture of Randolph Churchill's school days contained the word 'scug,' an Eton slang term which I considered derogatory and unsuited to a biography written by a son. I therefore deferentially but obstinately resisted this expression. He stuck to it and explained its harmless Etonian significance. In the end he wrote that I had rejected his contribution and that it was withdrawn. A few years later it appeared as the widely-read and deeply-interesting monograph on Lord Randolph and my book about him, in which Lord Rosebery drew with admiration and affection the 'brilliant being' who had so compulsively cheered, charmed, directed, and startled his youth and prime. The incident, though it distressed me at the time, did not seem in any way to rankle in my illustrious friend. He had all the grand comprehensions, and though sensitive to a degree, did not take my recalcitrance amiss. On the contrary, I think he liked me the better for my filial prudery.
It is difficult to convey the pleasure I derived from his conversation as it ranged easily and spontaneously upon all kinds of topics 'from grave to gay, from lively to severe.' Its peculiar quality was the unexpected depths or suggestive turns which revealed the size of the subject and his own background of knowledge and reflection. At the same time he was full of fun. He made many things not only arresting, but merry. He seemed as much a master of trifles and gossip as of weighty matters. He was keenly curious about every aspect of life. Sportsman, epicure, bookworm, literary critic, magpie collector of historical relics, appreciative owner of veritable museums of art treasures, he never needed to tear a theme to tatters. In lighter vein he flitted jauntily from flower to flower like a glittering insect, by no means unprovided with a sting. And then in contrast, out would come his wise, matured judgments upon the great men and events of the past. But these treats were not always given. He was at his best with two or three and on his day; and sometimes in larger company he seemed shy and ill at ease. When he was out of humour, he could cast a chill over all, and did not hesitate to freeze and snub. On these occasions his face became expressionless, almost a slab, and his eyes lost their light and fire. One saw an altogether different person. But after a bit one knew the real man was there all the time, hiding perversely behind a curtain. And all the more agreeable was it when he came out.
Hardest of all is it to revive the impression which he produced upon his hearers when dealing with the greatest affairs. His life was set in an atmosphere of tradition. The Past stood ever at his elbow and was the counsellor upon whom he most relied. He seemed to be attended by Learning and History, and to carry into current events an air of ancient majesty. His voice was melodious and deep, and often, when listening, one felt in living contact with the centuries which are gone, and perceived the long continuity of our island tale.
Lord Rosebery was the first Prime Minister for many years who had never served in the House of Commons. He will very likely be the last. Whatever one may think about democratic government, it is just as well to have practical experience of its rough and slatternly foundations. No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections. Here you come in contact with all sorts of persons and every current of national life. You feel the Constitution at work in its primary processes. Dignity may suffer, the superfine gloss is soon worn away; nice particularisms and special private policies are scraped off; much has to be accepted with a shrug, a sigh or a smile; but at any rate in the end one knows a good deal about what happens and why.
Rosebery had none of this. He addressed and captivated great meetings; he gained the plaudits of tumultuous crowds; he followed Mr. Gladstone through all the immense popular enthusiasms of the Midlothian campaign. But these were the show occasions, where ardent supporters were marshalled in overwhelming strength. They were very different from the bustling experience of a Parliamentary candidature, with its disorderly gatherings, its organized oppositions, its hostile little meetings, its jeering throng, its stream of disagreeable and often silly questions.
Rosebery's Eton tutor in something of a spirit of prophecy said of him that he 'sought the palm without the dust.' This was not true in the sense in which the phrase is often used — that of avoiding hard work. Rosebery was capable of very hard work and of long hours of daily concentration both on politics and literature. He sought indeed the palm, but the dust had never come his way; and when in high station the compromises, the accommodations, the inevitable acquiescence in inferior solutions, were forced upon him, he was not toughened against these petty vexations, or trained to see them in their true light. Although equipped with capacious knowledge of the part of a modern Statesman, he was essentially a survival from a vanished age, when great Lords ruled with general acceptance and strove, however fiercely, only with others like themselves. While he stood under the ægis of Mr. Gladstone, the Radical masses presented themselves as devoted, loyal, enthusiastic adherents. It was not until the Gladstonian spell had passed away that he realized how very imperfect was his contact with them. He did not think as they thought, or feel as they felt, or understand the means of winning their unselfish and unbounded allegiance. He understood the hard conditions of their lives, and was intellectually indignant at their wrongs and sufferings. His mind ranged back across centuries of their history, and selected with shrewd and wise judgment the steps required to sustain their progress and welfare. But actually to handle them, to wrestle with, them, to express their passion and win their confidence, this he could not do.
Professor Goldwin Smith, with whom he was on terms of intimate acquaintance and correspondence, said of him to me in Toronto in 1900, 'Rosebery feels about Democracy as if he were holding a wolf by the ears.' This was a harsh judgment, and probably beyond the truth; but it was not opposed to the truth. As the franchise broadened and the elegant, glittering, imposing trappings faded from British Parliamentary and public life, Lord Rosebery was conscious of an ever-widening gap between himself and the Radical electorate. The great principles 'for which Hampden died in the field and Sidney on the scaffold,' the economics and philosophy of Mill, the venerable inspiration of Gladstonian memories, were no longer enough. One had to face the caucus, the wire-puller and the soap-box; one had to stand on platforms built of planks of all descriptions. He did not like it. He could not do it. He would not try. He knew what was wise and fair and true. He would not go through the laborious, vexatious and at times humiliating processes necessary under modern conditions to bring about these great ends. He would not stoop; he did not conquer.
Let us test these general comments by his career. The milestones of Rosebery's public life stand forth abruptly along the track. He was one of the first Whig nobles who as a young man embraced the Liberal and democratic conceptions of the later nineteenth century. The stir and enthusiasm of Mr. Gladstone's Midlothian campaign carried him into politics. There he was, on the spot, a gifted, bright figure in Edinburgh and Scotland, thirty-one or thirty-two, with all that rank and fortune could bestow. And here was the Grand Old Man, to listen to whose words rich and poor travelled for days and stood in rain and mist for hours, fighting in Rosebery's own Scottish domain for what seemed to be a world cause. Rosebery plunged into politics as 'a chivalrous adventure.' 'When I found myself in this evil-smelling bog, I was always trying to extricate myself. That is the secret of what people used to call my lost opportunities and so forth.'
These rather bitter words written in the years of eclipse did not in any way represent the effort, the industry, the resolution, or the robust citizenship which Rosebery contributed for a quarter of a century to British and Imperial affairs. He was an earnest, painstaking man whose heart beat the faster for any cause touching the honour or the greatness of Britain or which concerned the well-being and progress of the mass of the people. He served an apprenticeship of some years in minor offices. He pressed for Scottish legislation more advanced than any for which Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet of 1880 was prepared. He became at a bound amid general applause Foreign Secretary in Mr. Gladstone's government of 1886. Here came the second milestone. Home Rule split the Liberal party to the roots. Every man had to choose which way he would go. Rosebery had no sentimental liking for the Irish. But although in his historical writings he repressed his bias, he had latent in him all the Whig scorn for Tories. He stood up to them. He adhered to Mr. Gladstone. He went into the wilderness with him.
The favour or frown of Society contacts in those days played a part in public life incomprehensible to the present generation. But Rosebery stood so high in the land that he could look down upon the cuts and resentments of the London governing class. He was upon occasion as stiff a Radical as John Morley. He had at times a large though indefinite following among Trade Unionists and labouring men. The spectacle of this eloquent, magnificent personage separating himself from the bulk of his class, 'biding by the Buff and the Blue,' excited the hostility of the Unionist party, and filled the Liberals in the cool shade with a sense of hope and expectancy for his future. It clung to him through years of misunderstanding and disappointment. At first they said 'He will come.' Then for years 'If only he would come.' And finally, long after he had renounced politics for ever, 'If only he would come back.'
Out of office, by birth debarred from the experience of electioneering and of House of Commons rough-and-tumble, he found in the London County Council the most lively substitute open to a peer. He was the first and greatest chairman of the London County Council. For nearly three years he guided, impelled and adorned its activities. He raised the status of the municipal life of London to the level of ministerial office. At the centre of twenty-two committees he laid strong, keen hands upon every aspect of London government. When, sorely smitten by the Parnell divorce and other Irish difficulties, Mr. Gladstone and the Liberal party returned to power at the election of 1892 with a majority of only forty, dependent upon the Irish vote, Rosebery was for the second time the widely-acclaimed Foreign Secretary of the new administration. More than ever he was 'the man of the future.'
He seemed at this time to represent in a Liberal guise the Disraelian idea of Tory Democracy, revived by Lord Randolph Churchill, and also the cruder but far more effective form of Radical-Imperialism embodied in his final phase by Joseph Chamberlain. In the main the differences between all these three men were questions of emphasis and style. Rosebery expressed the spirit of the modern British Empire with a foresight and precision which make him in retrospect the immediate spiritual successor of Disraeli. The discordances of his culminating period arose from the fact that he became the ministerial successor of Mr. Gladstone. Now that I reflect upon his conversation and re-read his speeches in Lord Crewe's deeply-informed biography, I realize that he responded spontaneously to the same stimuli which actuated Disraeli. Indeed he often seems to march out of the pages of 'Coningsby' — the aristocrat-champion of the poor and depressed classes —'I would make these great slum-landlords skip.'(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Editor's Note on This Edition,
The Earl of Rosebery,
George Bernard Shaw,
Sir John French,
Herbert Henry Asquith,
Lawrence of Arabia,
'F. E.' First Earl of Birkenhead,
Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein,
Arthur James Balfour,
Hitler and His Choice,
George Nathaniel Curzon,
King George V,
Lord Fisher and His Biographer,
Charles Stewart Parnell,
Roosevelt from Afar,
Additional Essays in This Edition,
H. G. Wells,
Kitchener of Khartoum,
King Edward VIII,