Great Contemporaries
by Winston S. Churchill

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Thornton Butterworth: London, 1937
336 pages (21 essays), illustrated

revised —
Thornton Butterworth: London, 1938
388 pages (25 essays), illustrated

February 2006

Shapers of the Twentieth Century

Winston S. Churchill profiles twenty-five public figures in Great Contemporaries, all prominent during the first third of the Twentieth Century. Churchill knew many of these men personally, dealt with some officially, and some were close friends or mentors. The collection presumes at least a moderate knowledge of the period and some interest in British politics as well as foreign relations. Two-thirds of the figures are British, the others German, French, American, Russian, and Spanish.

If you've read a general Churchill biography, the profiles help flesh out some of the names in the biography, and perhaps vice versa. For instance, the grand biography by Randolph S. Churchill and Martin Gilbert gives some details in the volume Winston S. Churchill: Young Statesman, 1901-1914 on the German Army maneuvers: the Germans told Churchill to wear a military uniform with sword (from his old regiment), not diplomatic clothes. And King Edward VII passed the word that Churchill should not be "too communicative and frank with his nephew", the Kaiser.

"The Ex-Kaiser"

Kaiser Wilhelm II occupies a unique place as probably the one key personality who might have forestalled the torrential bloodbaths and bitter slave empires of the Twentieth Century, by diverting Imperial Germany toward maintaining peace rather than straining toward war. But he was a gaudy figurehead who ardently desired to be a war leader. As a British Cabinet official, Churchill was the "Emperor's guest at the German Army manoeuvres of 1906 and 1909. He was then at the height of his glory." Of course this is parade-ground glory, and the Kaiser seems to have thought that was the heart of the matter.

No one should judge the career of the Emperor William II without asking the question, 'What should I have done in his position?' Imagine yourself brought up from childhood to believe that you were appointed by God to be the ruler of a mighty nation, and that the inherent virtue of your blood raised you far above ordinary mortals. Imagine succeeding in the twenties to the garnered prizes, in provinces, in power and in pride, of Bismarck's three successive victorious wars.

Imagine feeling the magnificent German race bounding beneath you in ever-swelling numbers, strength, wealth and ambition; and imagine on every side the thunderous tributes of crowd-loyalty and the skilled unceasing flattery of courtierly adulation. ...

It is shocking to reflect that upon the word or nod of a being so limited there stood attentive and obedient for thirty years the forces which, whenever released, could devastate the world. It was not his fault; it was his fate. ...

Interesting personalities, Churchillian insights

The profile of the Kaiser contrasts interestingly with that of Hindenburg, the "wooden Titan"; who, teamed with Ludendorff, provided more of the actual German military direction once World War I had begun. (See Robert Asprey's The German High Command at War.)

Among other wartime leaders included, I was particularly curious to read the discussion of Jacky Fisher, the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty during much of the Anglo-German naval rivalry and Churchill's chosen colleague at the Admiralty during the opening of the War itself.

Here's a rundown of the rest: Roseberry, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Chamberlain, John French, John Morley, Boris Savinkov, Asquith, Lawrence of Arabia, "F. E." Earl of Birkenhead, Foch, Trotsky, Alfonso XIII, Douglas Haig, Balfour, Curzon, Philip Snowden, Clemenceau, George V, Parnell, Baden-Powell. And two which look forward with guarded hope from circa 1934: "Hitler and His Choice" and "Roosevelt from Afar".

Shaw is the one truly literary figure, although Morley and T. E. Lawrence also were famous writers. Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts. The others are political, military, or royal.

Sometimes the personal connection is surprising. Baden-Powell was among the British garrison besieged at Mafeking, 217 days, during the Boer War. After the relief of Mafeking in May 1900, Churchill as war correspondent managed to spend an hour with Baden-Powell while the latter was on the way to report to his own commander-in-chief.

In each profile in Great Contemporaries, Churchill nicely balances some history of the period, some high or low points of the public career of his subject, and some insight into the man. Churchill's warmth is often evident, even for political opponents; and his sensitive empathy has insights to share. A fine book, written when Churchill was himself in the political wilderness, and the international situation slid inexorably toward new war, smoothed by appeasement.

And a close friend

Here's just a bit from the profile of "F. E.", Frederick Edwin Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead. He was Churchill's close friend for a quarter-century. There are some funny courtroom exchanges, with F. E. spontaneously baiting a judge, and so on.

But most of all I liked to hear him in the Cabinet. He was a singularly silent member. He had acquired in the legal profession the habit of listening mute and motionless hour after hour, and he rarely spoke until his counsel was sought. Then his manner was so quiet, so reasonable, so matter-of-fact and sensible, that you could feel opinion being changed; and promptly, as he warmed to his subject, there grew that glow of conviction and appeal, instinctive and priceless, which constitutes true eloquence. ...

I have said he was remarkably consistent in opinion. He was more; he was persistent. In every affair, public or personal, if he was with you on the Monday, you would find him the same on the Wednesday, and on the Friday when things looked blue, he would still be marching forward with strong reinforcements.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

Seek the revised edition of Great Contemporaries:
the original and some reprints have fewer than 25 essays,
and some editions are without illustrations.
For details see Richard M. Langworth's
A Connoisseur's Guide to the Books
of Sir Winston Churchill

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