I’ve read most of Erik Larson’s books, and you really can’t go wrong if you want an interesting (some say cinematic) take on history. That said, I had more trouble becoming engaged with The Splendid and the Vile than I have some of his other works, my interest in London during the Blitz notwithstanding (and really, will Larson ever be able to top Devil in the White City?). Slow to get going, the book picks up in the second half, and it’s definitely worth sticking out to the end. I dare say even avid World War II buffs may pick up a new tidbit or two.
The Splendid and the Vile traces Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minster: May 1940 through May 1941. This period coincides with the German Luftwaffe’s relentless bombing of England in what became known as the Blitzkrieg. The brutal campaign was designed to generate despair in the British people, to prompt them to demand that their leaders make peace with Germany. Yet, with Churchill at the helm, the British endured the bombings, the injuries, and the mounting death toll, refusing to break.
Reading Larson’s book, it’s hard to imagine how Britain might have fared without Churchill. A skilled orator, he “demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all, more courageous.” Understanding the need for the public to see him, he would visit bombed sites. Larson describes him as “Tough, yes, but at times weeping openly, overcome by the devastation and the resilience of the crowd.” When a woman, looking at the remains of her bombed-out home, shouted to Churchill, “When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?” he “shook his fist and walking stick, and snarled, ‘You leave that to me!’ ”
Churchill’s first year as PM was also dedicated to enticing Franklin D. Roosevelt to commit the United States to aiding Britain. While the ultimate goal was to get the U.S. directly involved in the fighting, the first step was to secure financial support. Reading about Roosevelt’s efforts to get the Lend-Lease Act through Congress was interesting, although it left me feeling both anxious and sad: anxious because of the many delays, the starts and stops to get the law passed while Britain was getting pummelled; sad, because I have doubts that the U.S. would ever break our isolationist stance today and cross party lines to lend aid in the name of a greater good. On the lighter side of politics, I enjoyed the American characters that Larson introduces, from Harry Hopkins, personal advisor to Roosevelt, who proved critical to ensuring the United States’ involvement and who won over his British colleagues in spite of his sallow frumpiness; to Averell Harriman, the handsome American diplomat who worked with England’s Lord Beaverbrook to implement the Lend-Lease Act, and who seemed particularly charming to British ladies, including Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela, with whom Harriman had an affair and eventually married.
Encountering names like Lord Beaverbrook is yet another reason one should not shy away from European history.
Larson does justice to the tragedies that the British were experiencing by telling personal stories of the people directly affected by the war. In one moving chapter, he recounts the story of musician Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, who was performing at the Café de Paris in London when bombs started to fall. The attack killed Snakehips, saxophone player David Williams, and an unspecified number of club patrons. Churchill’s daughter Mary had been on her way to the Café, unaware of the tragedy. When she and her group encountered blocked roads, they diverted to a different club, only finding out about the destruction of the Café later that night.
Larson also takes us inside the minds of Nazi leaders like Joseph Goebbels and Rudolph Hess. We get glimpses of propaganda minster Goebbels’ personal diary, in which he laments the many extra tasks that surface in December: “A lot of work with the Christmas parcels and gifts. I have to distribute them to the 120,000 soldiers and flak gunners in Berlin alone. But I enjoy it. And then the host of personal commitments. These are increasing from year to year.” Yeah, Third Reich problems.
My only real complaint about The Splendid and the Vile, aside from the slow start, is that the one-year timeline it covers seems arbitrary. I understand what Larson is trying to do by giving the reader a deep-dive into the first year of Churchill’s ministry, but even he seems to know that it doesn’t quite work, because the last chapter jumps ahead 7 months to December 7, 1941. Wrapping up mid-May leaves way too many strings hanging; to avoid an anti-climactic ending, he fast-forwards to Roosevelt and the U.S. declaring war on Japan and then Germany. Perhaps Larson was trying to not come off as U.S.-centric; nevertheless, December 1941 does seem like a more appropriate end point, given the time and energy Churchill had spent persuading Roosevelt and his emissaries to enter the war.
Overall, this book is a tribute not only to Churchill’s leadership during the war, but to the grit and perseverance of the British people. In the end, the Blitz claimed 44,652 lives in the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, including 5,626 children. That Churchill’s party was voted out of power just two months after the end of the war may seem ironic, but perhaps it was appropriate. As Larson notes, “He had seemed the ideal man to run a war, less so to guide Britain’s postwar recovery.”