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Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century, and probably one of the greatest men in history, lived a long, rich and controversial life. Martin Gilbert is his official biographer. "Churchill: A Life" is based upon Gilbert's much larger multi-volume biography, but it is not an abridgment.

Gilbert tells Churchill's story in an elegant and straightforward manner. He moves the reader smoothly from Churchill's troubled childhood, through his brief military career and into his long career as a Member of Parliament. Churchill's rapid rise from House of Commons "back-bencher," to cabinet minister was phenomenal. So were his numerous falls from power, caused mainly by his uncanny ability to alienate nearly all his political colleagues. After eight years in the "political wilderness," Churchill reached the pinnacle of British political power, becoming Prime Minister in May 1940, just as Nazi Germany launched its attack on the Low Countries and France. Gilbert's treatment of Churchill's wartime and post-war premierships is fascinating, as is his narrative of Churchill's later years.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I felt I didn't get to know Churchill as well as I did after reading William Manchester's two-volume Churchill biography, "The Last Lion." Gilbert's prose is much more scholarly sounding, and lacks some of Manchester's flair for dramatic storytelling, and his incisive commentary. Still, "Churchill: A Life" is a fascinating, if not especially penetrating, study of this colossus of British history. Highly recommended!

Review updated June 15, 2015.
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HALL OF FAMEon July 10, 2000
The title of this review was Sir. Winston Spencer Churchill responding when asked how he thought History would remember him. He had no concerns, because as he explained he would be his own biographer.
Mr. Churchill did author many books most of which are still readily available in print today, and as far as his ability to use a pen, The Nobel Prize he received for his writings answers that question.
As mentioned elsewhere Martin Gilbert (now Sir Martin Gilbert) finished the 8th volume of the official Churchill Biography in 1988. It is also true that he dedicated decades of his life to the work. What is not as well known is that the work is not yet complete. There are 8 volumes and there are also 15 additional volumes of correspondence, personal letters, etc., that are also equally important to this body of work. Finally, there are more volumes yet to come, so this work not only has stretched decades, its creation has spanned 2 Centuries like the great man himself. It is also important to note that Sir Winston's Son Randolph Churchill published the first volume. Sir Gilbert joined Randolph in 1962, Volume 1 was published in 1966, and Sir Gilbert officially accepted the monumental task in 1968.
This one volume work is brilliant. I have read the 8-volume version, and some of the companion volumes, and to think it could be distilled into one book, however thick, would have seemed an insurmountable task. Sir Gilbert is the authority on the man who many argue was the man of the 20th Century, and one of the great Statesman of History.
Sir Winston certainly was a brilliant leader; to stop there is to not know the man at all. He was an accomplished writer, he was a painter, he was a mason (the type that build walls), a trowel not a secret handshake was used, and he was an orator without peer, who today is still quoted on a regular basis.
If you read one book, then please make it this one. My introduction to Churchill was through the as yet uncompleted 3-volume work of Mr. William Manchester, which is also excellent. Once introduced to this giant of history, one book will not do, he was too large, larger than life, as large as the events he guided, and the Western Democracy that he saved until others came to his aid. How different the world would have been had his party not been voted from office in the midst of the final peace negotiations. The only consistent player was Stalin, and he won hands down.
A man that must be a part of any library, as our present is due in part to this individual. And remember he was 50% American. But then perhaps we can take a bit of pride and say, no surprise at all!
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HALL OF FAMEon August 5, 2000
No one short of Winston himself is more of an established authority on Winston Churchill than noted British author and historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who renders an intelligent, eminently readable, and carefully culled one-volume overview of his imposing eight volume history of Churchill that took over 25 years to finish. Unlike some of the other recent covers of Churchill, this carefully composed, organized and articulated work covers the entire story of Churchill's incredible life from childhood, supplying a steady stream of memorable anecdotes and constant good humor that punctuates the text and makes the usual drab early years much more entertaining and enjoyable.
He takes great pains to describe Churchill's daredevil antics early in life, a man more foolhardy than fool, a man with piercing intellect and a sardonic wit. According to Gilbert, young Winston was always good company, with an endless store of stories he spun with great relish and amazing recall. He had an early sense about the possibilities of technology, and could fly a British bi-plane even before the onset of WWI. He seemed to recognize the potential of such new weaponry to revolutionize warfare, and often took pains to tell anyone who would listen how much more dynamic such things as tanks and artillery could make the modern battlefield.
Of course, the events surrounding World War Two provided Churchill with the opportunity of a lifetime; the author argues he was exactly the right man to pull Britain out of its desperate doldrums and to jump fearlessly into the fray. For while he was no military genius, he was a singular statesman and leader, and he used his stirring orations to electrify the English populace and prepare them for the war of endurance he knew he struggle with Germany would certainly become. He threaded the delicate high wire of political negotiations with the Americans, and forged an unusually strong and open friendship with Franklin Roosevelt that was a dynamic factor in the Allied partnership.
As Gilbert writes so memorably, he summoned forth the mysterious stuff of greatness to assume leadership of Britain when it was most isolated, threatened, and weak. In such circumstances, his own bulldog-like resolve and legendary stubbornness made those who oppose him rue the day. No one in modern history was so singularly responsible for the rescue of the world from the clutches of evil incarnate (as personified by Hitler and Nazi Germany) than did Winston Churchill. This is a masterful biography written in a magisterial fashion by the single greatest authority on Churchill. I highly recommend it. Enjoy!
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VINE VOICEon January 22, 2000
Throughout the fin-de-siecle excess and Y2K irrationality, the man most often mentioned on the various Man of the Century lists was a paunchy politician who was for most of his career distrusted, despised, and detested by elites the world over. He was a Victorian imperialist at the dawn of the Democratic Age, he opposed women's suffrage with as great a zeal as the Americans embraced it, he tried to strangle Bolshevism in its crib just as Europe drew it to its breast and the United States cooed over it. Worse yet, he died in 1963, which might as well have been a millenium ago for our history-challenged populace.
How then to explain his appeal?
Simple. Winston Spencer Churchill saved the world from the twin 20th century cancers of Communism and Nazism.
Martin Gilbert is the official biographer of this great man, and as such had access to an unprecedented collection of material concerning his life. I suggest anyone serious about his Churchill studies to read the 8-volume biography (and the additional appendices of correspondence and source material) in its entirety; it will take some time, but you won't regret a minute of it.
For the rest of you, this astounding abridgement will do just fine. How on earth Gilbert distilled his magesterial biography down into one volume while not turning it into Cliff's Notes, I don't know; but this book, while large, is well-written, brisk, and comprehensive in scope. You'll follow Winston's path from neglected child to ambitious young adventurer to gifted orator to brilliant strategist to disgraced politician to indomitable warlord to elder statesman. You will learn things about this man you had never dreamed, and gain new appreciation for the largeness of spirit which characterized him.
Most of all, you'll realize how rare such a man is, and how our contemporary heroes pale in comparison to Mr. Churchill. Man of the Century? How about Man of the Milennium?
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on June 26, 1998
This book gives a detailed account of Churchill's life, from boyhood, through his military career, and above all, his political exploits, culminating with his leadership of Britain during WW II. The narrative is very precise and straightforward, with little or no 'opinion' from the author. The book also, disappointingly, gives little or no detail about Churchill's thought processes in decision making or views on policy, nor does it give much insight into his personal life or habits. (You won't find any mention to speak of about his love of cigars, for example). Overall, though, extremely well written biography of one of the 20th century's giants.
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on July 17, 2002
The 90 year life of Winston Churchill is so eventful and important, it is difficult to chronicle in a single volume. Indeed, Churchill's official biography, of which Martin Gilbert was a major author and collaborator, consists of eight volumes. That said, the average reader, interested in the facts of Churchill's life and times, does not have time to read multiple volumes. Thus, a top quality single volume work becomes imperative.
This is not simply a condensation of the eight volume work but is rather a new work in its own right, which draws on the eight volume work as a major source. Gilbert also relies heavily on Churchill's own archives, the archives of his wife Clementine and the materials of important persons in Churchill's life such as Lady Asquith. As with all of Gilbert's books, this volume is thorough, authoritative, factual and slightly prosaic. One advantage though is that the book is liberally filled with Churchill's actual written and spoken words. Churchill's words are never dull and liven up the text considerably.
The book follows Churchill's life in chronological order from his birth in 1874 through his death in 1965. Although all aspects of his life are touched on, Gilbert's emphasis is on Churchill's public role. The reader unfamiliar with Churchill will be amazed at the number of events of British history in which Churchill played a primary part. In his early twenties, Churchill saw action as an officer and then as a journalist in a number of British colonial wars. Most notably, he was taken prisoner by the Boers during the Boer war, from which he escaped. Originally elected to Parliament as a Conservative during the reign of Victoria, Churchill soon broke with the Tories over the issue of tariffs, which Churchill adamantly opposed. Joining the Liberals, Churchill soon rose to high office. Together with David Lloyd George, Churchill was a major figure in the passage of numerous social and labor reforms. By 1911, Churchill was named First Lord of the Admiralty, where he prepared the British Navy for the conflict with Germany that he sensed was coming. Churchill's career stalled during the First World War when his sound plan to capture Constantinople via Gallipolli, was undermined by the military men charged with carrying it out, Churchill was forced to resign the Admiralty and ultimately saw action as the commander of a Brigade in France. He returned to the cabinet as Minister of Munitions prior to the war's end. After the war, Churchill served as Colonial Secretary where he supported the Zionist movement for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and had much to do with the issuance of the Balfour declaration. He never wavered from his position that a Jewish homeland in Palestine was not only just but that it served British interest. In this, as in so many other areas, Churchill stood largely alone. In his role as Colonial Secretary, Churchill essentially created the modern Arab nation states including Egypt, Jordan and Iraq among others.
Churchill also served as Home Secretary where he worked out the settlement with Michael Collins and Sin Fein that created the Republic of Ireland. Churchill moved away from the Liberals as they began to lose ground to the Labour party who he adamantly opposed. For a number of years Churchill was essentially an independent supported by the Conservatives. He was finally invited back into the Conservative fold, serving in the opposition shadow cabinet of Stanley Baldwin in the late 1920's.
Churchill again broke with the Conservatives over the party's policy favoring centralized Indian home rule. This was an issue over which all parties were largely in agreement yet Churchill was adamant in his opposition. He believed that the end of the British Raj in India would lead to the Hindu persecution of lower castes and slaughter between Hindu and Muslim nationalists. History has, of course, proven him right and gradual independence might have saved millions of lives. At the time, however, he was subjected to the worst ridicule and ostracized.
Churchill's stance seemed to spell the end of his career. All through the thirties, he maintained his seat in Parliament yet was never asked to serve in a government. He was ignored, in succession by Ramsey McDonald (head of a Labour/Conservative coalition), Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. His warnings about Hitler, the threat from Germany and Britain's growing weakness were utterly ignored. Only when the war began in September 1939 was Churchill invited back into the Admiralty and into the War Cabinet by Chamberlain. Finally, in 1940, when Chamberlain was forced to resign, Churchill was asked by the King to take his place. At 65, in the hour of Britain's greatest peril, Churchill was Prime Minister and the head of a national unity government determined to defeat the Nazi menace. Gilbert spends a disproportionate amount of space on these vital five years. At the age when most people are retiring, Churchill with enormous vitality was traveling the globe in support of the British war effort.
Upon Germany's defeat, in July 1945, Churchill was promptly turned out of office and the Socialists took over. He continued to lead the Conservative party in opposition and was returned to power in 1952. At first, an outspoken critic of Stalin's Soviet Union (he coined the phrase "the iron curtain") Churchill came to favor a political resolution of differences between the West and the Soviets. Finally, retiring as Prime Minister and head of the party in 1955 at the age of 81, Churchill's final words of advice to his successors was to "stand with the Americans."
Winston Spencer Churchill is one of the pivotal figures of the twentieth century and one of the greatest men of all time. This book does justice to his greatness. For a much greater insight into Churchill's character and personal life, I recommend the two books in "The Last Lion" series by William Manchester. This book is clearly superior to the recent biography by Roy Jenkins. It is the finest one volume biography available.
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Gilbert's one volume biography 'Churhcill: A Life' is a remarkable study of the man who contributed so much to the cause of liberty and to the world of literature. Churchill's life is traced with all the power, wit, and determination that marked Britain's famed war and peacetime Prime Minister. Gilbert's account succeeds on many levels, but perhaps the most illuminating are the portraits he gives us of Churchill during the First World War and in his second Priemership. Churchill's frustration with the government over their unwillingness to clear his name after the Dardenelles fiasco makes for riviting reading and the old man's stubborn refusal to resign from the Prime Ministership in the early fifies gives a unique glimpse into the heart of this great man. Gilbert also gives us a wonderful look at Chruchill the writer as his process of creating his wonderful histories and biographies is examined. Throughtout this work, Gilbert presents Churchill objectivly, but still with a real, personal warmness. Reading the accounts of Chruchill's death at the end of the book make one feel as though they have lost a friend. Winston Churchill was undoubtedly one of the century's most critical figures- he was the man who beat Hitler- but for a personal, deeply moving account Gilbert's work is one that is not to be missed.
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on June 24, 2001
This is the Churchill biography to read if you either don't have time or aren't looking to read several volumes. The official Churchill biography by Martin Gilbert was condensed by the author into this one volume, 1000+ page, wonderful book (released in 1991). Gilbert is direct, never overdramatic and as objective as possible for an official biographer. Also, this book is very factual and historical. For anyone looking for witty Churchill quips and anecdotes, I recommend James Humes's, "The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill", or Stephen Mansfield's, "Never Give In." This book is a strictly condensed biography that strays very infrequently into humorous side stories and quotes, of which Churchill obviously had many.
It can be very frustrating to waste time reading an unenjoyable, lengthy book, especially for the busy, nighttime only reader (like myself). This book is not one of those. Gilbert does a great job of handling one of the most (I believe "The" most) captivating men of the 20th Century. At the end of the book, whether one loves Churchill or hates him, any reader will, thanks to the masterful writing of Marting Gilbert, be sad at Churchill's passing and the book's ending.
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on April 15, 2000
What would Churchill have made of Martin Gilbert's book on his life? For a start, Gilbert did not have to make too many editorial contributions. Churchill loved writing and speaking and much of his own literature has survived. Gilbert uses it to such an extent, that this book has an autobiographical feel about it. Churchill himself, rather than Gilbert, seems to be the narrator.
Gilbert's real job was to bring balance and perspective to the task. This he does well. The distant father, the loving but equally distant mother, the devoted nanny all get parts in this many-act play. Then there's Brighton, Harrow, patriotic songs and cranky old school masters. The army follows leading to stories that seem to fall straight from a Boys Own album. With Queen Victoria still on the throne, there are brushes with death in India, the cavalry charge in the Sudan, that escape from the Boers in South Africa. Had his life ended at this point there would have been plenty for the biography.
But somehow Churchill found time to go on to numerous British cabinet posts and two stints as prime minister. Gilbert's mighty work has it all with good treatment of Churchill's greatest moment as his country's leader with Hitler's forces a goose-step from the front door. From Churchill's naive early years, readers can closely follow the threads of Winston's life as they weave through triumph and setback, reflection and wisdom, culminating in a tapestry of the grandest proportions. The intimacy of the book is such that readers can share the fears, tears and cheers of Churchill's life.
This all sounds a little pompous. Churchill loved plain words and the good life. What would he have made of Gilbert's work? He might have searched for some ringing phrase: "so much written about some one with so little", "this was his finest hour", "he was a modest man but then again he had much to be modest about", or "he was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". But from Victoria to the Atomic age, Churchill was a man for all seasons. As a lover of life's pleasures, I suspect he would have lit another cigar, reached for a brandy, and considered...a review for Amazon.com
Gilbert has done a marvellous job on a complex and gifted man.
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on August 25, 2000
I could not put this book down. I am not old enough to remember Winstin Churchill in office. I knew little of his life. While it seems that he would have had it all, being born to a title and wealth, he had much to overcome. His parents treated him badly, his teachers thought him less than brillant. Being born to wealth could have turned him to mush, as it does to so many affluent children.
I believe this book should be required reading in prep schools, as well as low income, inner city schools. It would help our children to understand that hardships can be overcome, and that a life of wealth should not mean a life of sloth.
I read this book with ever increasing desire to do better, to work harder, to accomplish more.
I have sent this book through the family circle, and recommend it to any who will listen. It has earned a place on my Favorite Books shelve.
If you have already read this book, try The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt... It is VERY good as well.
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