Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him

Image of Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“In his new book Mirrors of Greatness, Reynolds reflects on how Churchill’s contemporaries helped ‘shape’ his greatness.”

It is a challenge to write another book about Winston Churchill that enlightens and informs about the great man. Historian David Reynolds has done it—again. In 2007, Reynolds wrote In Command of History, which told the story of Churchill’s research and writing team that helped him produce his Nobel Prize-winning six-volume history The Second World War. In his new book Mirrors of Greatness, Reynolds reflects on how Churchill’s contemporaries helped “shape” his greatness.

Reynolds uses Shakespeare’s quote in his play Twelfth Night to frame the book’s theme: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Reynolds writes that “all three apply to Churchill at various stages of his life.”

And what a life it was: born in 1874 into the British aristocracy at Blenheim Palace; the son of a rising star of the Tory Party (Randolph Churchill) and a wealthy and beautiful American woman (Jennie Jerome); the young journalist who traveled to the empire’s hot spots (India’s Northwest Frontier, the Sudan, South Africa) where he displayed valor and earned national fame; Conservative M.P. turned Liberal who served in the Cabinet before and during World War I; Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-1920s; stuck in the political wilderness in the 1930s from whence he waged a lonely struggle to warn his country and the world about the rising Nazi menace; wartime Prime Minister during England’s greatest time of peril; and the author of great works of history.

Reynolds divides the book into what he calls “looking-glass chapters” and a “hall of mirrors” featuring Winston’s father Randolph; his Liberal Party mentor David Lloyd George; his conservative Party rival Neville Chamberlain; his and Britain’s existential opponent Adolf Hitler; Italy’s wartime leader Benito Mussolini; his wartime allies Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin; Free French leader and French President Charles de Gaulle; India’s Mohandas Gandhi; Labor leader and Churchill’s wartime deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee; and Churchill’s wife Clementine.

The book’s chapters are crisply written and concise, demonstrating Reynolds’ mastery of his subject. At the end of the book, you realize that Reynolds has skillfully and cleverly constructed a biography of Churchill reflected in the lives of his contemporaries. We see Churchill through their eyes and through his interaction with them. It is a revealing and complicated portrait.

Reynolds’ book is a mirror that reveals the best and worst about Churchill. It shows us Churchill the devoted yet neglected son of Randolph and Jennie; the loving but demanding husband of his wife Clementine and their devotion to each other and Churchill’s career sometimes at the expense of their children; the politically ambitious colleague of Lloyd George; the imperial champion of the British Raj and critic of Gandhi; the onetime admirer of Mussolini ; the fierce, unbending rival of Hitler; the would-be political seducer of FDR; the Francophone who tolerated de Gaulle’s obstinacy; the anti-communist who imagined he could trust Stalin; and the political rival yet wartime colleague of Chamberlain and Attlee.

At a young age, Churchill believed he was destined for greatness. He looked in the mirror and saw himself saving England during an existential crisis. Churchill was right. He not only saved England, but Western civilization in its hour of greatest peril. Reynolds shows that Churchill’s destiny was shaped by birth, upbringing, education (in Churchill’s case, mostly self-taught), associations, fortitude, courage, persistence, external events, luck, and his contemporaries. And it should remind us how fortunate we are, in British General Alan Brooke’s words, “that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.”