Book Review: The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

I finished Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile” last night while I was battling a migraine. I read his past two books, “In the Garden of Beasts” about the US Ambassador to Germany and his family during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis as a political party and “Dead Wake” covering the sinking of Lusitania, a large passenger ship similar to the Titanic, that was sunk by German U-boats. He mixes journals and historical research into telling a good story.

I loved reading his latest. It struck me that while all these people were living through historical events, they also had regular human problems. Larson discusses the financial difficulty of Winston Churchill and his unusual habits. He also follows Churchill’s children and grandchildren and all of the romantic difficulties young people experience.

It is unbelievable and such a tragedy what the German air force did to London and other cities in England. For nine months, the Nazis firebombed indiscriminately England periodically from September 7, 1940 to May 11, 1941. The English called it the “Blitz” and nearly 29,000 Londoners died, over 28,000 were seriously injured. In the entire country, over 44,000 people died, including sadly, 5,626 children. The scale of these war crimes is incredible to believe looking back. I hope America would not let something like this happen again. What a madman Hitler was and I am shocked that German pilots would listen to him and bomb civilians.

It is well known that Hitler made errors a couple of times with not finishing off England before marching on Russia. He should have kept the troops advancing on Dunkirk (an excellent movie!), but delayed to rest his troops while they escaped. He thought that the German army would quickly dispose of the Russian army, but the size of Russia and winter, aided the Russians in bogging down the Germans. Hitler was content in aerial bombing England for almost a year, trying to get Churchill either out of office or surrendering. It would have been difficult to launch an amphibious assault, but after easily going through Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, France, etc. it seemed to me that England would have been a bit more challenging being an island, but certainly easier than Russia.

I was also surprised on how much Churchill wanted the Americans to join the war effort. He knew England couldn’t defeat Germany on its own.

I took several leadership lessons from this book. Churchill was quite the character and was right in standing up to Germany. There was a lot of opposition, but when faced with a bully like Hitler, it was better than the alternative of surrender and let the Germans run England. Stick to your convictions! He was an inspirational leader for all the English and helped them find courage within themselves. He also heavily relied on advisors and people around him. Finally, he was a symbolic, theatrical leader at a time of crisis. The next time I am in Washington, I would like to visit the Churchill library at George Washington University. Below is some new vocabulary and a great quote.

  • astrakhan collar – wool from a Central Asian sheep; it is black or grey and curly
  • scurrilous speech – using or given to coarse language
  • cloisters in St. Stephen’s Chapel – covered walkway, usually with arches, connected usually with convents or church
  • sangfroid – self-possession or imperturbability especially under strain (Churchill had a lot of it)
  • After his wife once criticized his drinking, Churchill told her, “Always remember, Clemmie, that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

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