Churchill got many things wrong, but throughout the Thirties and Forties he had a better grasp of the big picture than any of his contemporaries. “Germany is re-arming,” he fretted in 1933, adding that the whole continent would descend once more into “a general European war” unless Hitler could be stopped. His repeated warnings about Germany over the next five years were treated with derision by his fellow politicians, but Churchill stuck to his convictions even when it looked as though they might end his career.
This stubbornness, eventually, was the making of him. When the policy of appeasement collapsed in 1939, just as Churchill had said it would, there was only one serious contender to lead Britain through the war. When many around the world were writing off Britain’s resistance to Hitler as a lost cause, he understood that victory was possible if Britain could hold out just long enough to draw America into the war.
Churchill saw from the beginning what was at stake. “This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland,” he told the House of Commons on the opening day of the war. “We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man.”
His thoughts were echoed a few years later by George Orwell, Ricks’s second subject. “If this war is about anything at all,” wrote Orwell, “it is a war in favour of freedom of thought.” Just as Churchill spoke out against appeasers and fascist sympathisers among his fellow Conservatives, so Orwell spoke out against apologists for Stalin on the Left. His eyes were first opened to Communist excesses in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. He had gone to Spain to fight Franco’s fascists, but had ended up being hunted down by those on his own side who wanted their particular strain of Communism to stamp out all alternatives. “I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors,” he wrote, “and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories.” The Left, he discovered, was just as capable of lies and repression as the Right.