Erik Larson’s new book intimately explores Churchill and Britain during the Blitz
By Eric Uhlfelder
BOOK REVIEW: THE SPLENDID & THE VILE
Eric Larson’s remarkable account of Winston Churchill’s first year as Britain’s Prime Minister when Germany unleashed the Luftwaffe against England in 1940 is a read to be savored.
The Splendid and Vile, Larson’s 8th historical book, proceeds like a thriller. He accomplishes this by shifting narratives told by a host of compelling characters, intertwining individual lives with the war, breathing life into every day events.
We hear directly from the most essential Minister of Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s daughters Pamela and Mary, his wife Clementine, one of the Prime Minister’s personal secretaries, John Colville, German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, German fighter pilot Adolf Galland, English diarists who brought us contemporaneous accounts of daily life during the Blitz, and of course Winston Churchill himself.
This construct works because Larson so well understands what makes history engaging. Larson constantly changes pace and focus, at one moment inviting us into 10 Downing Street where top officials are making critical decisions about the war, to an intimate gathering in a peaceful country estate, then to the rush of citizens into the tubes upon the sound of air raid sirens, a dinner party at Churchill’s weekend home, to dancing and carousing in a popular nightclub that suddenly takes a direct hit, to the obliteration of the town of Coventry.
Larson strikes extraordinary balance shifting back and forth from the obscure to the grand, propelling the story across all phases of Churchill’s first year in office.
In a recent interview I had with Erik, he described the years spent researching the project, the depth of which would leave most PhD candidates feeling horribly inadequate.
Chronology is the key to sequencing the story as he photographed and scanned reams of original source material, scribbling thoughts on each page to organize his cache.
He doesn’t really take notes, as if relying on osmosis to absorb and integrate raw material into story telling that reads as if he had conjured up the tale himself.
When asked to recall a “Wow” moment during his research, it was when he first discovered the British had sunk a French battleship, killing nearly 1,200 sailors after their French commanders refused the British request to sail to neutral ports, away from the advancing German army.
France and Britain had gone at each other for centuries. Larson discovered certain British strategic military planners in the 1930s feared, as war was approaching, France could turn against England.
Such thinking is hard to reckon when just a score earlier, the two countries allied in beating Germany in the First World War. And as a navy man, well aware of the kinship between sailors of all navies, friend and foe, Churchill agonized over giving the order to attack the French fleet. “But it was a critical decision,” explains Larson, “in making the point to US President Roosevelt and to Hitler that Britain was never going to cave in.”
The result: Britain removed the French navy from the picture, and may have saved his country from invasion. Larson explains while Germany had built a formidable fleet of submarines, its overall naval capacity was constrained, which prevented a ground invasion of England.
For Larson, the most exciting moments of his research were in certain resources to which he had gained access. While in the UK National Archives in London, he came across remarkably detailed interrogation reports of downed German fliers.
He discovered “Mass Observation,” a private initiative set up well before the war to encourage citizens to record ordinary day-to-day existence. “The effort had recruited 100s of diarists to write about the most quotidian aspects of British life,” Larson explains, “and then comes the war and these to me were just incredible.”
His single biggest coup was when he got permission to use Mary Churchill’s diary. (She was Churchill’s youngest daughter, 17 when the war started.) “I secured access from her daughter,” Larson recalls. “It was unpublished, and I was one of only two people to have seen it. That was just extraordinary because it gave me insights into Churchill and the war and the family that I never ever would have had otherwise.”
EU: What inspired the title of your book?
EL: An entry from John Colville’s diary when he described watching a very intense raid through his bedroom window. He was struck by the beauty of the night, the clear black sky, the searchlights, the whole cataclysmic thing–the juxtaposition of natural splendor and human vileness. As soon as I read that passage, I knew what my title was going to be.
EU: What has been the response to the book?
EL: Its focus on Good and Evil has really resonated in the US, especially at this moment.
EU: What inspired you to write the book?
EL: I moved from Seattle to New York and began to better imagine what September 11th meant to New Yorkers. Then I thought what Britain endured during the war, at its peak, suffering 57 straight nights of bombing.
EU: What was your initial thought when you heard the US presidential press secretary invoking the spirit of Churchill in describing Trump’s misadventure to the St. John’s Church after protestors had been gassed out of the way?
EL: Nothing could be possibly more ludicrous.
The Splendid contains remarkable pieces of history.
The first time central London was bombed in August 25, 1940, it was by accident, against Hitler’s explicit orders. The likely cause: Britain had discovered the Luftwaffe was relying on electromagnetic beams to direct bombers to their targets. Britain learned how to mess with these beams, disorienting Luftwaffe pilots.
Had this event not occurred, Churchill may not have responded by bombing central Berlin. Aerial attacks on cities may not have escalated, which devastated many British towns like Coventry and obliterated German cities like Dresden.
Then in revealing the absurdity of Hitler’s war, Larson discovered a diary entry from early 1941: “What a glorious spring day outside. How beautiful the world can be! And we have no chance to enjoy it. Human beings are so stupid. Life is so short, and they then go and make it so hard for themselves.” Its author: Joseph Goebbels.
Erik Larson, “The Splendid and The Vile,” Crown, 2020.