Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

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56 thoughts on “Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

  1. This sounds absolutely bloody brilliant. Both incredibly interesting and important men, although probably elevated to heights that they maybe didn’t quite deserve. History tends to do that. I am literally going to order this online RIGHT NOW.

    • Hurrah! I love Herman – he explains things in ways that I understand, always helpful! And my previous knowledge of India wasn’t even good enough to be called patchy. What I like is that he doesn’t really take sides – he obviously admires both men for some of the things they did, but is willing to criticise them too. I do hope you enjoy it! 😀

      • I like writers who make things understandable! I have ordered it and I also threw a copy of Finnegan’s Wake in there too – if I can finish it I might have a crack at reviewing it but don’t hold your breath 😉

            • Hmm! I have been keeping notes as it’s the only way I can keep track of it all. Here is an example ‘Seems like some kind of court case going on. No idea. Two of the jury might have died.’ So don’t expect anything too illuminating in the review! 😉

            • Hahaha! I’ve often considered just typing up my notes as a review – usually things like “Whatshername (check name) has just got drunk again and now has to go into a meeting with whatsisname (check name)…” So your notes sound pretty good to me…! 😉

            • I am actually really enjoying the experience but I couldn’t really tell you what is happening. Or who anyone is. But there seems to be a giant pub crawl happening which is probably the only way the characters can cope with being in the story!

            • Well, generally speaking, on a pub crawl I rarely know who anyone is or what’s happening after about the third pub, so that sounds quite realistic! Haha – glad you’re enjoying it – can’t wait for the review!

  2. As though I hadn’t already been interested in this one, FictionFan, your review has moved it up all the higher on my list. I’ve always found both men fascinating, anyway. And just as fascinating is the way both came of political age, as it were, in the same era. It is good to hear, too, that Herman doesn’t glorify either man. To me, it’s perhaps even more remarkable when a human being, with human flaws and weaknesses, achieves what a lot of people think is greatness. Those stories are much richer than the ones in which the subject is turned into some kind of impossible superhero.

    • I knew far more about Churchill than Gandhi going into this, but it was fascinating to see the parallels between them. And to realise just how long ago their opinions were formed, which it’s easy to forget. Herman mentioned that Gandhi’s first trip to London coincided with the period of Jack the Ripper! (Haha! Not that he was casting any aspersions, you understand… 😉 ) I love the way Herman manages to criticise and praise equally – he obviously admires both men, but not blindly. A great book!

  3. Wow, you almost make me want to read this beast of a book! In fact, I just might! Even though I won’t be graded on it. 😉 Joking aside, it does sound fascinating and it’s high time you read something that thrilled you.

    • Haha! But I might hold a test on it later… 😉 I must say that I was surprised at how much light the book cast on many of the things that are still happening around the world today – all these places like Kashmir and Burma that pop up on the news and I never know what they’re fighting about. I love Herman’s books – he really is great at making complicated things clear. 😀

  4. Quite the stellar review! So many interesting details I never knew. But now, I’m wondering something else that could be really quite unimportant. When I Google this author’s work, I find this book was originally published in 2008, so is this just a new printing or does it have new material that’s different from the 2008 edition?

    • Thank you! No, this is the original 2008 one – after having been blown away by Herman’s last couple of books on philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment, I’m working my way backwards through his stuff. But this one may be the best of all – my knowledge of the whole India thing was so patchy, and as you know I’m intrigued by the whole Empire thing. But his writing is so good I’d read anything he produces – his next one is about Douglas MacArthur and I’ve already acquired a copy… safe to say I know zilch about that subject!

  5. I have been promising myself that I would stop ordering books from the library and actually read the books I own – but wow, you’re review makes this book tempting! Maybe just one more book from the library…:)

    • Oh, one more won’t hurt! 😉 Seriously, though, this really is a great one – huge but very readable and so interesting. If you do go for it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  6. Gee, why can’t history books in school be this interesting and readable?!? I’m not totally sure this is something I’d want to spend a lot of time with (preferring fiction, you know!), but I so admire this author for tackling such a weighty task…and doing it so well!

    • I know! If they’d been half as well written as so many of the history books are now, I wouldn’t have stopped reading history for so long. It really is a golden age for history and biography at the moment, and Herman’s at the front of the field. Great stuff!

  7. Oh marvellous review. This sounds brilliant, and wasn’t Santa a clever red cheeked gentleman to know it would please you so much. Big Sister’s comment rather leads me to suspect either that Santa strangely brought her the same present, or that her fingers are twitching to borrow what Santa left.

    Pauses for a long thought (I’m not the brightest of bunnies, clearly) Big Sister says Santa is glad you enjoyed it’ That implies. Takes a deep breath – Big Sister knows Santa. Or. Takes another deep breath as an even more startling thought suggests itself. BIG SISTER IS SANTA

    Takes an even deeper breath……..so, surely that means…..Santa is no gentleman, irrespective of the redness or otherwise of his cheeks…………..FAINTS…………(revives, slowly and very weakly………bleats……..send chocolate,,,,,,,,,,,,suffered a shock……..

    • Thank you! Haha! The truth is out! Yes, BigSister does indeed have a huge white beard – but it looks quite attractive on her! But fear not! She’s only a woman 364 days of the year – she turns into a man on Christmas Eve. Always been a stickler for tradition! Plus getting down those chimneys in skirts is so awkward… Now you know who to address your notes to in future years…

  8. Sounds like a winner for reader. I tutored a youngster for two years and we read World History. It was both deep enough and yet not too much for the student, but I was the one who got the most out of it I might have to buy those books for myself. I’ve always history. Now I have a doctor who is Indian and I am still learning from her. It is always interesting to see how others see us.

  9. You’ve actually made me want to read this book – one that I wouldn’t usually give a second look (I’m not big on political books). But, this sounds like it has so many other interesting things in it, too. Or, maybe he’s just so good he can make politics fascinating? What else have you read by him?

    • I do think he can make almost anything fascinating, and there’s probably more history and biography in this than actual politics, though of course with two such political figures everything comes back to politics in the end. I first read The Cave and the Light – a kind of history of philosophy – a massive book on a subject I knew nothing about, and by the end of it felt as if I’d done an undergraduate course in philosophy and actually enjoyed it! So I went on to read The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots Invention of the Modern World which as you can imagine from the title really appealed to me… 😉 Another brilliant book! I like him so much I’ve snapped up his new one on Douglas MacArthur, someone I know nothing about and wouldn’t normally be the slightest bit interested in, but I bet Herman will make me love it! He’s such a great writer, and really makes complicated things clear…

      • Wow. 880 pages about Douglas MacArthur. I kind of hope you do read it, so I can see if Herman manages to pull it off!
        I think my mom has The Scottish Enlightenment on her shelf – that one sounds good to me!

        • Haha! It will be a challenge… but I think he’s up to it! 😉

          It is – and it’s as much about the spread of Enlightenment ideas throughout the old Dominions as it is about Scotland, so probably quite a lot that will feel relevant to you too.

  10. Neatio! Great review. I never thought of these two as living at the same time. Strange, I know, but what can I say?

    Well, one thing is deadly clear. Gandhi must start working out. Goodness! Look how skinny his arms are.

    • Thank you! Actually I know what you mean – I often get surprised on finding that two people lived at the same time or two historical events happened at the same time…

      *laughs lots* Yes, I don’t think he’d be too successful in WWE!! That’s what happens when you don’t eat enough cake…

  11. I have so many biographies and books if theory by African American look leaders in my TBR shelf. Your reviews remind me of that. I have only 8-9 books sent by authors or publishers that I need to get through before it’s all my books all the time. Of course, in going to a reading by Elizabeth Crane tonight and will probably buy another book, but I have to be careful before I end up like Cathy and her 746 books! 😀

    • Gosh, you’ve got better self-control than me – I think I’ve got about 34 review copies at the moment, maybe even slightly more. But I’m trying to cut back on them – it does make it difficult to fit in my own books, which truthfully I usually enjoy more. Haha! Cathy does a public service by being a warning to us all… 😉

      • I was really, really diligent about not taking reviewer copies. But then I went through my archive of Meet the Writer pieces and saw that a number of people who were shopping books around now have those books published, and I wanted to read them! So, I requested a few. Then I’ll be done. DONE, I tell you! And I’ll get to my own pile!!

        • I don’t take directly from authors and not very often from publishers, but NetGalley is a killer! I really try to restrict it to books I would buy anyway, but I never seem to clear my backlog. So the hundred or so books on my Kindle just sit there, getting older…

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