Love, Loss, and Leadership in a Time of Mass Death— An Interview with Erik Larson
tags: World War II,British history,books,Churchill
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of visual imagery, medicine, law, human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the face of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are understandably worried as they prepare for a new normal. The nation was unprepared for this novel virus despite warnings for years from scientists. The initial approach to the virus was halting and bumbling. And guidance from administration leaders often has been contradictory and ill-informed as the current president appears to prefer fabrications to science, blame to empathy, division to unity. As thousands die.
As we contend with the pandemic and our dysfunctional politics, the story of another fraught moment may offer hope and some solace as well as lessons on leadership and survival. Seventy years ago, with the constant threat of a Nazi invasion and the horror of deadly bombing raids during the Blitz, the citizens of Britain were famously stoic and unified. Clarity from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the government on expected behavior and the national interest contributed to social stability and British resilience. At the same time, Churchill offered reassurance and inspiration even in the darkest moments. He was reliably honest about the price of the war and the necessary sacrifices as he encouraged unity and resistance to the Nazi forces that dominated Europe. His words bolstered the spirit of Britons as they faced the rain of bombs, the fear of invasion, the unknown.
In his compelling new book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, bestselling author and master storyteller Erik Larson explores how Churchill, his family, and his closest advisors survived during his tumultuous first year as Britain’s prime minister, from May 1940 to May 1941.
On Churchill’s first day in office, German forces invaded Holland and the Netherlands, and had already occupied much of western Europe. Two weeks later, the huge British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk. France soon fell. The RAF managed to hold off the Luftwaffe that summer, but then Britain faced months of relentless bombing. As Mr. Larson details, the casualties of the Blitz were staggering. The German aerial bombardment, from September 7, 1940 to May 11, 1941, left 44,652 dead, including 5,626 children. Meanwhile, the war was going badly for British forces in the Mediterranean and North Africa, as supply ships were lost to U-Boats in the Atlantic. And, despite Churchill’s desperate pleas, the isolationist United States was only slowly granting aid.
Through all of the setbacks and terrible losses, Churchill offered his fellow Britons lessons in what Mr. Larson calls “the art of being fearless.” Churchill remained steadfast: committed to bolstering the perseverance and confidence of his citizens while fighting onto victory over the Nazis. The German high command saw his pugnacious spirit as a form of insanity given Britain’s precarious military situation.
While presenting this historical background, Mr. Larson brings this period to life with his focus on the more intimate saga of the Churchill family, capturing the human drama of their situation with his trademark moving and cinematic writing. Every moment he illuminates is based on meticulous historical research of archival materials, diaries, letters, once-secret files that were recently disclosed, and more.
In The Splendid and the Vile, readers are privy to the private lives of Churchill and his beloved wife Clementine, as well as the youthful antics of their 17-year-old daughter Mary; the troubled marriage of their son Randolph and Pamela Churchill; the trials of Churchill’s lovelorn personal secretary John Colville; the mercurial service of air minister Lord Beaverbrook; and others. Further, Mr. Larson’s descriptions of the human carnage, the cratered cities, the terrible loss, are haunting and heartbreaking as the accounts of average Britons who survived the terror and constant fear to carry on shine through.
Mr. Larson is an American journalist and writer who is most well-known as the author of compelling nonfiction booksgrounded in history. Six of his eight books became New York Times bestsellers. The Devil in the White City (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Edgar Award for the Best Fact Crime book. Hulu plans to adapt that book for a TV series. His 2011 book, In the Garden of Beasts, about how America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter experienced the rising terror of Hitler’s rule, has been optioned by Tom Hanks for development as a feature film. He also wrote the bestselling Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania; Thunderstruck; and Isaac’s Storm about the giant hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900, which won the American Meteorology Society’s prestigious Louis J. Battan Author’s Award.
Mr. Larson was a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, and later a contributing writer for Time Magazine. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and other publications. He also has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, the University of Oregon, and the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, Washington. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, a neonatologist and the author of the nonfiction memoir Almost Home. They have three grown daughters.
Mr. Larson generously responded by email to a series of questions on his work and his new book, The Splendid and the Vile.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Mr. Larson on your compelling and moving new book The Splendid and the Vile. You recount a fraught year in Britain when the nation faced a relentless German bombing campaign and the fear of invasion as you detail the lives of the Churchill family and others during Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister, from May 1940 to May 1941.
As we’re now hunkering down in the face of a mysterious and deadly pandemic, your book is bringing hope to readers as they learn of how exalted and average citizens coped with the anxiety and fear in wartime. What have you learned about reactions to your book during this current period of uncertainty?
Erik Larson: It’s really very gratifying. Readers tell me they find solace in the book. I think it’s partly because the story helps put things in perspective. At least we don’t have to worry about bombs falling through our roofs. But I think it’s also partly because it’s a classic story of good and evil, and they know it has a happy ending. Plus, it takes them out of today’s political dysfunction, to a time when a true leader was at the helm, something we dearly lack today.
Robin Lindley: What inspired your new book?
Erik Larson: About five years ago my wife and I moved to Manhattan from Seattle. Almost immediately upon arrival I had a kind of epiphany as to how incredibly more wrenching New York’s experience of 9/11 was, as compared to mine, even though I like millions around the world watched the disaster unfold in real time on television. Not only did New Yorkers see the towers on fire and hear the sirens and smell the smoke; they were further traumatized by the fact that this was their home city under attack.
I started thinking about London in World War II, and how ordinary Londoners managed to endure the nightly attacks of the Luftwaffe—during the phase we know as the “Blitz,” the city underwent 57 consecutive nights of bombing. My first idea was to try to find a typical London family, and describe its experience. But then I thought, wait, why not write about the quintessential London family—the Churchills, and Churchill’s close advisors.
Robin Lindley: In the acknowledgements section, you wrote of your own anxiety for your children. What do you hope they take from your book on this perilous year in Britain?
Erik Larson: Well, so far only one of my daughters has read it, and she tells me she actually really enjoyed it. But I don’t think she sees it as providing some instructive takeaway. I do hope, however, that readers at large will perhaps come away with a reminder as to what real leadership looks like.
Robin Lindley: What was your research process? You’re known for finding often obscure details and overlooked records.
Erik Larson: One thing I realized early on is that there was no way I’d be able to read everything that had ever been written about Churchill. I don’t think I appreciated the volume until I actually got started on the research. You know the old saying, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
I made a strategic decision: I would read as much as was necessary to get a good grasp of the Churchillian landscape, but then immediately dive into the archives, which is where I feel most comfortable. I knew I would find new things, because I was asking a new question. Oddly enough, no one previously had done a book aimed at revealing how Churchill et al. actually went about enduring the Blitz and subsequent raids during that first year of his premiership. So, there’s actually a lot of new material in the book. As to obscure details: I live for them!
Robin Lindley: I imagine you spent years on your new book. How did the book evolve from your initial conception?
Erik Larson: I realized that the narrative was much more complicated than I had envisioned. Suddenly I was juggling subplots involving love affairs, secret weapons, conniving advisors, even the bizarre arrival of Hitler’s number two man on British soil. I’d say this was my toughest narrative thus far. The big challenge was to wrestle it all into a book of readable size. It became an incredible journey. For my wife—not so much! She couldn’t wait ‘til I finished it.
Robin Lindley: You wrote that “history is a lively abode, full of surprises.” What are some surprises that stand out for you from the creation of The Splendid and the Vile?
Erik Larson: Oh, well, what didn’t surprise me! But I guess the most surprising thing, and the most delightful, was that Churchill was a lot of fun. He had a great sense of humor and absolutely no sense of personal vanity. He could be a total jerk, yes, and his closest associates knew well that he could be rude, inconsiderate, overbearing, and capricious. But, he was funny, charming, affectionate, and his staff adored him.
Robin Lindley: You present a warm and moving portrait of Churchill and his family. Churchill demonstrates firm leadership, an indomitable spirit, an encouraging and determined attitude in the face of devastating bombing and military defeats. Did you worry about romanticizing Churchill?
Erik Larson: No. There’s nothing to romanticize. In writing history, you have to go with what the record provides. No one’s a total hero, no one’s a total villain—with the exception, that is, of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels!
Robin Lindley: Churchill had periods of severe depression throughout his life that he called his “black dog,” but it seems he had no serious symptoms in the period you cover despite the brutal aerial bombardment of England and the omnipresent threat of invasion. Was that your sense?
Erik Larson: He had his down moments, of course, and I mention those. For example, his mood just before he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But I did not come across any reference during his first year as prime minister to any significant period of deep or profound depression. He had a knack for being able to shake himself out of his periodic black moods. Alcohol helped. I describe one lunch where he was in a terrible mood, until the booze began to flow. Though I hasten to add that Churchill, while he liked to drink, was anything but an alcoholic.
Robin Lindley: Through the darkest days you cover, Churchill was adept at bolstering the spirit of most Britons. Why was he so effective as a leader at this perilous time? What could our current president learn from Churchill’s example as we face a mysterious and deadly pandemic?
Erik Larson: What Churchill understood was that he had to be frank with his audience. The British public were in the thick of it. They knew a certain ground truth. If Churchill were to try to snow them with happy talk about miracle weapons or promises that the Luftwaffe would eventually just go away, he would have risked raising distrust and degrading morale, at a time when both were crucial to Britain’s survival. His approach was to give the country a sober appraisal of what was happening, followed by reasons for optimism—real reasons, not some fantasy. For example, an assessment of how rapidly the country was building planes, and how brilliant the RAF was at repelling attack.
Of course, to do any of this, he first had to have the words to express himself, and boy did he have the words. He dictated his speeches to his personal secretary, and that’s a talent that requires not only a deft grasp of the English language, but a mind that can manipulate phrases and syntax on the fly. He also had an ability to express empathy, which was an important element in a time of war. It was not unusual to see him openly weeping at the scene of a bombing, something I can’t imagine our current president doing on any occasion, ever.
Robin Lindley: It’s obvious that Churchill had a deep understanding and love for history. And he had also written books of history. How did this respect for and knowledge of the past affect his leadership?
Erik Larson: This was a very important element. He understood the grand sweep of British history, and was able in his speeches to place his listeners in that story, so that they too felt a part of it and understood that only with their help would that grand story continue. He made his listeners feel bolder and stronger, and cast them as champions and guardians of that history.
Robin Lindley: You describe vividly the 57 consecutive days of bombing and other massive raids that Britons experienced. How was it that the spirit of resistance to the Nazis hardened rather than flagged during the days of these murderous attacks? Was this part of the stiff-upper lip, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” British spirit?
Erik Larson: Churchill seemed to understand that courage and confidence were infectious—that by expressing his own courage and confidence at all times, he could help the public find their own.
It was also the case, I think, that under certain circumstances—good leadership being one of them—people adapt to prolonged crisis remarkably well. Case in point was Olivia Cockett, a young woman who, like most Londoners, was terrified after the first night’s bombings and remained so, until one night an incendiary bomb landed outside her home and she snuffed it out, as civilians were asked to do. It changed her outlook completely. She went from victim, to warrior, and lost her fear. One later night she’s out strolling with her boyfriend when they hear the telltale scream of two descending bombs. He shouts for her to “Get down!” But she thinks, “Not in my new coat, I’m not.”
Robin Lindley: You mention the British Mass Observation Program that involved thousands of civilian volunteers. What was that project? Didn’t you find records of the MOP that were previously unavailable?
Erik Larson: These records were always available, and they are an incredible resource for anyone interested in the Blitz. Mass Observation was a social sciences organization founded before the war to try to get a better sense of what ordinary British life was like. It recruited hundreds of people to keep daily diaries and to submit them for analysis. Then came the war, and many members continued to keep their diaries. A number of these have been published as free-standing books, and are an invaluable reference. I use these accounts a bit differently than other scholars-- as elements of narrative rather than as static sources of quotations.
Robin Lindley: There were some notable Nazi sympathizers in Britain and then Oswald Mosley’s fascist party before the war. Were there British efforts to make peace with the Nazis as Churchill counseled resistance?
Erik Larson: Hitler did send out repeated peace feelers, because he wanted to remove Britain from the war so that he could focus on the Soviet Union, but Churchill rightly understood that these would ultimately prove worthless once Hitler achieved his goals elsewhere. Whether the debate over peace reached the intensity depicted in the film “Darkest Hour” is open to question. Suffice it to say, Churchill chose a path of unstinting defiance.
Robin Lindley: The air Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 is celebrated and, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, that boosted the spirits of many Britons, including Churchill. I think some people believe that this RAF victory of sorts ended the threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain. As you detail, however, the following months until May 1941 were horrendous for the British militarily. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about the British military situation?
Erik Larson: The invasion threat persisted. Popular myth tends to compartmentalize elements of the German air campaign into neat boxes, namely the so-called “Battle of Britain” and the “Blitz.” In reality, the campaign consisted of a seamless escalation that did not end until May 10, 1941.
What we think of as the Battle of Britain resolved nothing, though it did lodge the RAF and its fighter pilots forever in the pantheon of British heroes. The Blitz followed soon afterward, with the first deliberate German raid on London, on Sept. 7, 1940, which was followed by another 56 consecutive nights of raids against the city. The British endured this phase, but even then the raids did not end. Winter weather forced interruptions, but the raids that did occur were even more severe, with possibly the worst of the war taking place on May 10, 1941. Over the winter the risk of invasion waned, because of weather, but with the advent of spring, the threat once again seemed grave—though intelligence began detecting a shift in Hitler’s attention toward the East. It was that shift, and Churchill’s staunch defiance, that ultimately ended the invasion threat, and caused the Luftwaffe to suspend its raids against London.
That year of endurance constituted Britain’s first major victory. Of course, what followed was four more years of war, and many very dark days. What ultimately shifted the balance irrevocably in the allies favor was America’s entrance into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Robin Lindley: You are acclaimed for your vivid descriptions of every detail in your books, and each detail comes from your rigorous research of actual witness accounts and other resources. In your new book, you bring to life the post-bombing world: the dust clouds, the glittering broken glass, the cratered dwellings, the smell of cordite. I was struck by the shortage of wood to make coffins, and that evokes the recent problems in New York with treatment of the remains of COVID 19 patients. How did the British handle the remains of the massive number of dead from air raids?
Erik Larson: They dealt with it all in a very systematic matter, with ad-hoc morgues set up in the city’s neighborhoods—for example, in a public bath—and with systematic record-keeping.
One story that did not make it into the book, alas, was about a three-month investigation by Scotland Yard into the disappearance of an employee of an architectural firm, after a bombing. It was important to determine that the man had indeed died and the precise cause of death, because without such a determination his grieving wife could not have claimed her death benefits or insurance. The Yard also had to eliminate the possibility that the man had faked his own death. Ultimately the formal conclusion was that he had been “blown to bits.”
Robin Lindley: You intersperse the stories of the Churchills and others in Britain with responses of Nazi leaders to the pugnacious Churchill and their plans for air raids and invasion. It seems that invasion of Britain was a possibility until May 1941 when Hitler turned his focus to Russia. How did the Nazis see Churchill and the resilience of the citizenry in the face of murderous aerial bombing? Did you have particular sources you relied on for the views of the German leaders?
Erik Larson: Mainly I relied on intelligence reports and diaries, in particular the diary of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of propaganda. Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels simply could not understand why Churchill didn’t give up and seek some sort of peace. To them, he seemed like some kind of crazy person. Goebbels in his diary expresses surprise time and again at his unwillingness to seek a negotiated end to the war.
Robin Lindley: Churchill was desperate for US aid and he frequently communicated with FDR and pleaded for help. As I recall, the two leaders had never met personally before Churchill became prime minister, but they admired each other. What would you like readers to understand about the Churchill-FDR relationship?
Erik Larson: The most interesting element is simply the fact that Churchill knew from the very beginning of his premiership that Britain would not be able to prevail without the full participation of America as a belligerent. He himself later wrote that he pursued Roosevelt the way a besotted lover would pursue the object of his affection. In the end of course it was
Pearl Harbor that brought America into the war, but even before that Churchill’s efforts undoubtedly helped increase the amount of aid that the U.S. was willing to contribute.
Robin Lindley: In addition to Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, several other characters vividly emerge in your book. Their daughter Mary was in her late teens and you recount her adventures during the perilous year you describe. What drew you to Mary’s story?
Erik Larson: Early on I was lucky enough to receive permission to read and use her diary. At the time, apparently, I was one of two scholars to have been given that honor. (I don’t know who the other is.)
Mary was 17 in May 1940. She kept a detailed daily diary, full of observations about the war, her father, and her own life. She wrote with great charm, and provided a very clear sense that despite the woes of the world, life went on. She went dancing at RAF parties; attended the annual debutante ball in London during an air raid; and in her diary makes periodic reference to episodes of “snogging in the hayloft.” What’s not to love!
Robin Lindley: John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, also seems one of your favorite characters. Who was he and why was he so significant at this time?
Erik Larson: Colville was one of Churchill’s cadre of private secretaries, a group of very hard-working young men who served almost as apprentice prime ministers. He kept an incredibly rich diary of life at No. 10 Downing Street—a diary, by the way, that he himself acknowledged he should not have been keeping, because of the security risk it posed. Every Churchill scholar consults this diary—but I decided Colville wanted to step forward and become an actual character. I discovered that his published diary leaves out some key elements of his life that were very important to him at the time, namely, that he was in love, and the object of his desire did not love him back. Tragic, in a universal way!
Robin Lindley: And then an American envoy, the reliably disheveled Harry Hopkins, entered the story in 1941. What was Hopkins’ role and why was he important to Churchill?
Erik Larson: Hopkins was Roosevelt’s close friend and advisor. He actually lived in the White House. Roosevelt sent him to England so that he could provide an accurate sense of who Churchill really was and how Britain was faring. Churchill, recognizing this, took Hopkins with him everywhere, and wined and dined and charmed him, with an eye always to winning Roosevelt’s favor. It worked, too.
Robin Lindley: Your book is based on your meticulous research. You have said you don’t consider yourself a historian, however. I think you’re too humble. How do you see your role as a writer who explores events from the past?
Erik Larson: As I’ve said before, my goal, strange as it sounds, is not to inform, though anyone who wishes can quote my books in their PhD theses. Rather, I’m drawn by story. My goal is to create as rich a historical experience as I possibly can—all true of course—in the hope that readers will be able to descend into the past and linger there a while as if they were part of whatever saga is unfolding. One lovely aspect of the reading imagination is that, if you tell a story right, readers will forget that they know the ending, and feel the same tensions and suspense as experienced by citizens of London. Or so I hope.
Robin Lindley: Who are some historians or other writers that you see as inspirations or influences?
Erik Larson: David McCullough. Barbara Tuchman. Dava Sobel—her “Longitude” was one of the books that made me start thinking about writing narrative history. More recently I’ve become a huge fan of Andrew Roberts, a foremost Churchill scholar. He’s a sharp writer, and funny, and he’s got an eye for the kinds of detail that I love.
Robin Lindley: Have you decided on your next project?
Erik Larson: Ha! No. I wish. I’m back in the “dark country of no ideas.” I’ve got a couple of contenders, however. And neither one has anything to do with World War II or Churchill!
Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or thoughts on how the lessons of this history of Britain during the darkest days of the Second World War may help us as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic?
Erik Larson: I think the main parallel is that these times require us all to pull together, just as Londoners had to do. For us, the noblest thing is to stay home, and if we do go out, wear a mask. My home city of New York has millions of heroes, now, staying home, losing jobs, going nuts—figuratively and literally—all to help prevent the deaths of countless other souls whom they do not know and will never meet. It’s really quite dashingly heroic, even if it does require staying home. Churchill would have had much to say about it, with compassion and, without doubt, a tear or two at the pathos of it all.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments Mr. Larson. It’s an honor to share your words with readers on your work and moving new book, The Splendid and the Vile. Congratulations.
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