Oct. 22, 2020
Erik Larson is a New York Times bestselling author known for his splendid narrative non-fiction books. He writes about historical events from a human point of view, often referencing “mass population diaries” to get a sense of what the common person was feeling and thinking at the time.
It’s not surprising that vox populi often supply the most accurate and colourful telling of history.
One of Larson’s better-known books, In the Garden of Beasts, is a bone-chilling account of the United States’ first ambassador to Nazi Germany and how he and his family endured the brutal rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
Of particular interest now is Larson’s latest epic, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. It vividly describes, through the diaries regular Britons were urged to keep, combined with the papers of Winston Churchill and his family and other historical documents, the daily experiences of Londoners during the Blitz and how Churchill, in full pugnacity, led his people during the most dangerous and horrific times they had ever experienced.
As Larson himself noted, the book takes readers “out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, strategic brilliance, and perseverance bound a country and a family together.”
Larson’s book is worth reading for other reasons, both for its parallels to today and most specifically, for the manner in which it speaks to the vital urgency of true political leadership in a time of deep crisis.
We need not go over the insanity south of the border. We do, however, need to take stock of the lessons of leadership and its importance in these dangerous times.
In past generations leaders have risen to take on the monstrous responsibilities of war, fear, insurrection, poverty and need. Whether it was John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile crisis, David Ben-Gurion fighting to lead his tiny population of Jews towards a resurrected state, Franklin Roosevelt’s bold New Deal to lead the way out of the Great Depression, or General Charles de Gaulle inspiring the people of France during the Nazi occupation, it was leadership that made it all happen.
As we consider today’s leadership, it would be wise to recall the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth:
“Leaders lead because there is work to do, there are people in need, there is injustice to be fought, there is wrong to be righted, there are problems to be solved and challenges ahead. Leaders hear this as a call to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. They lead because they know that to stand idly by and expect others to do the work is the too-easy option. The responsible life is the best life there is, and is worth all the pain and frustration. To lead is to serve; The highest accolade Moses ever received was to be called ‘eved Hashem’ – ‘God’s servant’ – and there is no higher honour.”