Lynne Olson’s book Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England is a shining example of history at its best. Olson tells the story of the extraordinary courage and determination of a handful of British politicians, who beat their own party leader’s ruthless and powerful political machine in the nick of time, deposing Neville Chamberlain in favor of Winston Churchill and thereby quite likely saving British and European democracy. It is a story which has been basically unknown, despite the mountain of histories on World War II, perhaps because so much modern history is written by scholars who think mega-trends paint the canvas of history, rather than individual people.
The secret to Olson’s success is her saturation of the book with direct accounts from the dozens of actors involved in Britain’s pre-war political struggle. Direct quotes from diaries, letters, and memoirs fill the pages, painting an intimate picture of what each individual was thinking and feeling at any one moment in time. Olson cuts no corners, skillfully weaving biographical accounts of the most important players—Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Ronald and Barbara Cartland, Harold and Dorothy Macmillan, and more—into the tale of the events leading to Britain’s entry into World War II and Chamberlain’s eventual replacement by Winston Churchill. The result is history brought to life: the reader understands the events of 1940 Britain as the culmination of a struggle between a few courageous individuals appalled by Hitler’s threat and a ruthless party leader, Chamberlain, who once having adopted his deluded belief about Hitler and his policy of appeasement, used every means of political repression at his disposal to silence opposition.
Through it all one link bound the “rebels” who brought down the Chamberlain government: their steadfast belief that Hitler’s tyrannical purpose was real and that, unchecked, his aggression was a threat to England as well as the rest of democratic Europe. In World War II, the stakes of the conflict were nothing less than the future of the free world. Such a conflict tests the true nature of an individual’s belief in the core values of his nation. Britain’s politicians, high and low, were forced to place a value on the principles of freedom and human rights they were supposed to defend in their capacity as MPs.
Oslon details this process from the late 1930s to Churchill’s accession on May 10, 1940 and beyond, ultimately following the political fates of all of the major players after the war’s conclusion. Chamberlain was set on avoiding a repeat of “The Great War” at all costs, ignoring or downplaying Hitler’s first signs of aggression. The opinion of the nation, battle-weary from World War I and bolstered by a false sense of security through a media which displayed an astonishing one-sidedness in support of Chamberlain’s position (amazingly reminiscent of today’s liberal press), initially backed Chamberlain. Chamberlain clung even more desperately to his policy of appeasement as Hitler marched on Austria, then Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, and eventually France. As the threat to Britain became undeniable, the motivation behind Chamberlain’s appeasement policy changed from the increasingly doubtful assertion that he was keeping the peace to become a matter of personal pride. Throughout the escalation leading to war, Chamberlain treated political dissent ruthlessly, silencing opponents of appeasement who attempted to speak out in the newspaper or on the radio—even leading to the recall (essentially expulsion from the party) of Tory dissenters who failed to toe the line, like the Duchess of Atholl. Chamberlain was only persuaded to reluctantly declare war on Germany after intense pressure from his Cabinet convinced him that he would lose office if he failed to do so.
The Tory rebels who opposed and eventually deposed Chamberlain were not perfect—most (including Churchill) wavered in the strength of their opposition at times as they were punished by Chamberlain’s party machine. In the end, however, all put their country and its values before their party, risking their livelihoods and their reputations to defend a free Europe. Their story is a testament to the power of moral courage to make the politically impossible a reality, and of the importance of refusing to let personal fear conquer the resolution to defend freedom.
Olson’s book is also fun to read. It is precisely what history should be: the story of people and governments—with all of their human flaws—interacting with each other to promote whatever vision of human society they believe in. Her book reminds us that politicians—sometimes—can rise to the highest level of nobility, sacrificing themselves in the defense of individual life, liberty, and dignity.