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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson: Churchill and London During The Blitz

Cover of The Splendid and the Vile


  • Full Title: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

  • Author: Erik Larson

  • Number of Pages: 546

  • Year: 2020

  • Genre: Non-fiction, History

  • Topics: Second World War, Nazi Germany, United Kingdom under PM Winston Churchill, bombings.

  • Useful Links: Goodreads, Blackwell's

THE BOOK The Splendid and the Vile, a non-fiction book by Erik Larson published in February 2020, describes the period of The Blitz (1940-41), the Nazi air-raids over the United Kingdom, mainly from the perspective of Winston Churchill and his entourage and family. From time to time, the reader is also given the point of view of the Germans and the Americans to understand their positions in that phase of the conflict.

THE AUTHOR Erik Larson (b. 1954) is an American writer and journalist, and the author of mostly non-fiction books, with a focus on British and American history. The Splendid and the Vile is his latest non-fiction publication, while in 2021 he released No One Goes Alone, his first novel. His mastery of non-fiction writing brought him to teaching and speaking of it at several U.S. universities, and over the course of his career, he has published bestsellers titles such as Isaac's Storm (1999) and The Devil in the White City (2002).


Isn’t narcissism a form of love addressed to ourselves?

When we are in love, we are often blind to our lover’s faults. We decide not to see because the moment we see we know our love may be gone forever.

The Splendid and the Vile is all about how the blindness of narcissists - otherwise called pride and overconfidence - can affect both their and other people’s lives.

In other words, the book aims to uncover some unbelievably simple reasons behind the German debacle during the Second World War: too focused on defending its image - even and primarily from its own judgment - Nazi Germany repeatedly lied to itself and based its plans on false expectations and suppositions. This way, it purposely distorted its condition and those of its enemies and convinced itself the reality was far brighter than it actually was, even when contrasting signals were everywhere.

As readers, we see Germany hide and transform crucial facts and cannot refrain from mentally shouting: “How can’t you see it?!”.

Point is, had Germany seen the truth of its own miscalculations, it would have collapsed way before 1945 - and probably knew it.

This is why - amid a crucial stage of the Blitz when the imperative would have been to keep on striking - Germany decided to shift the focus to an improbable invasion of Russia because a promise of victory was the only possibility Germany had to keep itself boosted and alive.

British PM Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
British PM Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt | Image Credits: Wikimedia Common

Some crucial seeds of our present world also rest in these pages: as the Blitz went on and so did the war, Churchill became increasingly convinced that the entrance of the United States in the conflict could make a real difference and lead the world to salvation from the Nazi threat.

The way Churchill looks up to the U.S. and lingers in an affectionate flirtation with them recalls the way America has been unwaveringly seen by Europe ever since 1945 and till only a few years ago, and this vision Churchill had of the nascent superpower in the book sounds indeed like a prophecy of what will be.

Was Churchill an astute foreteller of the post-war and Cold War years or was the Western world later influenced by the convictions of the moony British Prime Minister who helped pushed it out of a nightmare? Maybe both, or maybe this view in the book is also induced by the American origin of the author himself.

Finally, much of what is narrated in The Splendid and the Vile happens to be very relatable to our recent past: in the pandemic years, we learned what it is like to have an often invisible enemy and how to co-live with it. During The Blitz, bombings froze people still and the thought of the war scared them until, after a few months, this all became part of their new normality. For those who were spared, life continued, parties were still being held, weddings celebrated and cars driven, all despite the reality of a bloody conflict and the full darkness of an electricity-deprived London.

Looks like our adaptation to unpredictable events is no big deal or novelty after all:

<<You knew the fate of civilization was being decided fifteen thousand feet above your head in a world of sun, wind and sky. [...] You knew it, but even so it was hard to take in>>*

View of bombed London
View of a bombed London | Image Credits: Wikimedia Common



* This writing is based on the ebook version of Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Crown, New York 2020.


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