Churchill is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. Time and again in his seven decades in public life, we can see the impact of his personality on the world and on events—far more of them than are now widely remembered.

He was crucial to the beginning of the welfare state in the early 1900s. He helped give British workers job centers and tea breaks and unemployment insurance. He was the dominant force behind the invention of the Royal Air Force and the tank, and he was absolutely critical to the conduct of World War I. He was indispensable to the foundation of Israel (among other countries), not to mention the campaign for a united Europe.

At several moments, he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940, when he and his nation stood alone against Hitler. Without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. Churchill spoke to the depths of people’s souls when Britain was alone, when the country was fighting for survival, and he reached them and comforted them in a way no other speaker could have done. His language—stirring and old-fashioned—met the moment.

What were the elements that enabled him to fill that gigantic role? In what smithies did they forge that razor mind and iron will? “What the hammer? what the chain? / In what furnace was his brain?” as William Blake almost put it.