Churchill the Historian: Winston Churchill Wrote History with an Eye to His Eventual Place in It, David Reynolds Tells Us. His Idea of History Also Inspired His Making of It

By Reynolds, David | History Today, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Churchill the Historian: Winston Churchill Wrote History with an Eye to His Eventual Place in It, David Reynolds Tells Us. His Idea of History Also Inspired His Making of It


Reynolds, David, History Today


WINSTON CHURCHILL'S REPUTATION rests above all on his leadership in the Second World War, often described as Britain's 'finest hour'. Yet Churchill himself coined that phrase. It serves to remind us that he not only made history but also wrote it: indeed he regarded the making and the writing as inseparable.

Politics was Churchill's life: he was a Member of Parliament almost without a break from 1900 to 1964. Yet he earned his living as an author. With no estates, business or legal practice to support his self-indulgent lifestyle, he paid the bills (or tried to) by a steady stream of articles and books. Some of his output was pretty lightweight: his articles on Great Stories Of the World Retold (1932-33) are not exactly classics of literature. On the other hand, the essays in Great Contemporaries (1937) still retain their sparkle and fascination.

Churchill's motive for writing was not merely financial. He had no faith in an afterlife, believing there was only 'black velvet', eternal sleep, and he saw reputation as the sole form of immortality. If the deeds of great men are not told and retold, then they perish. 'Words are the only things that last for ever', he wrote in 1938.

Most of Churchill's substantive writing was done with an eve to his place in history. The biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) and the four volumes on his martial ancestor, Marlborough, His Life and Times (1933-38) are both works of pietas and passion. By defending these earlier Churchills, he was also promoting himself. In an obituary for his cousin 'Sunny' the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Winston wrote of 'the three or four hundred families which had for three or four hundred years guided the fortunes of the nation'. Prominent among these, of course, were the Churchills. Winston saw his life as part of his family's saga, which in turn was entwined with the story of the nation: for him, writing history was, at root, an exercise in autobiography.

The most directly personal works are his two sets of six-volume war memoirs--The World Crisis (1923-31) an d The Second World War (1948-54). Churchill understood the need to get his own version of events on the record early. As he liked to say when deadlocked in political controversy: 'All right, we shall leave it to history, but remember that I shall be one of the historians.'

Churchill was at pains to state that these volumes were only 'a contribution to history', written from his vantage point at the time. And, like most memoirs, they are full of vivid personal reminiscences, such as his daredevil attempt to save Antwerp in October 1914, or his epic visit to Stalin thirty years later, when they divided up the Balkans in the Percentages Agreement.

Churchill backed up these recollections with extensive quotation from documents he wrote at the time. He took boxes of papers with him on leaving office and included lengthy (though carefully edited) quotations from them in his memoirs. At a time when ordinary scholars could not hope to see government documents for fifty or sixty years, this made Churchill's memoirs an essential historical source. He also buttressed his recollections with passages of narrative drafted by research assistants or consultants. They drew on official documents, especially from the Cabinet Office's Historical Section where the official histories of the two wars were being prepared. This enabled Churchill to write vivid, informed accounts of battles such as Jutland in 1916 or of the fall of France in 1940.

Here Churchill the politician helped Churchill the historian: for much of the time thai he was writing The World Crisis he was also Chancellor of the Exchequer, and civil servants co-operated in a way that they would not have done for an ordinary author. Likewise, while he was writing The Second World War he was either Leader of the Opposition or serving his second term as prime minister (1951-55), and Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, provided assistance far beyond his official duty as censor of national secrets.

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