Churchill and the Revisionist Historians

By Rossi, John | Contemporary Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Churchill and the Revisionist Historians


Rossi, John, Contemporary Review


IN 1950 Time magazine then at the height of its power and influence named Winston Churchill 'Man of the Half Century'. His reputation was at a peak because of his leadership of the Allied cause in World War II and his role in alerting the Free World to the threat of Communism by his 'Iron Curtain' speech in early 1946.

Fifty years later Churchill's popularity has waned. At the beginning of the new millennium Time placed him sixteenth in its politically correct ranking of 'Persons of the Century' behind such luminaries as Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Madonna.

Churchill's reputation in historical circles also has undergone a major transformation. Once the lonely hero of the battle against appeasement in the 1930s, an Isaiah crying out in the desert against Hitler and Nazism, Churchill has come under attack for self-promotion as well as exaggerating his opposition to appeasement before the Second World War.

Churchill established the accepted interpretation of the origins of the Second World War, that Hitler launched a war of conquest, in his masterly six-volume history of the conflict that appeared between 1948 and 1953. The first volume, The Gathering Storm, outlines with broad strokes and magisterial language the mistakes the Allies made in underestimating the threat from Hitler. In his theme for this volume Churchill summarized his interpretation of the war: 'how the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm'. By being the first in the field and by virtue of his prestige as the only major wartime leader to write his memoirs, Churchill put his imprint on the story of the how the war came and how it was conducted. His history is flawed at times but at least two of the volumes, Their Finest Hour which deals with the critical year, 1940, when Britain almost lost the war and Triumph and Tragedy about the last months of the war and drift into a confli ct with Russia, remain masterpieces.

A Churchill myth emerged in the 1940s and 1950s polished by films, television documentaries like The Valiant Years as well as the memoirs of acolytes and contemporaries who wrote before his death in 1965. The official biography of Churchill started by his wayward son, Randolph, and completed by the prolific historian Martin Gilbert required eight huge volumes plus assorted companion collections of Churchill's correspondence. Definitive in many ways, overpowering in its detail, it remains a mine from which others can extract nuggets of interesting material. William Manchester, the American writer, has produced two volumes so far of a biography that borders on hagiography and adds little or nothing to our understanding of Churchill. Other biographies appeared almost yearly. My university library alone contains one hundred studies of Churchill's career.

It was only a matter of time before a new generation of younger historians and scholars would begin reinterpreting Churchill especially as his career spanned over 60 years and included a major role in both of the great wars of this century as well as in the Cold War. Churchill's active political life began when Queen Victoria still reigned. He outlived John F. Kennedy by two years.

Although there were scattered attacks on Churchill's opposition to Hitler and Nazism in the years before World War II and his direction of Great Britain during the war, they were minor pinpricks, the kind of unsatisfying quibbles that academics like to chew on. Also it was clear that if one wanted attention in dealing with Churchill the best method would be to attack him. Praise would go unnoticed.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new generation of 'revisionists' appeared and turned their intellectual guns on him. There is nothing wrong with revisionism. All history is a form of revisionism in the sense that one generation reinterprets events from their own standpoint and their own understanding of the past. …

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