Churchill Revisited; This First Analysis of Churchill's Best Selling History of the Second World War Reveals How the Great Man Sometimes Glossed over the Truth

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Churchill Revisited; This First Analysis of Churchill's Best Selling History of the Second World War Reveals How the Great Man Sometimes Glossed over the Truth


Byline: ANDREW ROBERTS

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds HISTORY shall be kind to me," Winston Churchill is said to have remarked. " I know because I'll be writing it." Not since Julius Caesar's Commentaries described the invasion of Gaul has a principal actor in a great conflict also been its most influential chronicler.

Churchill's six-volume history, a record-breaking best-seller simply entitled The Second World War, profoundly shaped our whole understanding of that cataclysm, yet no one has comprehensively studied it to find out just how historically accurate it really was.

Now David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University, has subjected Churchill's undeniably great work to a microscopic and withering analysis. He has discovered that for all his Nobel Prize for Literature and untarnishable glory as a world-historical statesman, Churchill constantly allowed contemporary political considerations to cloud, alter and often censor his objective reportage of what had taken place between 1939 and 1945.

Churchill was leader of the Tory opposition when he took up his pen in 1948, and Prime Minister when he laid down his pen two million words later in 1954.

It is therefore unsurprising that immediate political questions intruded in his quest for truth.

The leaders of several of Britain's wartime allies - including Joseph Stalin and presidents Truman and Eisenhower - were still in power during that period, and had to be treated very warily if the memoirs were not to damage a vulnerable Britain's international relations. In this, Churchill put his country's interests before his publishers.

In this truly outstanding and original work of scholarship, Reynolds deconstructs and itemises every exaggeration, plagiarism, embellishment, omission, bowdlerisation, undeclared ellipsis, half-truth and even occasional untruth that Churchill adopted.

Yet Churchill often had little alternative, as he tried to render to his vast global readership an account of the war that would be popular, would become the authorised version, would keep his own massive contribution centre-stage, but yet would not wreck his personal relations with (Penguin, [pounds sterling]30) the important people with whom he had to work as Prime Minister.

In the days before word processors, proofs used to be sent backwards and forwards between publishers and authors before both were happy with what was about to be printed.

Churchill kept all these early corrected proofs - 400 box files of them - so Reynolds has been able to spot all the small but telltale ways in which Churchill's account of the war altered during the writing of the six volumes. …

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