Winston Churchill as historian


Winston Churchill as historian

The British statesman Winston Churchill was a prolific writer throughout his life, and during his periods out of office regarded himself as a professional writer who was also a Member of Parliament. Despite his aristocratic birth, he inherited little money (his mother spent most of his inheritance) and always needed ready cash to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Some of his historical works, such as "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples", were written primarily to raise money.

Although Churchill was an excellent writer, he was not a trained historian, and his historical works show many limitations. In his youth he was an avid reader of history, but within a narrow range. The major influences on his historical thought, and his prose style, were Clarendon's history of the English Civil War, Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" and Macaulay's "History of England". He had a limited interest in social or economic history, and he always saw history as essentially political and military, driven primarily by great men rather than by economic forces or social change.

Churchill was one of the last (and most influential) exponents of "Whig history" — the ideology of the 18th and 19th century Whigs that the British people had a unique greatness and an imperial destiny and that all British history should be seen as progress towards fulfilling that destiny. This belief inspired his political career as well as his historical writing. It was an old-fashioned view of history even in Churchill's youth, but he never modified it or showed any interest in other schools of history. Although he employed professional historians as assistants on his major works, they had no influence over the content of his works.

Churchill's historical works fall into three categories. The first is works of family history, the biographies of his father, "Life of Lord Randolph Churchill" (1906), and of his great ancestor, "Marlborough: His Life and Times" (four volumes, 1933–38). These are still regarded as fine biographies, but are marred by Churchill's desire to present his subjects in the best possible light. He made only limited use of the available source materials, and in the case of his father suppressed much material from family archives that reflected badly on Lord Randolph. The Marlborough biography shows to the full Churchill's great talent for military history. Both books have been superseded by more scholarly works, but are still highly readable.

The second category is Churchill's autobiographical works, including his early journalistic compilations "The Story of the Malakand Field Force" (1898), "The River War" (1899), "London to Ladysmith via Pretoria" (1900) and "Ian Hamilton's March" (1900). These latter two were issued in a re-edited form as "My Early Life" (1930). All these books are colourful and entertaining, and contain some valuable information about Britain's imperial wars in India, Sudan and South Africa, but they are essentially exercises in self-promotion, since Churchill was already a Parliamentary candidate in 1900.

Churchill's reputation as a writer, however, rests on the third category, his three massive multi-volume works of narrative history. These are his histories of the First World War — "The World Crisis" (six volumes, 1923–31), and of "The Second World War" (six volumes, 1948–53), and his "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples" (four volumes, 1956–58, much of which had been written as journalism in the 1930s). These are among the longest works of history ever published ("The Second World War" runs to more than two million words), and earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Churchill's histories of the two world wars are, of course, far from being conventional historical works, since the author was a central participant in both stories and took full advantage of that fact in writing his books. Both are in a sense therefore memoirs as well as histories, but Churchill was careful to broaden their scope to include events in which he played no part — the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, for example. Inevitably, however, Churchill placed Britain, and therefore himself, at the centre of his narrative. Arthur Balfour described "The World Crisis" as "Winston's brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe." In any case he had far fewer documentary sources for matters not involving Britain.

As a Cabinet minister for part of the First World War and as Prime Minister for nearly all of the Second, Churchill had unique access to official documents, military plans, official secrets and correspondence between world leaders. After the First War, when there were few rules governing these documents, Churchill simply took many of them with him when he left office, and used them freely in his books — as did other wartime politicians such as David Lloyd George. As a result of this, strict rules were put in place preventing Cabinet ministers using official documents for writing history or memoirs once they left office.

"The World Crisis" began as a response to Lord Esher's attack on his reputation in his memoirs, but it soon broadened out into a general multi-volume history. The volumes are a mix of military history, written with Churchill's usual narrative flair; diplomatic and political history, largely written to justify Churchill's own actions and policies during the war; portraits of other political and military figures, usually written to further political vendettas or settle debts (most notably with Lloyd George), and personal memoir, written in a colourful but highly selective manner. Today these books are of less value as historical references than as biographical or literary ones. As with all Churchill's works, they have nothing to say about economic or social history, and are colured by his political views — particularly in regards to the Russian Revolution of 1917. But they remain highly readable for their narrative skill and vivid portrayals of people and events.

When he resumed office in 1939, Churchill fully intended writing a history of the war then beginning. He said several times: "I will leave judgements on this matter to history — but I will be one of the historians." To circumvent the rules against the use of official documents, he took the precaution throughout the war of having a weekly summary of correspondence, minutes, memoranda and other documents printed in galleys and headed "Prime Minister's personal minutes." These were then stored at his home for future use. As well, Churchill actually wrote or dictated a number of letters and memorandums with the specific intention of placing his views on the record for later use as a historian.

This all became a source of great controversy when "The Second World War" began appearing in 1948. Churchill was not an academic historian, he was a politician, and was in fact Leader of the Opposition, still intending to return to office. By what right, it was asked, did he have access to Cabinet, military and diplomatic records which were denied to other historians?

What was unknown at the time was the fact that Churchill had done a deal with the Attlee Labour government which came to office in 1945. Recognising Churchill's enormous prestige, Attlee agreed to allow him (or rather his research assistants) free access to all documents, provided that (a) no official secrets were revealed (b) the documents were not used for party political purposes and (c) the typescript was vetted by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Brook took a close interest in the books and rewrote some sections himself to ensure that nothing was said which might harm British interests or embarrass the government. Churchill's history thus became a semi-official one.

Churchill's privileged access to documents and his unrivalled personal knowledge gave him an advantage over all other historians of the Second World War for many years. The books had enormous sales in both Britain and the United States and made Churchill a rich man for the first time. It was not until after his death and the opening of the archives that some of the deficiencies of his work became apparent.

Some of these were inherent in the difficult position Churchill occupied as a former Prime Minister and a serving politician. He could not reveal military secrets, such as the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (see Ultra), or the planning of the atomic bomb. He could not discuss wartime disputes with figures such as Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle or Tito, since they were still world leaders at the time he was writing. He could not discuss Cabinet disputes with Labour leaders such as Attlee, whose goodwill the project depended on. He could not reflect on the deficiencies of generals such as Archibald Wavell or Claude Auchinleck, for fear they might sue him (some indeed threatened to do so).

Other deficiencies were of Churchill's own making. Although he mentioned the fighting on the Eastern Front, he had little real interest in it and no access to Soviet or German documents, so his account is a pastiche of secondary sources, largely written by his assistants. The same is true to some extent of the war in the Pacific, except for episodes such as the fall of Singapore in which he was involved. His account is based heavily on his own documents, so it greatly exaggerates his own role. Although he was of course a central figure in the war, he was not as central as his books suggest, particularly after 1943. Although he is usually fair, some personal vendettas are aired — against Stafford Cripps, for example.

"The Second World War" can still be read with great profit by students of the period, provided it is seen mainly as a memoir by a leading participant rather than as an authoritative history by a professional and detached historian. The Second World War, particularly the period between 1940 and 1942 when Britain was fighting almost alone, was after all the climax of Churchill's career and his personal account of the inside story of those days is unique and invaluable. But since the archives have been opened far more accurate and reliable histories have been written.

Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking Peoples" was commissioned and largely written in the 1930s when Churchill badly needed money, but it was put aside when war broke out in 1939, being finally issued after he left office for the last time in 1955. Although it contains much fine writing, it is very old-fashioned, seeing world history as a one-dimensional pageant of battles and speeches, kings and statesmen, in which the English occupy central stage. Events of central importance to modern history, such as the industrial revolution, are scarcely mentioned. Although Churchill's enormous prestige ensured that the books were respectfully received and sold well, they are now little readFact|date=April 2008.

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