Religion & Liberty Online

Winston Churchill: His Histories and History

(Image credit: Associated Press)

This November marks the former prime minister of Britain’s 150th birthday. Churchill is a continuing object of fascination, not only for his leadership during the Second World War, but also for his work as a historian. And nothing motivated his pen more than penury.

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My library, a relatively small one by university standards, has over 150 books dealing with Winston Churchill, one of the Big Four of World War II, which included FDR, Stalin, and Hitler. Why this fascination with the one member who had, on paper, the least impact on the outcome of World War II? The reasons I believe are an interesting commentary on the concept of historical reputation and the way ideas and opinions change in a democratic society.

Our fascination with Churchill, whose sesquicentennial will be celebrated this November (and whose life you may want to study up on in anticipation), is part of a continued interest in both World War II and military history, which continues at a high level even while the subject matter is being deemphasized in academic history departments. Yet the History Book Club still thrives and History Today is still published in England seven decades after its founding. Bookstands are filled with magazines dealing specifically with World War II as well as the American Civil War, the American West, and other historical topics.

Interest in Churchill thrives because, unlike the other Big Three, he was something more than a political leader—he was also a writer of major historical works. His career in politics spanned six decades, from the reign of Queen Victoria to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and his literary career was almost as long and varied: he published 37 books during his lifetime and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. He published his first book, The Story of the Malakand FieldForce, in 1898, at the age of 24; his last work appeared in the 1950s, the four-volume The History of EnglishSpeaking Peoples. Among his early works, The River War (1899), about Herbert Kitchener’s reconquest of the Sudan, remains highly readable despite what some might consider a rather obscure episode. The opening chapter on the life-giving importance of the Nile throughout Egyptian history remains fascinating and informative today. And his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, written in 1906, a work of filial duty, remained the standard for crafting such biographies for more than 60 years.

World War I supplied Churchill with a topic that he turned into a six-volume history, The World Crisis, which blends history and autobiography (he was in and out of office during the war) that foreshadowed his later history of WWII. The former is rarely read today, although again there is a gem or two to be found in this collection, especially the volume entitled The Unknown War: The Eastern Front. It remains accessible and illuminating even among later scholarly studies of that theater of the war. What is amazing is that much of this writing was carried on while he was holding high government office.

One of Churchill’s most charming books is a collection of biographical sketches he wrote during the 1920s and early ’30s as a way of making money. Despite his aristocratic background (he was a descendant of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough), he was chronically short of cash for most of his life. Great Contemporaries did well, selling over 20,000 copies in Great Britain and America. It contains 25 sketches in the original volume, which vary in quality, but those dealing with people he knew intimately—for example, Henry Asquith, Joseph Chamberlain, and Lord Rosebery—are brilliant impressionistic pieces and establish his gift for painting a portrait in a few words: Asquith’s “mind opened and shut like the breech of a gun.” Rosebery’s political career failed because he was “essentially a survivor from a vanished age” who because he “would not stoop; he did not conquer.” Arthur Balfour “passed from one Cabinet to the other, from the Prime Minister who was his champion to the Prime Minister who had been his most severe critic, like a powerful cat walking delicately and unsoiled across a muddy street.” Of the Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell: he was “not in the manner of English political leaders, but rather like the prophets who guided Israel.” His sketch of Hitler written in 1935 was entitled “Hitler and His Choice.” The choice Churchill was referring to was whether “this grim figure who has performed” miracles and who had raised Germany “from the dust” would choose peace or war.

In the 1930s he wrote a four-volume biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, to answer charges of venality leveled against him by past historians, especially Thomas Babington Macaulay. Marlborough His Life and Times I doubt it is much read today, although his battle descriptions are gems of clarity and excitement. All this adds up to a simple fact of his life: Churchill had to write, as he had no source of income other than what he brought in with his books and articles. As he once noted: “Most people live from hand to mouth; I live from mouth to hand.” And he did so by eventually earning enormous sums from his writing. It is estimated that his written works add up to over 20 million words. Churchill was able to accomplish this feat because, first, he taught himself to dictate rather than to write and rewrite. And second, and more important, for the last half of his life, he developed the idea of employing a syndicate of scholars who would do the basic research for him while producing a first draft. He would then turn the final copy into his own rolling prose, a blend of Macaulay and Gibbon.

If I were to create a reading list for those interested in getting a taste of Churchill, I would single out books both by him and by his many biographers. I would start with one of Churchill’s best: his stab at autobiography, My Early Life, which traces his career from birth to his election to Parliament in 1901. It is lively and charming. When I used it in my courses on British history, it proved a popular choice. The opening section on his schooling (he was an undistinguished student), where his Latin teacher asks for the declension of the word table, always got a chuckle. “A table,” “to the table,” “O table,” he conjugates in Latin. But what does it mean? the young Churchill asks. “O table” refers to when you address a table. “But I never do” was his answer, and he is warned that he will have trouble. He did. He never learned Latin but said he mastered the English sentence, “which is a noble thing.” It served him well throughout his life.

Churchill’s multivolume history of the Second World War is considered dated today and often dismissed for his pro-British bias. I note, however, that most histories of the war list the series in their bibliographies nevertheless. Two of the volumes, The Gathering Storm and Their Finest Hour, which deal with the war up to its becoming a world conflict with the entrance of the Soviet Union and the United States, remain fresh and useful. They are also the volumes in which Churchill is the key Allied figure, not having to share the stage with Roosevelt or Stalin. The Gathering Storm covers the decade of the 1930s and has proved influential through its thesis of how the war came about but could have been avoided. Churchill called those “The Years the Locust Ate.” His indictment of the Allies’ appeasement policies remains the standard interpretation today despite attempts by some scholars to argue that appeasement staved off war until Britain had strengthened its armament position, especially among fighter planes. Their Finest Hour relates to the phase of the war when Britain stood alone against the Axis powers and saw its triumph over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

These two volumes also include Churchill’s most famous speeches, his indictment of the Munich Pact as the apotheosis of appeasement, and his four great speeches in the House of Commons during the dangerous summer of 1940, when Britain stood alone against German might. In the remaining volumes of his history, Churchill is no longer the dominant figure of the Allied coalition, which Churchill dramatically called the Grand Alliance; those volumes lose some of their vitality while remaining a good, if pro-British, view of the conflict.

Among the many special Churchill studies, two for sheer quirkiness stand out in my view. First is David Reynolds’ fascinating analysis of how Churchill organized a writing team to fashion his histories, In Command of History (2004). Reynolds shows how Churchill was able through this syndicate-of-scholars method to publish 37 books while maintaining his unique literary style.

Second is David Lough’s No More Champagne (2015), which focuses on the financial troubles that plagued Churchill’s life. The great man had a rather cavalier attitude toward money, and Lough documents his lavish spending. In April–May 1949, for instance, Churchill’s staff recorded the consumption of 454 bottles of champagne, 311 bottles of wine, 58 bottles of brandy, 56 bottles of Black Label Scotch, 58 bottles of sherry, and 69 bottles of port. Churchill pointed out when such matters were brought up that “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” In reality, Churchill struggled with financial problems until the publication of the World War II volumes made him financially secure.

A unique entry in Churchill studies is John Lukacs’ Five Days in London: May 1940. Lukacs argues that, in late May 1940, with France on the brink of defeat, the British army retreating to the Channel port of Dunkirk to begin a withdrawal, a key debate took place in the cabinet over whether to sue for peace. Lukacs traces the debate over five days in late May, with Churchill having to make the case for Britain remaining in the war. The prevailing sentiment in the cabinet, led by Lord Halifax. the influential foreign secretary, leaned toward making some kind of deal with Hitler. Lukacs shows how Churchill outmaneuvered Halifax and gradually won over the cabinet to remain in the conflict instead of watching Britain become a satrap of Germany. Interestingly, it was Neville Chamberlain, the very face of appeasement, who used his still-powerful influence among his fellow Conservatives to throw support behind Churchill. Lukacs sums up the situation nicely: Churchill did not win the war, but he could have lost it in May 1940.

Given his role in history, Churchill has spawned numerous biographies—the Guardian puts the figure at 1,000. The defining foundational study was done by Martin Gilbert, however, who produced the official biography in eight volumes. The series was begun by Churchill’s erratic son Randolph, who wrote the first two volumes, with Gilbert finishing the set. This series also includes 17 volumes of Churchill’s papers. The biographical material, despite its great length, is surprisingly engaging, a testament to Gilbert’s skill in mastering such a mass of material. Scholars have been and will be mining this material for years.

For those wishing to read a shorter, one-volume study, Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny (2018) stands out despite still coming in at over 1,100 pages. Roberts, one of the leading historians of 20th-century England, has produced what will remain for a long time the best single volume biography, incorporating details of the major events in Churchill’s life while remaining fair and balanced in his judgments, although one senses a deep admiration for Churchill throughout. What makes Roberts’ study so enjoyable is the sense that he was having fun while writing the book.

One important aside: Roberts notes that Churchill’s career was fueled largely by a desire to redeem his father’s reputation, which was sullied when a threat of resignation as chancellor of the exchequer in the hopes of gaining greater influence with the cabinet was simply accepted by the prime minister—and he was replaced. Memory of his father’s prematurely wrecked political career haunted Churchill throughout his life. Roberts also divides Churchill’s career at the year 1940. If he had died before that year, Churchill would have been remembered as one of the most interesting characters of English politics of the late Victorian–Edwardian eras. After 1940, however, Churchill became, in the words of the acerbic left-wing historian A.J.P. Taylor, simply “the savior of his country.” Roberts also focuses on Churchill’s conviction that he was fated for greatness. As Churchill told a young lady friend when he was young: “We are all worms, but I believe I am a glow worm.” Robert’s biography shows how true this was.

John P. Rossi

John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.