This is the first of three JPROF posts on Winston Churchill, the writer, and how he wrote his Nobel Prize-winning history of World War II.
The phrase “his/her place in history” gets tossed around a lot. It’s used by journalists, politicians, and commentators as if it’s a seat on the Number 12 bus, and you need to be in the right spot when it hits Picadilly Circus.
History doesn’t work like that, but this fact is something that always seems to elude those who use the phrase or think about the concept.
No one thought about it more than Winston Churchill.
More than a few times, Churchill expressed the sentiment that “history will be kind to me for I will write it.” Through his life and particularly in his later years, Churchill would say that, sometimes as a threat to others but usually just as a comfort to himself.
But Churchill went much farther than other famous people in an attempt — futile as it is — to make that happen.
David Reynolds‘ book In Command of History is a 600-page examination of Churchill’s efforts to have both the first and last word about himself and his actions during World War II, and it is a fascinating story.
Motive and opportunity
It is sometimes hard to believe what a difference a day makes, as the song says.
On the morning of Thursday, July 26, 1945, Winston Churchill was at the height of his political power. He had been prime minister of Great Britain for more than five years during the most dangerous time in the nation’s long history. He had been at the helm to see it through those dangers and to achieve a momentous victory with the surrender of Germany the previous May.
As he had directed the war — along with, at times, contentious allies — he was now looking forward to directing the peace, to re-shaping the world in a way that would ensure stable and enduring international relations. He had every reason to believe that the voters of Great Britain, when they went to the polls that day for their first general election in five years, would reward him with that opportunity.
They did not.
It became clear early that day that the opposition Labour Party was about to score a startling victory. As the Churchill family dealt with the gathering gloom, Clementine, Winston’s wife, commented that what was happening might be a blessing in disguise. Churchill said sourly, ” At the moment, it seems quite effectively disguised,”
That evening, he drove to Buckingham Palace and offered his resignation to the King.
The next morning, the shattered leader awoke to a life he had never planned. Or so it seemed.
From almost the day that he had taken the prime ministership, May 9, 1940, Churchill had planned to write his memoirs and/or a history of the great battle that the United Kingdom was facing. One of his schemes was to claim ownership of as many of the papers and memoranda that he could so they would not be subject to government ownership or Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
He also had occasional and very private conversations with friends who had publishing connections about the possibilities of post-war writing.
Such conversations were natural. Churchill, as much as he was a public figure, had been a writer, journalist, and polemicist. That was how he had his living. He had been First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I and subsequently had published a multi-volume history of that conflict — a history that had been most profitable.
And the Churchills always needed money. They were not a wealthy family, and Winston’s tastes — and his consumption, particularly of alcohol — were lavish.
So the results of the July General Election were indeed “a blessing in disguise,” though not the one that Clementine had hoped for. They gave Churchill the opportunity to write the history he had imagined writing — an opportunity combined that the strong motive of ego-preservation that Churchill always displayed.
Next: Winston Churchill’s World War II saga: Obliterating the obstacles
Finally: Winston Churchill’s World War II saga: Churchill the writer
See the 2005 New York Times review of David Reynolds’ book, In Command of History by Max Boot.
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