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Sir Winston Churchill As A Historian
A famed British historian and poet looks at Churchill's two masterpieces.
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
But we must here confine ourselves to historical writing. The book is not only the life of Marlborough, it is his times. It is a splendid canvas of the whole life of the age, painted in strong and glowing colors, full of lifelike portraits, scenes (especially battlefields), descriptions (especially of political and court life), presented with generosity of judgment, immense gusto, and intellectual energy. Two things are obvious: that he enjoyed it all, when with some historians one would think writing was worse than having a tooth extracted; the other thing, which we are apt to ignore, is that Churchill is a man of great power and originality of intellect. Nor is he afraid to add humor to the category of the historian’s gifts. It is a thing to be very careful about; but some of the best historians have had it: certainly Gibbon and Hume and Clarendon, and even the erring Macaulay, who wrote, “there is a vile phrase of which bad historians are exceedingly fond, ‘the dignity of history.’”
Churchill’s strong personality is present in all that he writes, and in any case a man expresses himself in every inflection of his style. He writes, or rather dictates, every word himself; every word bears his personal stamp. It is true that he uses the aid of research assistants to delve in the archives for him and to look out, under his direction, the large masses of material that he likes to deploy. But, very much of an artist, he organizes and shapes up the material himself, gives it his own structure and character down to the last button. Then, when the volume is in draft, he likes to have it vetted by a recognized authority on the period or subject, and, with his artistic conscience, he considers and acts on the suggestions made, the corrections and emendations proposed—as I know, from having had the honor to vet the Tudor section of his History of the English-speaking Peoples . The result is to be seen in the remarkable accuracy of one who has written so much.
In the first volume of his Marlborough , too much space is given up to Churchill’s controversy with Macaulay—as Sir Winston has admitted to me; but he felt he had to do it, to rebut Macaulay’s accusations point by point, and he has done it once and for all. One of Macaulay’s habits he has followed to good purpose—which other historians might practice to advantage: namely, of going to see the places one is writing about, describing them as they lie under one’s eye. Hence, in part, the visual vividness and clarity of his books. He has told me how he followed Marlborough’s route across Germany to Blenheim and studied all his battlefields on the spot—as he has a good many of the Civil War battlefields in the East. He has had the advantage of his early training as a soldier, and of a passionate interest in every aspect of war, strategy, tactics, new methods and weapons, at sea as on land, and latterly in the air. The importance of this was not appreciated in the slack, pacifistic atmosphere of the 1930’5, in which his was a solitary voice speaking out against the well-meaning illusions of the democracies. The factor of power, after all, is the first consideration, though it may not be the last, in human affairs. Some reflection of his irritation with our fondness for illusions appears in his summing up of Marlborough’s achievement at half-time: “one man and three battles had transformed all. Yet men bleat— War settles nothing .” The sad truth is that sometimes only a war will settle something: the evil of Nazi Germany, for example, or Napoleon’s tyranny over Europe. Or what about the Civil War?
The miserable decade of the 1930’s in Britain, which kept Churchill out of office and enabled him to finish Marlborough , also gave him time to write the first draft of his History of the English-speaking Peoples .
Once more Churchill had undertaken an immense task, a narrative history on a large scale such as professional historians nowadays are apt to shrink from. There was much professional curiosity as to how he would acquit himself. We need not have feared: it turned out a masterpiece, though he had not finished his work upon it—in his usual conscientious manner, rewriting, correcting, inserting, shaping up—until his eighty-third year.
Even the most technical historians saw the point that Churchill’s immense political experience, his proved long-sighted vision into affairs, his practical grasp of statesmanship, gave extra value to his judgment of affairs in the past, which is the staple of history. “History is past politics” is a restricted definition of the subject, but it serves for Churchill. Men have the defects of their qualities, but also the qualities of their defects. He has never been much interested in economic matters—a surprising omission in a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. His real concern as a historian has been with the state as such, its government and institutions, its power expressed in its armed forces, diplomacy and the art of war—which is, alas, one aspect of the relations of the powers. This is the central thread of history to him: what governs, not what wells up from below.