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Thursday, April 8, 2004

This first analysis of Churchill's best-selling history of the Second World War reveals how the great man sometimes glossed over the truth


  In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

by David Reynolds (Penguin, £30)


Reviewed by Andrew Roberts

"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.

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David Irving comments:

"FIRST ANALYSIS"? It may be true that Mr Roberts, the wealthy, socialising author of this article, has not read the Churchill history volumes and compared them with the archival facts. Others have.
  I have too, as readers of my first two volumes of Churchill's War will know: Winston's brazen manipulation of history, for instance with regard to the 1940 Coventry air raid, the deliberately provocative bombing of Berlin in August 1940, and the resulting Blitz on London, the 1942 Dieppe fiasco, the total omission of the problems with General de Gaulle, and all the rest: the fact that there is no mention of Auschwitz, and he offers only two dry lines about the raid on Dresden -- on all of these facts I have commented as the years have passed.
   Roberts has not, because it was, and still is, dangerous ground to tread.
   Dr Reynolds has been kind enough to review my books most positively, if I remember rightly (the British authorities seized all the files of reviews of my books in May 2002): he is widely read and a proper archival researcher.
  Eventually the laptop a**licker Mr Roberts may aspire to the same credentials: eventually; but so far, he does not.
   My third volume reveals incidentally under what means Mr Churchill came to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; one of that prize's less auspicious moments in history.

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 [Harry S] Truman and [Dwight D] 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 itemizes every exaggeration, plagiarism, embellishment, omission, bowdlerization, 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 authorized version, would keep his own massive contribution centre-stage, but yet would not wreck his personal relations with 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 tell-tale ways in which Churchill's account of the war altered during the writing of the six volumes.

What Churchill dubbed his "Syndicate" of research assistants used to produce the initial factual drafts that he would then turn into his inimitable prose, and much of their correspondence with Churchill also survives, providing Reynolds with many more fascinating insights.

Reynolds is particularly acute on what did not appear in Churchill's account, despite their taking up much of his time during his momentous five-year premiership. There is no mention of his disputes with his deputy PM Clement Attlee, only one passing reference in an appendix to the Special Operations Executive, hardly a mention of the whole of Asia in the first volume The Gathering Storm, no mention of the 1943 Quebec agreement on nuclear weapons (because Truman asked him to excise it during the Korean War), nothing about Stalin's massacre of the Polish officer corps in the Katyn forest, and much else besides.

If the Forgotten Army of the Burma campaign feels forgotten, it might be because its contribution was reduced to a mere 3,000 words in the relevant volume. Usually there were perfectly reasonable explanations for Churchill's silence; the breaking of the Enigma code could not be included for security reasons, for example.

Occasionally Churchill dissembled in order to protect colleagues, as when he wrote that, over the issue of a negotiated peace in May 1940, the War Cabinet "were much too busy to waste time upon such unreal, academic issues", whereas, in fact, its agenda shows that five protracted meetings were held over three days on exactly that subject. Churchill also generously cut references to the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, trying to "buy off" Mussolini with various British Mediterranean possessions.

Cover-ups of that magnitude were few, but Reynolds lists literally scores of occasions on which Churchill made alterations on personal or political considerations, such as when Lord Mountbatten's blustering managed to secure a major toning down of Churchill's initial criticisms of the planning and intelligence relating to the Dieppe raid debacle of August 1942. Or when Marshal Tito broke with the Soviet Union in 1948, and the West therefore began making overtures to him, the Yugoslavian dictator was rewarded with the removal of any "unduly sharp" references to him in the book.

Churchill fought the Second World War twice over; once from 1939 to 1945, and once when he relived it as its principal historian. He won both times, but this superbly researched book shows why his war memoirs should now be read more as uplifting literature than as objective analysis.

Revealed: why Churchill considered negotiating with Germany in 1940
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