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

7 September 2007

I once had the amazing good fortune to meet Cambridge historian David Reynolds, and I think I flummoxed him a little (in the good way) when I told him straight off that I was a great fan of his work. Britannia Overruled is a classic reference text for anyone interested in studying Anglo-American relations, and Rich Relations is an intriguing look at Anglo-American relations during the ‘American occupation of Britain’ in World War II. So perhaps in keeping with his Anglo-American theme, Reynolds’ book focuses on a true Anglo-American output — Winston Churchill — and more specifically, Churchill’s impressive six-volume history of the Second World War.

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

One of the quotations often attributed to Churchill is the pithy and somewhat flippant declaration: ‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it’. Brave words from any politician, but in a sense Churchill really did write the history that would later lionise his name. After the Conservative Party’s massive defeat at the polls in 1945, Churchill was left as the Leader of a tiny Opposition and faced with the need to earn some kind of income to offset the extremely high tax rates that the Labour Party had recently imposed. With reams of personal papers at his disposal — as well as a number of highly sensitive government documents that just happened to have come with him when he left Downing Street — he set out to write a detailed history of the war that had just been won.

There’s been so much written about Winston Churchill from just about every possible angle, from admiring hagiographies to damnation with only the faintest of praise. Reynolds’ approach to this study of Churchill after the war is both novel and utterly fascinating. Churchill is as much a larger-than-life figure in this day and age as he was during his lifetime…and so there’s something terribly human about a Churchill who is desperate to cut a good deal with his publishers, hoping to secure an advance on his writing to prevent having to sell his beloved Chartwell, or a Churchill who is worried that he might (A) die or (B) win the next General Election (both of which seemed to be equally unwelcome possibilities) before he can finish the next volume of his book. It’s a side of Churchill that isn’t often seen, even by historians.

Reynolds writes with equally painstaking detail about the writing process, picking through multiple drafts and identifying selections that were cut out to avoid offending living politicians or relationships with Britain’s allies, or even to conceal vital state secrets such as the truth about the codebreakers of Bletchley Park. It’s history at the nitty-gritty level, writing about the history of history being written — and in being written, how that history shapes people’s perceptions of the very immediate past and perpetuates that image into the future. It’s certainly not a surprise that the book won the 2004 Wolfson History Prize, because Reynolds proves that it is indeed possible to write a history book that can appeal to historians and ‘lay readers’ alike. As he says in his introduction, ‘…Churchill the historian has shaped our image of Churchill the Prime Minister’, and In Command of History deftly illustrates how successful Winston Churchill actually was in writing the history that would later be so kind to him.

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