IN COMMAND OF HISTORY: CHURCHILL FIGHTING AND WRITING THE SECOND WORLD WAR. By David Reynolds. Random House. 632 pages. $35.
During the last stages of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin. I agree that we had better leave the past to history, but remember if I live long enough, I may be one of the historians, he said.
Not only did he become one of the historians he became the historian of the Second World War, turning out with astonishing speed a masterful and mammoth six-volume history within a few years.
That was an incredible achievement especially since the author was not only a major historian. He was, more than anyone else, the man who had won the war, or at least that is how he is still regarded by millions around the globe.
Naturally, history is constantly being revised, and it is now pretty universally understood that most of the fighting and dying was done by the Soviet Union, which lost nearly a hundred times more men than Great Britain.
Yet the fact remains that Winston Churchill was the man responsible for not throwing in the towel and arranging some kind of settlement with Nazi Germany in 1940, after France fell. Had any other leader been in charge, it is almost certain that would have happened.
What that would have meant was that the Nazis would have won or at the very least, could not have lost World War II.
When it was over, Winston Churchill wrote his history of it an astonishing nearly two million words that have helped shape virtually everything written on the war since, whether their authors agreed with Churchill or not.
But while thousands of books have been written about his conduct of the war, this is the first one to peel back the curtain on how the books themselves were written.
David Reynolds, a professor of international history at Cambridge University, shows how although Churchill was a man of ferocious energy and formidable self-discipline, he nevertheless depended heavily on a team of researchers ( the syndicate ) to help him put together the material.
That included not only collecting documents and finding facts, but writing long narrative sections some of which Churchill rewrote extensively, other parts of which he placed into his history essentially unchanged.
There is nothing unethical about that. Many major historians, especially the more prolific ones, commonly work that way, often using their students.
The mechanics of the writing are interesting; what is more so is what was left in and what was left out. Ironically, Churchill s The Second World War only became possible because at the end of the war, the British voters shocked the world by throwing him out of office. That gave him the time to write.
Some of the omissions and distortions in the books are not his fault; the government still insisted that he conceal how the allies broke the German secret codes. Others are mere mistakes of memory. Yet there are still some more serious flaws. The fighting on the Eastern front is shamefully minimized.
The disaster at Dieppe doesn t get enough space, nor, one could argue, does Katyn Forest or the Holocaust, though Churchill might argue back that those events weren t properly part of military history. In some cases, perhaps subconsciously,
Churchill downplayed, as Reynolds notes, aspects of his war conduct of which he did not feel entirely proud.
Nevertheless, the more you learn about Winston Churchill and his writing of history, the more you end up admiring him. Those who thought of him as a god may either be angry or disillusioned. Those with some perspective will be awed.
Not only was he turning out this huge project well into his 70s, he was doing it while holding down a considerable travel and speaking schedule as leader of his party and as a world statesman. As he was finishing his memoirs, in what he must have seen as a final vindication, he once again became prime minister.
Politically, Winston Churchill was the man of the century. Reflecting on the relatively small flaws in his epic work, I remembered the famous quote, History is written by the victors. He had said that, too, of course. For those who love history, this is a beautifully written book that sheds light on the working and writing style of the most important victor of all.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade s ombudsman.