Tuesday 12 January 2010

Churchill as a Historian

Winston Churchill was arguably the last truly great historian in the old Whig tradition, and as such he is far more entertaining than the likes of T. B. Macaulay and others of his kin. As one would expect, his books are beautifully written, with all of the wit and literary flashes of his great speeches. They are also rich, it has to be said, in the same forms of hyperbole and declamation. I read A History of the English Speaking Peoples when I was in my early teens, and was thrilled, not so much by the history as by the prose and the power of his imagination.

So, was Churchill a great historian, as well as a great war leader? No, he was not. The work is too narrowly conceived, too partisan and too prone to dubious and superficial judgements. Above all, it is simply too old-fashioned, with its focus on kings, great men (almost exclusively so) and battles. No historian would now draw on Churchill as a source or an inspiration.

Will he last? Well, as long as people read Macaulay they will read Churchill, though I personally do not believe he will be as enduring as Edward Gibbon, one of his own literary influences. But he will endure, I think, for less obvious reasons. His writing might be said to have become a historical document, a source, if you will, in its own right, insofar as it reveals a considerable amount about the attitudes and outlook of a man of the late imperial age. Viewed in this way he may tell future historians about a perspective of the twentieth century, in much the same fashion as Thomas Carlyle does about the nineteenth.


  1. Sorry but I think you are wrong - he will still be read because of his use of language. And history is always subjective, and I could easily accuse modern historians (and in fact I do) that they are too partisan, too wrapped up in their own interpetations, far too prone to dubious superficial judgement - and are far too often caught out mis-using history to support their self-serving modern political thoughts : Indeed, I can accuse them of lacking both Churchill's practical experiences and his magnificent use of the English Language.

    Gibbons stays on the shelf in this office but I often take Churchill down and read him - he's unashamedly proud of his nationality, as I am. What a pity there are still too many academics in ivory towers who are not. (Hat tip to Orwell of course :))

  2. Oh, don't be sorry, Michelle. :-) Yes, the language is good though the hyperbole is tiresome at points. Still, the same could be said of Gibbon and I did enjoy reading Churchill, so your point is valid.

  3. I often used to see this old chap in Borders one of my old haunts in Oxford Street: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2013/2202089315_51c5795e27_o.jpg

    Surprisingly reading Macaulay's History of England aloud to himself until he dozed off ''Atque inter silvas academi quaerere verum.'

    Coming to the point though, I remember reading A History of the English Speaking Peoples at a very young age. There was a set of large hardback illustrated books that my local library had which I consumed voraciously. Churchill was a great speaker and a wonderful writer of prose and though I do agree with your judgement I believe his weaknesses are more apparent in our time than they were previously. I can spot the gaps and inconsistencies and hesitancy and doubts and this and thaat that I would not have noted or have chosen to ignore back then -

    Oh but knowledge robbed me of the bliss of ignorance
    I burn with desire to fly but know that I have no wings

    In short I agree with what Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad - Khalifatul Masih IV wrote concerning Churchill in his epochal book:

    His greatness did not lie in the office he had occupied, it was the office which was made greater when he occupied it.

    (Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth. Islam International Publications Ltd, 1998. xviii).

    Watch out for a blog I have upcoming on Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) on Carlyle. What I do not mention in it is his amusing concoction of the story regarding the bird cleaning the wax from Prophet Mohammad's ears. It is his imagination creatrix in action with no source in Islamic literature.

  4. Churchill was a fine historian. He wasn't writing in a academic context, and thus one must not judge him though standards to which he never set himself. He wrote personal histories--histories as a passion, an art...beyond any technicalities. He was brilliant, and will remain so, for any age. Brilliant analysis though, as always.