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“What Purpose History?” an Analysis of Churchill and Caesar as Writers of History
History or “a contribution to history”? The controversy has long surrounded Churchill’s and Caesar’s war memoirs. But Churchill’s work transcends Caesar in seeking an understanding, a point of view. Pictured: the 1983 Houghton Mifflin Chartwell Edition of Churchill’s war memoirs, elaborately bound in half blue leather and linen cloth, photo by courtesy of Marc Kuritz (churchillbookcollector.com).
Style and history
Comparisons between the works of Caesar and Churchill go beyond their making and writing of history. They extend to the character of their writing, including criticisms of it as illegitimate history. (Continued from “Winston Churchill and Julius Caesar, Part 1: Parallels and Inspirations.”)
The works of both authors merit consideration from a literary as well a historical perspective. Caesar’s work has been praised for its lucid style and elegant prose: “Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic war are more than simply a historical account of the events of the author’s campaigns during his proconsulship. Together with Caesar’s other historical work, the Civil War, they have long been recognized as literary creations in their own right.”33
Churchill’s writing is linguistically rich and colorful, often hailed as masterful. But styles and receptivity shift with the times. Rarely will a stylist find universal approval, Manfred Weidhorn writes: “Churchill’s archaic vision finds its worthy expression in a style that has struck many as out of season. It seems, depending on the critic, overripe, oratorical, classical (à la Gibbon, Johnson, or Macaulay), romantic, antique. Some have found in it, as well as in his roles, the ‘noble Roman,’ a blend of Caesar and Cicero.”34 Yet Churchill won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his mastery of historical and biographical description.” That would seem to argue in his favor. But whatever the literary merits of their works, both Caesar and Churchill have fallen under suspicion as historians.
“A good view from the top”
Churchill, Weidhorn continues, wrote from a commanding perspective: He “is always seeking, and sooner or later obtaining, a vantage point, a good view from the top, a prominent position, whether as an amateur observer of battlefronts, as politician, or as chronicler of his age.”35 The idea that great personages shape destiny of mankind was nowhere more appealing or evident to Churchill than in war. Yet even here, he noted, the modern world moves toward eliminating their role: “We see the modern commander entirely divorced from the heroic aspect by the physical conditions which have overwhelmed his art. No longer will Hannibal and Caesar, Turenne and Marlborough, Frederick and Napoleon, sit their horses on the battlefield and by their words and gestures direct and dominate between dawn and dusk the course of a supreme event.”36
Churchill in his writing sought to recover or emulate this comprehensive view. During the Second World War, he practiced the direction and control exercised by great figures of the past. The war’s very history reflects that. And he has a special claim of perspective on the events he narrates. Certainly, at least for a time, he directed and dominated events. In his war memoirs, his method was to build the narrative around his own memoranda, directives, telegrams and writings.37
Equally, Caesar sought and exploited this commanding perspective. He too probably relied on notes, diaries, dispatches, memoranda, and reports to the Roman Senate. These documents provided the skeleton which were given flesh through added content and literary embellishment.38
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The result of such an approach is a personal narrative that may lack the larger, objective outlook of a standard work of history. On the other hand, as Maurice Ashley points out, no historical account is devoid of the personal. And those accounts which are most personal are often the most enduring…
[Churchill’s] has been described as “a bad method” of writing history. I do not accept this. All modern historians…select facts to illustrate their argument, as they must, are giving a personal view to history. Some of the history books that have endured the longest are the narratives by men who have taken part in the events of which they are writing or at least had personal experience, notably such classical histories as those of Xenophon, Thucydides, Caesar, and Tacitus.39
Nonetheless, the same question is sometimes applied to both Caesar and Churchill. Does devotion to their commanding perspective and own memoranda—the personal element— delegitimize their accounts?
The purpose of history
Many who read Caesar’s works believe they are more about him than the events they relate. Is his purpose only propagandistic, showcasing his virtues and leadership abilities? “We can assume that The Gallic War, like any other memoir of a great personality, is self-serving,” writes Alexa Jervis. It is “intended to aid Caesar’s massive political ambition and enhance his achievement.”40 Similar complaints were lodged against Churchill, particularly with regard to The Second World War.
Critics held that Churchill was overly concerned with the judgments to be passed on his own actions. This skewed him toward self-justification. Maurice Ashley saw the work as “essentially and avowedly autobiographical…. Dealing with the period after he took over as British Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in the Second World War, Churchill almost ceases to write in any real sense as a detached historian of events, though he is conscious throughout that he is justifying his own actions and decisions before the bar of history.”41 Does Churchill’s interest in self-vindication encroaches upon the field of legitimate history writing? This is the most serious charge leveled against him—that his concern with personal justification undermines his attachment to truth.
Caesar’s truthfulness also figures in analyses of his work. For decades, there was a central question about his works, writes Alexa Jervis. “Are they an accurate historical account of his activities? If not, has Caesar willfully distorted the record and why? Was Caesar a flagrant liar, embellishing his own achievements at every opportunity, or was he a plain-spoken truth-teller?” This charge is based in part on what Caesar does not say. His omissions allow for a clear but incomplete narrative that serves his purposes.42
The sin of omission
The same charge of omission was leveled at Churchill’s The Second World War. Chiefly, Maurice Ashley notes, if involved official correspondence. “Churchill printed many of his own appreciations and instructions [but] rarely gave the answers or responses he received.” Yet the silences “are often the most significant parts of the story.”43
What Churchill left out frustrated several wartime colleagues. They believed he minimized their contributions while maximizing his own. Some who bore responsibility thought this unfair—that it would mislead future historians.44 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, who had many stormy encounters with Churchill during the war, was a prominent critic.45 His grievances no doubt drew strength from Churchill’s remark: “I shall leave it to history, but remember that I shall be one of the historians.”46
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If the narratives presented by Churchill and Caesar are bent to their purposes, the question arises: what are those purposes? Caesar’s are not controversial. He uses the Gallic wars to gain power and influence; his narratives serve to enhance his reputation. Caesar’s purpose is not essentially historical, especially from a modern perspective:
Held up against the modern idea of history, the commentaries fall short of it variously. They have been found inadequate for their narrow range of interests, for their lack of any real detail, and above all for their tendentiousness as effected by distortion, omission, and falsification…. to modern eyes they disqualify as history first and foremost in that they do not reflect the historian’s search for an objective truth. [But] Roman historians were not held to the standard of what we would call “the objective truth.” Rather, they were expected to form a coherent and versimilar account of the past that, while subjectively true, might well fall short of the modern standard.47
Different history for different times
Historiographical conventions, like preferred styles, shift over time. Caesar would likely not accept the charge of self-justification because of the prevailing conception of history in his day. His accounts deliberately court an ambiguity of genre between history and narrative self-advancement. The reader is bidden to view his works “not as history but with history in mind.”48
Churchill’s approach many centuries later is however quite different. His primary aim—unlike Caesar—is not to instruct about himself. Churchill seeks an understanding, a point of view. His purpose, writes John Lukacs, is “less to justify himself than to justify his perspective: if only the British and French government had behaved better, this war could have been avoided.”49 Churchill’s aim is exhortatory. He makes that plain in the title and the content of the first chapter of his first volume: “The Follies of the Victors”:
After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war,” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into reality…. Instead, a gaping void was opened in the national life of the German people….and into that void after a pause there strode a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository and expression of the most virulent hatreds that have ever corroded the human breast—Corporal Hitler.50
“A contribution to history”
For Churchill, history was another form of action.51 In the realm of action, he strove to turn the course of events. Later he took up the pen hoping to ensure the same errors were not repeated.
Churchill’s memoirs of the Second World War are undeniably personal and participatory.52 He makes no apology for offending the conventions of modern historiography. But—and this is significant—neither does he claim the title of historian. “I do not describe it as history,” he wrote, “for that belongs to another generation. But I claim with confidence that it is a contribution to history which will be of service to the future.”53 Here is a resemblance to Caesar: Winston Churchill wrote with “history in mind.”
In his final volume, Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill refers to his work as a “personal narrative”54 Is it more or less valuable for being so? Churchill clearly had his own opinion, but he knew he must leave the final judgment to the future. His answer to charges that magnified his own role was that his books were but a contribution. “…it would be for others to decide how much they contributed.”55
Justin D. Lyons is Associate Professor of Political Science at Cedarville University in Ohio, and author of “Churchill on Statesmanship: Pope Innocent XI,” “Churchill, Shakespeare, and Agincourt.” In 2015 he published Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés: Ambiguous Legacies of Leadership. His previous essay for the Churchill Project was “On War: Churchill, Thucydides and the Teachable Moment.”
34 Manfred Weidhorn, Sword and Pen: A Survey of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 234.
35 Manfred Weidhorn, Churchill’s Rhetoric and Political Discourse (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987), 2.
36 Winston S. Churchill, “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” Thoughts and Adventures (Wilmington, Del., ISI Books, 2009), 188.
37 See Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, 6 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948-53), viz. I, iii-iv; III, v; and IV, v.
38 Nousek, “The Gallic War as a Work of Literature,” 229-30.
39 Maurice Ashley, Churchill as Historian. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 91.
41 Ashley, Churchill as Historian, 159, 176.
42 Jervis, “The Gallic War as a Work of Propaganda,” 236-38.
43 Ashley, Churchill as Historian, 176, 208.
44 Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 190-91.
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45 Ramsden, Man of the Century, 213-15; David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Writing and Fighting the Second World War (New York: Random House, 2005), 406-08, 507-08. One could view these omissions cynically as a manipulation of the narrative for selfish ends. There are very real difficulties, however, in constructing a narrative of such complex events. It is difficult to do justice in everyone’s view while maintaining a readable, compelling text. Churchill appeals in Closing the Ring, vi: “It has been suggested that the answers to many of these documents should also be included. I, on the other hand, have found it necessary in this volume to practise compression and selection in an increasing degree… I can therefore only make my excuses to any who feel that their point of view is not fully set forth.”
46 Reynolds, In Command of History, ix.
49 John Lukacs, Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 119.
50 Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), 3.
51 Maurice Ashley, “Churchill and History,” in International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) Vol. 42, No. 1 (January 1966), 91.
52 Lukacs, Churchill, 104.
53 Churchill, Gathering Storm, iv.
54 Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), v.
55 John Ramsden, “‘That Will Depend on Who Writes the History’: Winston Churchill as His Own Historian,” in More Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain, Wm. Roger Louis, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 246.