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Leaves the Old Man Still Firmly in Command of History - Unfortunately,
This review is from: In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (Paperback)
Another book about Churchill and the Second World War. Can it tell us something new? Reynolds argues that yes, it can. Does he succeed in doing this?
In one sense, he does succeed. The book is replete with scholarly detail and thoroughly researched. You are bound to learn something new from this book, even if you are familiar with the history of World War II, on account of the sheer amount of information the book includes. However, the book missed an opportunity to deconstruct some of Churchill's myth-making and also to offer a more rounded historical account of key events.
To his credit, Reynolds has not written a hagiographical account. He includes details that tarnish Churchill's reputation as the great prophet forecasting the perils of fascism, such as Churchill's support for Francisco Franco's coup against the democratically elected Spanish Republican government. He also provides plenty of examples where Churchill edited the record for various contemporary political purposes of his own, and where he sought to obfuscate the details of his responsibility for disastrous decisions.
But the bigger picture is missed: despite its scholarly details, Reynolds expends too much effort on the vicissitudes Churchill and his research team experienced in their battles with publishers and the politicking to get access to still-classified documents. There is too much focus on the details of decisions made during the war at the expense of offering us a deeper understanding of how Churchill's myth-making continues to affect popular perceptions of the conflict. The opportunity to offer us a deeper understanding of some of the key issues on the causes and course of the Second World War is lost. The book fails to rise above Churchillian platitudes that should have been disregarded long ago. In these senses, the book does not tell us anything new.
Two examples will suffice to illustrate my points in greater detail.
The first example is the Battle of Britain in 1940. The battle is fixed into our popular consciousness, the valiant `Few' against the Luftwaffe swarms. `The Few' was of course Churchill's phrase, and this pithy epithet continues to define how the battle is perceived to this very day. But historians (such as Richard Overy) tell a different story: the balance of planes and pilots made it a better-matched contest than was realised at the time. The few faced the fewer.
These facts were not known in 1940 but captured German documents after 1945 showed otherwise. Churchill knew of them by the time he set down his account but chose, for reasons that Reynolds does not make entirely clear, to discount them. But the point is that the myth endures, not so much because historians insist on perpetrating it, but because for some reason Churchill's mythologising continues to define popular perceptions of the conflict, especially in the UK.
This doesn't mean the battle was a pushover. Nor does this diminish the courage of the pilots of Fighter Command, or minimise the sufferings of civilians in the Blitz. It just means that Churchill's telling of it continues to confound a proper popular historical understanding of a pivotal event, 70 years later, and Reynolds does not deal adequately with this.
The second example is Churchill's treatment of the appeasers, who were `nailed ... into their coffins' by Churchill's memoirs, as Reynolds observes. Chamberlain said he could trust Hitler in 1938. Churchill said he could trust Stalin in 1945. Both men said they could trust a dictator's word, and both of them were wrong. Yet Chamberlain's reputation languishes in obloquy, Churchill's remains exalted. Why?
You can say in Churchill's defence that circumstances meant he had no choice. Stalin's armies dominated Poland and, short of fighting World War III, there was no way anyone could hold Stalin in 1944-45 to his promise to hold free elections in Poland. All this is true. However, there is a case to be made for Chamberlain too: that the country was not prepared for war in 1938; that fighter defences against the perceived bomber threat were not ready; that appeasement bought vital time to rearm; that the policy was informed by a noble desire to avoid a repeat of the horrors of World War One; that the policy of appeasement was popular at the time.
Appeasement we now know was a failure. But the history of it continues to be defined as morality play (largely on account of Churchill's memoirs), and fails to properly appreciate the motives of the actors concerned, and the restraints under which they felt they acted.
Why does this matter? Churchill's view of the appeasers continues to inform how we see not only the past but present dilemmas. The use of the Munich analogy - with regards to Nasser in 1956 and Saddam Hussein in the 2000s - illustrates the pernicious consequences of using history to devise policy in relation to problems that bear no relationship to Europe of the 1930s. False comparisons to Munich were not the only reason for British policy failures in both Suez in 1956 and in Iraq more recently, but Munich and the Churchillian account of appeasement did nothing to inform a wiser policy response in both instances.
Reynolds fails to offer a more judicious historical understanding of a key episode. Churchill continues to tell his side of the story from beyond the grave. This is not on account of any state-sponsored personality cult. It is a testament to the enduring legacy of the great man's powerful rhetorical and oratorical gifts. But not all historians have been so bewitched. There is a plurality of interpretations among historians and Reynolds fails to capture this. Had he done so, he might have given us a more nuanced portrait of a still-fascinating figure.