May 24, 2013



“The Man Who Made His Own History,” by Richard Holmes. BBC History Magazine, April 2005.


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Any biographer faces difficulties in maintaining his objectivity as he gets closer to his subject. This problem is even more intense in the case of Churchill, who directed so much of his energies and working life to ensuring that his own writings projected history as he saw it. Moreover, WSC possessed such a powerful personality that some biographers find themselves referring to “Winston” by his first name—which shows how hard it is to distance oneself from the man.

After researching Churchill’s long and varied life, it is clear that there is still something new to say. This is especially the case regarding his early life, where the military influence was predominant; and in his and the political establishment’s role in the treatment of the fighting man after World War I. The more that one delves into such a complicated and rich life, the more one realises that few things in the picture of Churchill’s life were clear and simple.

Not only did Churchill turn his historical work into a self-portrait, but he was in his very being a contradiction. He enjoyed wearing uniforms but was not a militarist and was, as the veteran British left-wing MP Tony Benn has said, well to the left of Tony Blair’s New Labour; yet he spent most of his political life in the Conservative Party. Moreover, Churchill wielded more power than any Prime Minister in history, yet saw himself as the servant, not the master, of Parliament.

Part of the problem for the biographer, and one of the most striking facets of Churchill’s career, was that he was as much a writer as a politician. It is a surprising fact that students of Churchill have been reluctant to grant him professional status in any field other than politics. This is remarkable for a man who published some fifty books, 800 articles, numerous speeches, and who made far more money than all but a few “professional” writers. Part of this drive, it is true, was owed to Churchill’s perennial need for money, forced upon him by his “nothing but the best” lifestyle; but that does not detract from his de facto professional status.

Even with his “factory” of literary assistants in his later years, Churchill did not pretend to be a professional or academic historian. “This is not history,” he was to say, “this is my case.” Moreover, he felt that history would be kind to him, for he was to write it. History was not, therefore, merely a labour of love and a much-needed source of income, it was part of Churchill’s campaign to adjust the historical record so as to favour his own reputation. Indeed, this was not something which began in his later years when he had a reputation to protect, but in his early years, when he was building a reputation that did not yet exist, and seeking to bring himself to the notice of a waiting public that he regarded as a blank canvas upon which to project himself.

And yet there was a further aim to Churchill’s writing: to rehabilitate his ancestors and to enhance his family’s reputation. Both his biographies of his father, Lord Randolph (a somewhat hagiographic work) and of the First Duke of Marlborough, display a determination to present history in the way most favourable to his relatives.

It is to be regretted that, as a professional historian, Churchill was inclined to try to “retouch the portrait,” which makes any biographer’s job that much more challenging; but it is impossible to deny a powerful affection for that fusion of history and myth which characterises a man who may have been, far from a dry professional, a master story-teller. 


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