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In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War Hardcover – November 1, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For many, the fact that Churchill won his Nobel for literature comes as a surprise, but he was a prolific—and very well paid—historian and journalist. Awarded Britain's Wolfson History Prize, this highly readable book by Cambridge historian Reynolds supplies the backstory to Churchill's massive postwar publishing project: the epic The Second World War. As the author notes, he's writing "a book about personal biography and public memory," beginning with Churchill's crushing defeat in the July 1945 election and offering a unique perspective on WWII, the onset of the Cold War and Churchill's determination to write the history of the 20th century's signal conflict. But Reynolds's real achievement is his grasp of the motives behind that determination: "Churchill's sense of the fickleness of fame... impelled him to be his own historian." He quotes a 1944 letter to Stalin in which Churchill writes, "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." Packed with detail and vivid characterizations (but still clearly a scholarly, thoroughly researched work), it's a different take on one of the few men capable of both making history and writing it. 16 pages of b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Subjecting Winston Churchill's monumental six-volume work The Second World War (1948-53) to historical scrutiny, Reynolds delivers a mixture of conclusions that, on the whole, reinforce the work's unique stature. In small and large ways, it has shaped popular and professional historians' perceptions of the global war of 1939--45, from naming it "the Second World War" to theses of its origin in appeasement and its outcome in the cold war. Reynolds seems all the more impressed because the work has survived abundant criticism. Churchill was not comprehensive; he was forced to omit the Ultra secret and was inclined to overlook the war in Russia and the Far East. Sometimes he got his facts wrong; sometimes he altered his text for his own purposes, such as his desire to return to power; and in Reynolds' view, he overindulged in counterfactual speculation. But Churchill was there at the center of events, portraying them with unsurpassed eloquence. Important scholarship, Reynolds' inquiry will intrigue the multitude that has read The Gathering Storm and its sequels. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First edition (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679457437
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679457435
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.7 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,076,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Gilberto Villahermosa on September 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a brilliant book! It is extremely well researched and written and tells a powerful and interesting story.

"In Command of History" is the history of a series of books - Winston Churchill's monumental and authoritative "The Second World War", his six-volume narrative of Great Britain in World War II. "In Command of History" is also many other things, including a book about World War II, the Cold War,and Churchill himself.

Perhaps the underlying theme of this book is that histories and memoirs written by politicians are not to be totally trusted for their aim is not historical accuracy, but rather to enhance the own political and military reputations and to vindicate their leadership.

Author David Reynolds writes about Churchill with an honesty and insight that is refreshing, covering every aspect of the British leader and his work. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book was the ability of Churchill to use classified documents that would not be available to historians for many years to come. Equally interesting are the many documents that were available but not used because they would have cast the author in an unfavorable light.

Certainly one of the most contentious issues that Reynold addresses is Churchill's resistance to Operation Overlord, the Allied Cross Channel invasion of the France. After the war the British leader expended a great deal of energy to show that he supported the invasion, but Reynolds research reveals this is not totally true. Also of interest to this reader was Churchill's decision to plan for an attack on Soviet Russia in 1945, "Operation Unthinkable.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By C. Hutton on November 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Prime Minister Winston Churchill started his career as a twenty-something journalist covering the Boer War back at the turn of the century. As was his habit, he became the story when he was captured by and then escaped from the South African Boers -- his journalistic tale launched his political career. Mr. Churchill, an accomplished writer, repeated this pattern of either writing about himself or his ancestors constantly (mixed in with his histories of America/England) to support his family during a low paying political career. The need for cash to support his expensive life-style led to his multi-volume epic "The Second World War" and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Anyone familiar with either William Manchester's or Martin Giblert's extensive biographies of Mr. Churchill is aware of his idiosyncratic and unique production of research and writing. After entertaining guests in the evening, he would either write or dictate through the night while leaving research of original sources to his devoted staff. He was a great synthesizer of information and a gifted writer who knew how to turn a phrase (see his speeches during World War II).

Mr. Reynolds covers the six year period when Mr. Churchill was out of political office and in his home office writing, essentially his wartime memoirs, while trying to cover the entire history of the War. Mr. Reynolds points out that the Prime Minister had a selective memory in favor of his own role -- in this regard he was no different from Mark Twain who told his audience the truth as he remembered it. With "The Second World War," Churchill was a second-tier historian and a first-rate storyteller. Mr Reynolds has extensively researched his own history of Mr. Churchill writing his history. "In Command of History" could had been trimmed down from its 600+ pages but when Churchill is front and center, it is a fascinating book for the reader.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Michael B. Crutcher on August 25, 2006
Format: Paperback
Winston Churchill liked to say that history would be kind to him, as he intended to write it. In Command of History tells the story of how he did this. David Reynolds, a Cambridge professor, has made a close examination of how Churchill wrote The Second World War. In doing so, he shows how Churchill used the books to place his own war-time actions in the best possible light and to further his future political agenda. Reynolds has thus produced a fascinating story of Churchill the writer, Churchill the politician and Churchill the statesman. It is an absorbing account that illuminates an undiscovered corner of the Great Man's career.

Reynolds shows that Churchill tried, and largely succeeded, in framing how history would view World War II. Indeed, by calling his history "The Second World War," he confirmed the name we would give to the conflict (recall that what we now know as "World War I" was originally called "The Great War.") Churchill "wrote" his account mostly while he was the leader of the Conservative opposition in the post-war Labor government of Clement Atlee. Churchill structured his six volume work, written between 1946 and 1954, and released in seriatim, to emphasize the elements of the conflict that he deemed most significant and in which he played the central role. Thus, Volume 1, "The Gathering Storm," was written to drive home the lesson of the failure of appeasement. "The Finest Hour" emphasizes the bravery of the British people at their darkest hour, when they turned to Churchill as Prime Minister in May 1940. By contrast, there is astonishing little about what in retrospect was the main field of combat: The Eastern Front, pitting Russia against Germany.
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