David Reynolds teaches twentieth-century international history at Cambridge University, where he is a Fellow of Christ's College.
He has also held visiting appointments at Harvard University and Nihon University in Tokyo. He is the author of two prize-winning books on the Second World War - The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-1941, and Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945. He co-authored An Ocean Apart, which accompanied the BBC/PBS TV series on twentieth-century Anglo-American relations for which he was principal historical adviser. Other publications include Britannia Overruled and, as editor, The Origins of the Cold War in Europe: International Perspectives and Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century.
David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge University. He has also held visiting appointments at Harvard and Nihon University in Tokyo and is the author of six books, including two prize-winning studies of Anglo-American relations in World War Two. One World Divisible: A Global History since 1945 is also published by Penguin.
Why another book on Churchill? Hasn’t everything been said?
Definitely not. What’s amazing is how little we know about Churchill the writer, even though that’s how he made his living. And no one has examined his most famous work – The Second World War, published in six massive volumes between 1948 and 1954 – which has shaped our understanding of the greatest conflict of the 20th century.
So you’ve written a book about some books. Isn’t that rather dry?
No, again. Another neglected side of Churchill is his life post-1945 – after his finest hour as wartime Prime Minister. I’ve woven the story of his memoirs into the larger pattern of his post-war career. Because Churchill didn’t write his memoirs in serene retirement. Although over seventy, he stayed in active politics – determined to get back into Number Ten after his shock defeat in the election of 1945. And he also promoted himself as a truly world statesman, with celebrated performances such as his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, and his calls for a united Europe at Zurich and Strasbourg.
So how did Churchill’s political agenda influence his historical writing?
Here’s one example. In 1947-8 he was preoccupied by the deepening confrontation with Russia and the danger of a third world war. He therefore wrote The Gathering Storm – his volume about the 1930s – around the theme that, if firm measures had been taken against Hitler, war would not have been necessary. For Hitler, read Stalin, and the Cold War analogy was readily apparent.
How honest are the memoirs? Do they stand up in the light of history?
There are some big gaps – for instance, there’s very little on the Eastern Front, even though the Russians largely won the land war in Europe. Churchill slid over the Holocaust because I suspect he was embarrassed after the war that he wasn’t able to do more to help the Jews. And he left out some things because of national security – the biggest example is the Ultra Secret. All reference to the codebreakers of Bletchley Park was omitted at the request of MI6.
These volumes sold millions of copies. How do they compare with today’s bestsellers?
The book and serialization deal in 1947 was worth $2.25 million. Converting that to current money is hard, but at a minimum I would say it’s the equivalent of $18 million, possibly as much as $50 million. This puts Churchill comfortably in the same league as Bill and Hillary Clinton combined.
Any other parallels with the Clintons?
No. There’s absolutely no sex in my book. But lots about power, money and the most titanic war in world history – with a one-off, once-in-a-century human being at its heart. It’s been enormously exciting to write, and I hope some of that excitement rubs off on my readers.