Contemporary accounts by actual participants in great, climactic, or catastrophic events in world history often achieve tremendous popularity for a brief period. They are widely discussed in the light of other circumstances, but are then permitted to fall into the anomalous category of “source books” for infrequent reference on obscure detail. Because of the circumstances of authorship, the insights given, and the dramatic drive of the narrative itself, it is safe to say, however, that Sir Winston Churchill’s history of World War II will not soon fall into the category of forgotten books by the participant in the making of history.
Churchill brought to his monumental undertaking not only his intimate knowledge of military affairs and strategy dating back to the beginning of the present century, but also half a century of activity in parliamentary and international affairs. To these qualifications he added also the skill of a seasoned lecturer on world problems and the invaluable experience of an accomplished author of more than a dozen significant books. Moreover, as Churchill notes in the preface to the first volume, this history is intended as a continuation of the three books he wrote on World War I: The World Crisis, The Eastern Front, and The Aftermath. Together, the early three books and the six on World War II comprise an account of what might be called another Thirty Years’ War.
Within no more than six or seven years, Sir Winston Churchill produced the historical work which he calls simply THE SECOND WORLD WAR. The scope of the enterprise is suggested by the fact that it extends through a half dozen volumes averaging well over eight hundred pages each, and that it encompasses most of the significant occurrences from the close of World War I in 1919 until July 26, 1945—approximately a quarter of a century. Geographically, this history is global, since it concerns the far-reaching exploits of armed forces whenever there was conflict in both hemispheres.
Following the method employed in his history of the first world war, Churchill takes the personal-experience approach that Defoe used in his MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER. Concerning the second global war, Churchill writes with greater authority, since he was chief of His Majesty’s Government for more than five years. Despite the complexity of action and counteraction, the multitude of events and personages and decisions to be carried out, Churchill’s main purpose in his history is simply to show that the inevitability of war stemmed from the lack of a consistent and resolute policy among the democracies.
The first volume, titled THE GATHERING STORM, begins with a swift appraisal of the twenty-year period from 1919 to 1939, termed in retrospect, “From War to War.” In this account Churchill decides that the principal folly of the victors in World War I was their failure to keep Germany disarmed. The victors pursued their universal hope that peace would reign, and their designation of the first conflict as “the war to end wars” reveals their ideal. But the scheme of reparations did not work; the League of Nations was rendered impotent; and world-wide economic dislocation followed the collapse of the American stock market in...
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