Paul Addison, 1945-2020: What Matters is the Truth

Paul Addison, 1945-2020: What Matters is the Truth

29 October 1994

A fond and fun­ny mem­o­ry of Paul Addi­son is one which few know about. It came dur­ing a Wash­ing­ton sym­po­sium on “Churchill as Peace­mak­er,” lat­er pub­lished as an out­stand­ing book. Dur­ing a break, we walked over to the White House, which Paul want­ed to see. We stood at the iron fence, gaz­ing at the seat of pow­er across the lawn.
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As we chat­ted, Paul remarked on how close we were to the build­ing itself. “The secu­ri­ty seems pret­ty light,” he said. “It’s not hard to visu­al­ize some stray lunatic stand­ing here and spray­ing the walls with bul­lets.”
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That same after­noon, a fel­low named Fran­cis­co Duran did exact­ly that with a semi-auto­mat­ic rifle. Paul Addi­son heard the news white-faced. We all jibed him that micro­phones were plant­ed on the fence. And now the Secret Ser­vice had arrived and was ask­ing to inter­view him…. Paul was not amused!
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I’ve lost count of how often I’ve dined out on that one.  And even more on the Addi­son max­im: “I have always thought that, para­dox­i­cal­ly, it dimin­ish­es Churchill to treat him as super­hu­man.” Paul was a scrupu­lous his­to­ri­an. He real­ized, above all, that what mat­ters is the truth. Tell the truth about your sub­ject, he would say. If your sub­ject is wor­thy, it needs no enhance­ment.

A Corpus of Excellence

Addison
Paul Addi­son (Univ. of Edin­burgh)

Paul read for an under­grad­u­ate degree at Pem­broke Col­lege, Oxford before mov­ing to Nuffield Col­lege, Oxford for post­grad­u­ate study. In 1967 he became a Lec­tur­er at Edin­burgh Uni­ver­si­ty and sub­se­quent­ly a Read­er for twen­ty-three years. He became an Endow­ment Fel­low in 1990, and Direct­ed the Cen­tre for Sec­ond World War Stud­ies from 1996 to 2005.

Paul wrote for the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, the New States­man and the Lon­don Review of Books. Pri­mar­i­ly, his wife Rosy remem­bers, he aimed “to make mak­ing his­to­ry acces­si­ble, under­stand­able and com­pre­hen­si­ble to his fel­low human beings.”

We met in mid-1994, when Bar­bara and I host­ed our sev­enth Churchill Tour. Our sec­ond in Scot­land, it was a notable adven­ture, tak­ing us all the way to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. There we saw, on full-col­or sonar, the shape of HMS Roy­al Oak on the bottom—torpedoed by U-47 in 1939. It was an eerie image, like that of USS Ari­zona at Pearl Har­bor. Our tour began with a vast exhib­it of Churchill in polit­i­cal car­toons, orga­nized for us at Edin­burgh Uni­ver­si­ty by Paul, and David Stafford, his long­time col­league. From then on, I paid atten­tion, and read every book of theirs I could lay my hands on.

Paul Addi­son wrote and edit­ed ten Churchill works, list­ed below. His clas­sic, still a “stan­dard work,” was Churchill on the Home Front (1992). Atyp­i­cal­ly for most Churchill writ­ers then, Paul took the approach of study­ing the domes­tic side of WSC’s pol­i­tics. Until this book, the pre­vail­ing impres­sion was that Churchill was bored with domes­tic issues. Method­i­cal­ly Paul showed how com­plete­ly wrong that was, weigh­ing the evi­dence with  grace and under­stand­ing.

“High sense of the British moment”

Paul under­stood the statesman’s great­ness, warts and all. “Which warts,” William Buck­ley said, “do not deface Churchill because of the nobil­i­ty of his cause, and his high sense of the British moment.” Noth­ing will ever sur­pass 1940—but Churchill accom­plished much else. Paul limned the peaks, and the val­leys. Churchill’s faults like his virtues were on a grand scale, he would say. But there’s no doubt that the lat­ter heav­i­ly out­weighed the for­mer.

Here is an exam­ple: Churchill’s youth­ful fling with Eugen­ics, and the idea of ster­il­iz­ing the men­tal­ly incom­pe­tent. There was quite an uproar about this recent­ly when it was “dis­cov­ered.” (Read: some­one final­ly found it in the pub­lic records.)

Churchill’s Eugen­ics was a fling because he aban­doned it quick­ly, along with most intel­li­gent peo­ple. But some read­ers were out­raged. “I can nev­er think good things of him again,” one said. “No tru­ly edu­cat­ed intel­li­gent per­son could adopt such views.” (Well…a lot of edu­cat­ed intel­li­gent per­sons hap­pi­ly adopt­ed Nazism and Bol­she­vism.)

Dr. Addi­son showed us the bal­anced way to look at this issue. Churchill’s inten­tions were benign, he wrote. “but he was blun­der­ing into sen­si­tive areas of civ­il lib­er­ty.” Then he drew a deep­er les­son no one else had con­tem­plat­ed:

Yet it is rare to dis­cov­er reflec­tions of a politi­cian on the nature of man. Churchill’s belief in the innate virtue of the great major­i­ty of human beings was part and par­cel of an opti­mism he often expressed before the First World War.

This was per­cep­tive, broad­mind­ed and fair. And Paul also explained why Churchill was unique. Few politi­cians reflect on “the nature of man.” Few­er still  believe “in the innate virtue of human beings.” Such under­stand­ing is a rare thing among writ­ers of his­to­ry.

His Work Abides

Anoth­er  Addi­son tri­umph was, con­verse­ly, one of his short­est: his Churchill entry for the Oxford Dic­tio­nary of Nation­al Biog­ra­phy. Writ­ing for the DNB is not easy. One must be deft, eco­nom­i­cal, bal­anced and accu­rate. Paul’s Churchill piece is a mod­el of inci­sive wis­dom. It appears in book form in the Oxford VIP series. Every­one should read it: all that mat­ters about Win­ston Churchill in only 138 pages.
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And here is anoth­er Addi­son clas­sic: Churchill: The Unex­pect­ed Hero. The same clear expo­si­tion, expand­ed to 320 pages. Many review­ers call it the best “brief life” of Churchill ever pub­lished.
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In August 2018, Paul Addi­son was diag­nosed with lung can­cer. He fought it for eigh­teen months. Last June, we had planned a lunch with Paul and Rosy and a mutu­al friend, the his­to­ri­an Gor­don Bar­clay, when the Hills­dale Col­lege Cruise stopped in Edin­burgh. Alas, gales in the Firth of Forth pre­vent­ed our anchor­ing. By then Paul had told me of his sit­u­a­tion. Around the New Year I asked his friend David Stafford for news. It was not good. On Jan­u­ary 21st he left us.
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Our grief and loss are deeply felt. Paul was a gen­tle­man schol­ar: a man of strong con­vic­tions, who nev­er let them inter­fere with his his­tor­i­cal judg­ment. Hagiog­ra­phy is fatal. Truth mat­ters. That was his car­di­nal les­son.
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Above all, he left a cor­pus of excel­lence from which young peo­ple will always learn things worth know­ing. His work abides, and as Churchill said, a man nev­er dies as long as he is remem­bered. All who love his­to­ry will for­ev­er remem­ber Paul Addi­son.

Books by Paul Addison

The Road to 1945: British Pol­i­tics and the Sec­ond World War 1 (1977, rev. 1994). A rig­or­ous­ly researched study of the cru­cial moment when polit­i­cal par­ties put aside their dif­fer­ences to unite under Churchill and focus on the task of war. But the war years wit­nessed a rad­i­cal shift in polit­i­cal pow­er, dra­mat­i­cal­ly expressed in Labour’s deci­sive vic­to­ry in 1945.

Now the War Is Over: A Social His­to­ry of Britain, 1945–1951 (1985, rev. 1994). Vast changes in British soci­ety fol­lowed the most destruc­tive war ever known. Britain reshaped itself with high ideals and a col­lec­tive desire to enjoy the fruits and oppor­tu­ni­ties of peace­time.

Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 (1992). “A tour de force on Churchill as a domes­tic fig­ure rather than as the bull­dog wartime leader, and a sub­tle por­trait of him as a politi­cian. Addi­son revis­es the view of Churchill as unin­ter­est­ed and out of his depth in domes­tic affairs, paint­ing a nuanced pic­ture of a can­ny par­lia­men­tar­i­an.” —Kirkus

Churchill: The Unex­pect­ed Hero, Lives and Lega­cies Series (2005). In the Sec­ond World War, Churchill won twice: over Nazi Ger­many, and over a legion of scep­tics who derid­ed his judge­ment and denied his claims to great­ness. One of the best “brief lives” ever pub­lished on Win­ston Churchill.

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Win­ston Churchill, Oxford VIP Series (2007). Text from Dr. Addison’s Churchill entry for the new Dic­tio­nary of Nation­al Biog­ra­phy. Hailed as a minia­ture mas­ter­piece, an even briefer life than Unex­pect­ed Hero. It is dra­mat­ic and pen­e­trat­ing despite few­er than 150 pages. The ide­al book to read if you read noth­ing else about Churchill.

No Turn­ing Back: The Peace­time Rev­o­lu­tions of Post-War Britain (2010). Stud­ies the vast­ly chang­ing char­ac­ter of British soci­ety since the end of the Sec­ond World War. A series of peace­ful rev­o­lu­tions trans­formed the coun­try. The peace and pros­per­i­ty of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry appear as more pow­er­ful sol­vents of set­tled ways of life than the Bat­tle of the Somme or the Blitz.

The Con­nell Guide to Win­ston Churchill (2016). A short, inci­sive guide based on the author’s Dic­tio­nary of Nation­al Biog­ra­phy entry. Text is arranged in Q&A for­mat and designed to answer young people’s ques­tions about Churchill. It ana­lyzes his extra­or­di­nary career and looks at the rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ways in which his­to­ri­ans have seen him.

Editor – Contributor

Time to Kill: A Soldier’s Expe­ri­ence of War in the West (1997). Fore­word by Len Deighton. Papers by numer­ous schol­ars. Based on a Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh sym­po­sium on the Sec­ond World War seen through sol­diers’ eyes, from Africans under Euro­pean to com­mand, to Sovi­et women fight­ing along­side the men, to ordi­nary “squad­dies” on the front lines in all the­aters of war.

The Burn­ing Blue: A New His­to­ry of the Bat­tle of Britain (2000): Paul and Jere­my Craig com­pile the work of sev­en­teen accom­plished his­to­ri­ans on every aspect of a his­to­ry-chang­ing bat­tle. No sur­vey could be more wide-rang­ing or fas­ci­nat­ing. First pub­lished in 2000 to mark the 60th anniver­sary of the Bat­tle, since reis­sued.

Firestorm: The Bomb­ing of Dres­den, 1945 (2006). Paul, Jere­my Craig and a pan­el of experts reassess the evi­dence and the issues, includ­ing whether the Dres­den bomb­ing con­sti­tutes a war crime. The book con­sid­ers why Dres­den has come to raise mil­i­tary and eth­i­cal ques­tions on the wag­ing of total war.

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