A Wikipedia question
From a colleague:
Someone has written asking for the source of a quote in Wikipedia about Churchill’s book, The World Crisis. It appears in your Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill. about the World Crisis. You quote Churchill as saying the book is: “not history, but a contribution to history.” Are those actually his words?
If not, it’s kind of a mess, because, as the inquirer points out, the quote now appears on Wikipedia in the first paragraph of The World Crisis entry and it is sourced to my firm! I’ll correct it on our site but I think you should try and correct it on Wikipedia. I will too.
I’ll share your reply with the inquirer. They wanted to use the correct quote in a new book. Oh, the quotation ripple effect. As who better than you knows…
Caught out by quote marks
Indeed my friend and Wikipedia have caught me in excessive quote marks. Back in 1998, I wrote in the Connoisseur’s Guide: “Of The World Crisis he declared that it was ‘not history, but a contribution to history’; later, of The Second World War, he would say similarly, ‘This is not history; this is my case.'”
The Second World War quote is right. His literary assistant, Bill Deakin, related it to official biographer Martin Gilbert. See Winston S. Churchill vol. 8, Never Despair 1945-1965, page 315. But I muffed the first one.
The correct quotation is in The World Crisis, vol. 2, 1915, on page 9 of the first edition (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1923):
I must therefore at the outset disclaim the position of the historian. It is not for me with my record and special point of view to pronounce a final conclusion. That must be left to others and to other times. But I intend to set forth what I believe to be fair and true; and I present it as a contribution to history of which note should be taken together with other accounts. I cannot expect to alter the fixed and prevailing opinions of this generation. They lived and fought their way through the awful struggle in the light of the knowledge given to them.
Not history but his case
Churchill wrote more or less the same thing in his preface to The Gathering Storm, the first of his six volumes on the Second World War: “I do not describe it as history, for that belongs to another generation. But I claim with confidence that it is a contribution to history which will be of service to the future.”
It is important to get this right, because Churchill’s accounts of the two world wars are often incorrectly described as histories. He was adamant that this was a job for later historians. His own texts were his recollections—which, of course, were his “case.” He certainly wanted the books to explain and defend his own actions.
Kudos to Wikipedia
I was able in a few minutes to correct the World Crisis entry on Wikipedia. The entry now reads: “Churchill denied it was a ‘history,’ describing the work in Vol. 2 as ‘a contribution to history of which note should be taken together with other accounts.'”
My colleague and I are donors to Wikipedia and often respond to their periodic pledge drives. I often wonder how Wiki manages to be so evenhanded in its entries—particularly in today’s strained political climate. After all, anyone at all can make a correction, and there is a lot of misinformation out there.
I am assured that Wikipedia has a crack team of editors and fact-checkers. Indeed they require anyone making edits to identify themselves, and to explain the nature of the correction. A friend advises that one of his own entries was immediately deleted, while Wikipedia emailed him asking him to please provide a quotation source. It turned out that he was quoting himself! Nevertheless, the Wiki editors were on guard lest someone’s copyright be infringed. Good for them.