Wikipedia: Churchill’s World War Accounts, History or Memoirs?

Wikipedia: Churchill’s World War Accounts, History or Memoirs?

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.'”

Vol 2 Kin­dle Edi­tion (Roset­ta Books)

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.

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