“Very seldom have great statesmen and warriors also been great writers. One thinks of Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, and even Napoleon, whose letters to Josephine during the first Italian campaign certainly have passion and splendor.” So began the presentation speech awarding the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature to Winston Churchill. Churchill was the great leader of the twentieth century—but was he a great writer? It is not as generally accepted as winning the Nobel—writing’s biggest prize—might indicate. The presenter’s penultimate line, “A literary prize is intended to cast luster over the author, but here it is the author who gives luster to the prize,” implies that Churchill was awarded the prize not for his literary achievement but because he led the West out of darkness in 1940 and happened to write a large number of history books. As with Dr. Johnson’s women preachers, the interest is not in how well he did it but that he did it at all.

Historians used to rank among the literary splendors of English literature—Macaulay, Grote, Carlyle, Adams, James Mill, Oman, Motley—and the best historians were exceptionally popular. The Nobel is a twentieth-century prize, though, and the only other historian to win it was Theodor Mommsen in 1902, in the very first years of the prize, for his books about ancient Rome. Mommsen and Churchill both believed that scholarship should be wedded to political awareness: that historical writing reaches its apogee when scholarship informs and influences a wide audience. Today, the historian aims not for literary artistry but for scientific accuracy and has ceded any popular audience to journalists. That Churchill’s books have survived this onslaught and remain in print is a testament to the abiding interest his life inspires. The reader who picks them up, though, will be rewarded with historical writing of the highest order: beautiful, informed, and insistent. Churchill understood the important truths of human association.

He believed that the history of England was that of the ceaseless advance of individual liberty.

He was the last of the great Whig historians. He believed that the history of England was that of the ceaseless advance of individual liberty. Englishmen fought for it on their own land, and they fought in foreign lands to preserve and spread it. Churchill’s histories of the World Wars make them part of a continuum: liberal democracy was the engine that defeated Louis XIV and Napoleon, and, in Churchill’s direct experience, it defeated Wilhelm II and Hitler. As a historian, Churchill represents exactly what Herbert Butterfield was decrying in his 1931 “Whig Interpretation of History”: “the study of the past with one eye, so to speak, on the present.” Churchill was a politician and was less interested in studying events than in arranging them. His writings were part of a larger campaign to move his political career forward (and to earn a living, as Members of Parliament were not yet paid when he won his first seat in 1900). He was also immensely prolific, writing more than thirty books, countless speeches, and enough journalism for his Collected Works to reach thirty-eight volumes and 19,000 pages.

Churchill understood the innate power of words to move when they are coupled to fundamental beliefs. The past was a palpable presence to him from a young age. He was born at Blenheim, built by Wren and Vanbrugh to commemorate one of the nation’s greatest soldiers, the Duke of Marlborough. His father was one of the chief parliamentarians of his generation—his every utterance reported verbatim in the press—and the family moved amongst the ruling castes of England. (On holiday from Harrow, Churchill met three future prime ministers in his parents’ house: Rosebery, Balfour, and Asquith.) A sense of England’s grandeur and mission surrounded him: from the Viceroy’s Palace in Phoenix Park in Dublin and St. James in London to his schooldays at Harrow and Sandhurst.

Churchill began to write because he sought recognition. In 1895, as a young lieutenant in the 4th Hussars, he employed his long vacation to visit the war in Cuba—where 200,000 Spanish troops were failing to suppress the Cuban drive for independence—and get a taste of life under fire. He also got his first freelance fees, for five articles on “The Insurrection in Cuba” in the Daily Graphic. Posted to India, he discovered that he didn’t know very much about the world and that army officers had lots of free time. Through the heat of the day, when most of his fellow subalterns slept, Churchill read: Gibbon, Macaulay, Lecky, Winwood Reade, Hallam, and the records of parliamentary speeches and debates. He also itched after advancement and knew how unlikely it was that he would receive any notice without a war. He saw writing as a possible answer, and his letters to his mother are full of wild schemes for getting to combat zones as a war correspondent. First he wanted to join small campaigns—on the Nile, in Matabeleland, and in Rhodesia. Then a short-lived war between Greece and Turkey ended before Churchill could get himself credentialed by either side.

Churchill may have been the grandson of both a duke and an American financier, but he had been poor at school.

Churchill was home on leave when word came that Sir Bindon Blood was to lead a punitive expedition against the Pathan tribesmen of the Swat Valley in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. He sent a telegram to Blood reminding him of an old promise of a place on the staff of the next frontier campaign and took the next boat back to India—a hot month-long voyage. In Bombay, he received a note from Blood: “Very difficult. No vacancies. Come as correspondent. Will fit you in. B. B.” Here was the beginning of a hugely successful writing career. His mother got him accredited to the Daily Telegraph, and Churchill arranged that his dispatches would also be published in the Allahabad Pioneer. The articles caused a sensation in England, and he turned his experience of frontier warfare into his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), earning more than four years’ pay as a subaltern from its success.

The money was almost as important as the recognition. Churchill may have been the grandson of both a duke and an American financier, but he had been poor at school, and he was poor as a young cavalry officer—who, the government assumed, would have private incomes. A profitable writing career was enticing, but the army threw up obstacles. His dispatches from the frontier with their criticism of superior officers had not sat well in Bombay or in the War Office. It took the prime minister himself—he had enjoyed The Malakand Field Force—to get Churchill onto the large Nile Expedition which was slowly wending its way toward Khartoum under Herbert Kitchener. His dispatches from what he termed “The River War” were even more controversial, and it was obvious that Churchill should leave the army and aim for Parliament. He resigned his commission in March 1899.

He failed in his first by-election, at Oldham, but was perfectly situated when the Boer War began, accepting a contract that made him the highest paid war correspondent of the time. His capture and escape from a Boer prison camp made him famous—and spurred the sales of The River War, which was just out—and he won running as a conservative at Oldham in the “Khaki Election” of 1900. His writing and his pubic speaking engagements had earned Churchill £10,000: a considerable sum in 1900.

 To write it, he did research in Cairo and met the major players of the English administration of Egypt and the Sudan.

The books that made his name as a young subaltern and journalist—The Malakand Field Force, The River War, Ian Hamilton’s March (1900), and From London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900)—are all autobiographical: what I saw at the wars. (The last two were mostly reprints of his newspaper coverage of the Boer War.) These are the works of a man pushing himself forward, trying for notice. The River War is the most impressive. To write it, he did research in Cairo and met the major players of the English administration of Egypt and the Sudan. The book reached two volumes and includes Churchill’s first real efforts at historical analysis. In it he laid down his historical method: surround the autobiographical with a full background and a critical analysis of each part of the action. The book is most famous for its account of the Battle of Omdurman, particularly Churchill’s participation in the last charge in battle by a British cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers:

The riflemen, firing bravely to the last, were swept head over heels into the khor, and jumping down with them, at full gallop and in the closest order, the British squadrons struck the fierce brigade with one loud furious shout. The collision was prodigious. Nearly thirty Lancers, men and horses, and at least two hundred Arabs were overthrown. The shock was stunning to both sides, and for perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses wedged in the crowd, bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggled, dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted and looked about them.

Churchill gave up journalism for much of the next fifteen years and poured his efforts into the extraordinary labor behind his speeches. He also embarked on a biography of his father. Lord Randolph was the most spectacular political failure of the Victorian Age. A gifted parliamentarian able to dominate the House of Commons, to both colleagues and opponents he seemed to have substituted ambition for principle. He resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer and from the leadership of the House of Commons in 1886 to gain his way on a small point of political rivalry. He never achieved prominence again—the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, was firm against his return: “Did you ever know of a man who, having lanced a boil on his neck, volunteers for another?”

Lord Randolph died in 1892 of, it is commonly thought, syphilis—to which is irascible temper and actions are often attributed. He was certainly an abominable father, and Churchill’s endless ambition—and the energy with which he sought preference—can easily be attributed to a lack of parental love. (His mother was also neglectful, caught up with her numerous affairs and society life.)

Churchill’s handling of the naval war was superb, but the charges stuck in public.

Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) is the only one of Churchill’s books that doesn’t have war as its major theme. This was a rare period of his life when military glory didn’t dominate his thoughts—he was focused on getting into the cabinet. It was the Agadir Crisis of July 1911, when Germany deliberately threatened war with France for diplomatic gain, that reawoke the soldier in Churchill. He became obsessed with the coming war and his prodigious energy produced a ceaseless flow of ideas and memoranda. Later that year, the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, made him First Lord of the Admiralty, and he performed wonders modernizing the service. When war came, the Royal Navy was ready and so was Churchill. He was the government’s most effective war minister, but his aggressive handling of his colleagues and tireless enthusiasm for novelty led to his being blamed for many disasters: most seriously, the fall of Antwerp in 1914 (which historians have shown was a Churchill triumph) and the attempt to force the Dardanelles, known today as the Gallipoli campaign. The majority of this criticism was unfounded and unfair. Churchill’s handling of the naval war was superb—Britain achieved rapid and complete naval supremacy with minimal losses—but the charges stuck in public.

Churchill was the proverbial young man in a hurry and despite the obvious successes of his political career—the youngest man in the cabinet in four decades, Home Secretary at thirty-six—he had never created any sort of a political following. It could be said that he had done just the opposite, creating political enemies out of large parts of the House of Commons: the conservatives, most implacably, when he abandoned them for the Liberal Party in 1904, but many liberals, too, because of his sudden switch from opponent of large naval expenditures to backer after Agadir. In the press, he was presented as unprincipled and dangerous. By May 1915, the government was beset on all sides and Asquith formed a national coalition to manage the war; the conservatives stipulated Churchill’s exclusion. Churchill had no way to fight back and his relentless advocacy of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign meant that he got the public blame for the first year of war.

Churchill began his political rehabilitation by serving in the trenches (with the Royal Scots Fusiliers) and then on the backbenches (being recalled to government late in the war to head the munitions ministry). He served in the postwar coalition government, but as it disintegrated around his former leaders Asquith and Lloyd George, Churchill recognized how far he was from power and popularity. His personal crisis only deepened with defeat in two elections, at Dundee in 1922 and West Leicester in 1923. The Dardanelles was the chief cause. This operation had ended in defeat with more than 100,000 casualties, and for close to a decade his political speeches would be interrupted by cries of “What about Gallipoli?” During his service in the trenches and as a backbencher, he had begun writing for newspapers again. In 1922, he started on a memoir of his war, which he hoped would justify his actions in 1914–1915.

The World Crisis (1923–1931) is still very much the best general history of the war. (In 1931, he made a redaction of the military-focused volumes into a one-volume general history, which is readily available from Henry Holt.) Churchill crafted a clear narrative out of a complex war. He’s known for his strategic overviews—as in the “Vials of Wrath” chapter, which sets the whole scene of Anglo-French rapprochement and Anglo-German rivalry. What impresses me more, though, are the small details—in only a few lines he draw us, for instance, into the now obscure battles between the Fisherites and the Traditionalists in the Royal Navy of the Edwardian period. The book is stronger on 1914 and 1915, when Churchill was at the center of events, and I wish the Somme had been as examined as Gallipoli, but the six volumes might then have been twenty.

Besides serving as Churchill’s “Apologia,” The World Crisis was also a riposte to the outpouring of books that called into question the value of the British war effort and the validity of the leadership that took the empire into a continental war: works like J. M. Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle (1919), C. E. Montagu’s Disenchantment (1922), and Herbert Read’s In Retreat (1926). They implied that the First World War was too murderous to be of value or believed in. Churchill did believe in it and was certain that it had been fought on the same principles and with the same courage as the wars against Louis XIV and Napoleon had been fought by previous generations. Describing Kitchener’s New Army, which was devastated at the Somme, he wrote:

Struggling forward through the mire and filth of the trenches, across the corpse-strewn crater fields, amid the flaring, crashing, blasting barrages and murderous machine-gun fire, conscious of their race, proud of their cause, they seized the most formidable soldiery in Europe by the throat, slew them and hurled them unceasingly backward. If two or ten lives were required by their commanders to kill one German, no word of complaint ever rose from the fighting troops. No attack however forlorn, however fatal, found them without ardour. No slaughter however desolating prevented them from returning to the charge. No physical conditions however severe deprived their commanders of their obedience and loyalty.

The Dardanelles section is actually the least convincing overall and has occasioned much criticism, but it was successful in bleaching undeserved blame from Churchill’s reputation. He had envisioned the Dardanelles operation and was its strongest advocate, but was not to blame for its lagging and foolish execution.

Churchill’s political restoration came as a conservative. He won election at Epping in 1924, rejoined his old party, and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s new government. Five calm years followed, which were Churchill’s best as a writer. His prose is at its most elegant—individual and resonant, yet without the over-reliance on rhetoric that characterize the later work. As he plugged away at The World Crisis, he made plans for a life of Marlborough, and he wrote the pieces that would eventually make up Great Contemporaries (1937) and his wonderful memoir My Early Life (1930), books that are certainly the most charming ever written by a successful politician.

There is no better introduction to the Edwardian and Georgian eras.

Great Contemporaries is a sequence of brief lives: mostly famous soldiers and statesman whom Churchill knew intimately due to the precocity of his career. The essays breathe life into figures who are now shadows. Of Curzon’s political career: “The morning had been golden; the noontide bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid, each was polished till it shone after a fashion.” Of Douglas Haig’s command during World War I: “He presents to me in those red years the same mental picture as a great surgeon before the days of anaesthetics, versed in every detail of such science as was known to him: sure of himself, steady of poise, knife in hand, intent upon the operation; entirely removed in his professional capacity from the agony of the patient, the anguish of relations, or the doctrines of rival schools, the devices of quacks, or the first-fruits of new learning.” There is no better introduction to the Edwardian and Georgian eras.

My Early Life contains equally moving portraits, though of figures who survive due to their relation to Churchill: his nanny Mrs. Everest, for instance, or Colonel Brabazon of the 4th Hussars. The memoir is a sweetly ironic account of Churchill’s life from birth to when he crossed the floor to join the Liberals in 1904: a man in his fifties looking back at his youth with a wistful smile. It is one of the classic books of the twentieth century and indispensable to the library of reading men. Each page is quotable. Here is but one small example of the author’s sense and humor:

No one ever came to grief—except honorable grief—through riding horses. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined through owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them; unless of course they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good death to die.

The calm was undone by the debate over granting dominion status to India, which raged in the 1930s. Churchill’s vehement opposition to devolving power to the Indians led him to break with Baldwin in 1931—the Tories had been thrown out of office in 1929—and animate the Indian Defence League. His violent attacks on the government over India policy restored all people’s fears about his steadiness and did much to undermine his attacks on the conservative government over policies towards Nazi Germany and re-armament as the decade progressed. These are rightly called the “Wilderness Years.” Churchill was not just left out of office when the conservatives were returned to power in 1935, but was out of sympathy with almost everyone. Even the colleagues who would be his allies in the fight against Appeasement saw a wild danger in the Churchill who took up the India question.

At this second great professional crisis, he turned to another large writing project: the life of Marlborough that he had contemplated for thirty years. Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933–1938) is a very different book than The World Crisis, but there are some key parallels. Churchill again wished to refute the public perception of a Churchill—here the opponent was Macaulay. Marlborough also restates the thesis of The World Crisis: that tyranny must be fought, that liberal democracy will triumph against all odds and is the best engine of war. When describing Louis XIV’s invasion in 1667 of what is today Belgium, the parallel was explicit to Churchill:

Two hundred and fifty years later we saw the manhood of the British Empire hastening across the seas and oceans of the world to conquer or die in defence of this same strip of fertile, undulating country about the mouth of the Scheldt. Every one felt he had to go, and no one asked for logical or historical explanations. But then, with our education, we understood many things for which convincing verbal arguments were lacking. So did our ancestors at this time. The Court, the Parliament, the city, the country gentleman, were all as sure in 1668 that Belgium must not be conquered by the greatest military power on the Continent as were all parties and classes in the British Empire in August 1914. A mystery veiling an instinct!

John Colville estimated that Churchill spent an hour of preparation on every minute he spoke.

The four volumes of Marlborough are stirring and delightful—it is worth a warning that the single volume redaction done by Henry Steele Commager in the 1960s and prevalent in used bookshops leaves out all the charm in its haste to tell the story. Like Macaulay’s History, the volumes benefit from being read aloud. Here appears the high rhetorical style which would do so much to rally a nation in its darkest crisis. The power is no longer that of the thrust stage or the hustings but instead the pulpit. An interesting comparison can be made between Churchill’s speeches and his books. He poured immense effort into writing his speeches; his wartime secretary John Colville estimated that he spent an hour of preparation on every minute he spoke—though in his early years in parliament Churchill estimated that it took six to eight hours to prepare a forty-minute speech. Always finding it difficult to speak off the cuff, Churchill marshaled his points and favored turns of phrase onto cards that he then spoke from. It also meant that he had to predict the mood of the House of Commons. By such efforts—his complete speeches run to eight volumes and five million words, so imagine the efforts—he made himself into England’s finest parliamentary orator.

As a speaker, Churchill was always direct; he knew his audience, made his points, entertained by a sharp witticism, and got off. His books are less crafted. Without an audience directly in eye-contact, Churchill poured in everything to hand. Marlborough is magnificent but it can also be long-winded. With the help of research assistants, his books always expanded beyond their outline: The World Crisis from two to six volumes; Marlborough from two to four. The speeches are widely acknowledged and little read today, but they have immense literary merit. Collections like Arms and the Covenant (1938), his 1930s speeches about India and defense, or The War Speeches (1946) not only make quite a contrast to the hand-wringing blandness of contemporary politicians, but are also the terminus of a great English tradition of public rhetoric that includes Donne’s sermons, Burke’s letters, and Kipling’s public poetry.

The book was already in proof when war came and Churchill was recalled to the Admiralty.

Like his first foray into biography, Marlborough is driven by hero worship and by identification. Churchill saw a man who served only his nation’s interests and who died unappreciated and maligned. The parallels with his fight over India were too much for him to ignore. He began to see the debate as one of nation versus faction. The vehemence of his public attacks on Baldwin, who would be seriously libeled in The Second World War, and Neville Chamberlain was a product of Churchill’s believing that they were betraying the national interest—absolutely true in the case of Appeasement. Granting a form of self-rule to India would be to forego England’s national mission to bring liberty and benevolent government throughout the globe. His epic style, markedly and suddenly apparent in Marlborough, was born of these fears and a growing sense of his own inability to shape events; his rhetoric is, in essence, the product of age.

Marlborough was finished in 1938 when Churchill’s attention was riveted on the growing German menace. He, of course, began writing another book—the History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956–1958), the four volumes of which were produced in just over a year, though shelved by the coming of war in 1939. It is Churchill’s weakest work, but the productivity is still worth remarking on: a half-a-million words in just over a year of constant political engagement. The book was already in proof when war came and Churchill was recalled to the Admiralty.

Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 when France was failing and it seemed the Nazis must win. He rallied the nation—Edward R. Murrow said that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”—and kept Britain from making a settled peace with Hitler that must have plunged Europe into darkness. For more than sixty months, he served at the head of an empire fighting a total war. With victory in sight he called elections for July 1945 and was defeated. It was an immensely painful failure for Churchill, but after a short-lived black funk, he steeled his resolve and began a fight on two fronts. He embarked on a campaign of international statesmanship and diplomacy—the “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, and the “United States of Europe” speech in Zurich were part of this. Just as important, he settled down to write his war memoirs, which he used to publicize his war leadership to the wide world.

“Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

The six volumes of The  Second World War (1948–1953) are among the most influential works of historical scholarship ever written. They functioned as the official British history of the war and settled the main themes that still dominate our historical memory of it. Millions of people read Churchill’s magisterial prose: not necessarily in the volumes themselves but in the hundreds of excerpts run by Life magazine, The New York Times, and the Daily Telegraph. The title of the conflict itself—drawing a permanent parallel between the 1914–1918 and the 1939–1945 wars—was settled by the publication of these volumes. The measure of its influence is our steady belief that the invasion of Normandy was the war’s culmination and the relatively minor campaigning in North Africa was its turning point. These are Churchill’s emphases and are not supported by a disinterested look at the fighting. The focus on the battles in North Africa makes perfect sense in a book of memoirs as Alamein was decisive for Churchill’s domestic position: it quieted the political pressures that were being exerted after the long sequences of disasters that accompanied British arms in 1940 and 1941. As Churchill wrote in the fourth volume, “The Hinge of Fate,” “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.” The victory saved him as the Dardanelles had undone him in World War I. But The Second World War was not read as just a book of memoirs.

The European war was decisively turned by the Russians at Stalingrad, which is all but absent from Churchill’s account. Hitler had 178 divisions committed in Russia in 1942, and just four in North Africa. Churchill was writing in 1949 and 1950 by which time the Cold War had made passing credit to the Soviet Union unthinkable. His other 1942 fulcrum point was the Battle of Midway. This was the type of feat of arms that appealed to Churchill—bold and heroic and easily narrated, but he neglected the battle’s equally important sister, Guadalcanal, the actual turning point of the Pacific War. It ended up out of order in volume five on 1943, rather than in volume four on 1942. And thereafter the American effort in the Pacific nearly disappears from The Second World War.

It took seven years for the six volumes to be written, during which time Churchill again became prime minister. The outside pressures of politics and the imposing deadlines took their toll. With The World Crisis he had developed the habit of quoting liberally from his wartime minutes. With Marlborough he began to rely on first-rate researchers to draft the material that he then turned into his inimitable narrative. With The Second World War there was a large group of historians and helpers—called the “Syndicate”—working on the material and masses of minutes, which Churchill wanted included. The necessary speed of production of the volumes meant that often the blending—Churchill preferred to do this only in printers’ proofs—was less than complete. I tend to skip over the bleeding fragments of official memoranda and stick with the glorious prose—there is, happily, also a very good one-volume distillation.

The haste also cost the work one of the charms of The World Crisis and Marlborough—Churchill’s musing over historical evidence as if in debate. The presentation of Antwerp or the Dardanelles in The World Crisis and the refuting of the story that Marlborough had given intelligence to the King of France in 1694 are the unique Churchillian touch. In The Second World War, there was no leisure for such examination and laying out of reasoning—though Churchill’s fondness for the “What ifs” of history is well-displayed in the first volume, “The Gathering Storm.” Issues like the disastrous Dieppe Raid or the Katyn Forest massacre are presented rather than explored. Much also was left out, or reinterpreted, to satisfy the new power dynamics of the Cold War. The workings of the Syndicate and the complex political maneuvering of the writing is extremely well depicted in David Reynolds’s In Command of History, published late last year.

Acknowledging the flaws of The Second World War doesn’t really affect my liking of it. It has too many of the virtues I admire and the past springs, flesh on bone, to palpable life in it. “You are there,” as the narrator of those radio programs of historical events used to intone. Churchill was wrong in many specific instances, yet his great insistence on the meaning of the struggle is inspiring. Churchill forged order out of chaos and, like The World Crisis, created a workable strategic history that was adopted wholesale by a grateful public. The Second World War constitutes a great prose epic—our modern Iliad. His two great war memoirs, with their certainty and clarity, are all the more essential as we struggle to find the words and the will for a new war to preserve and spread our liberty—a war I am sure he would not have flinched from fighting.

It is Churchill whose voice reminds us that the sacrifices of the Great War were necessary as were the sacrifices of the Second World War. We feel it still. The baton of the leadership of the “English-Speaking Peoples” was passed to America from England with the defeat of Nazism. There followed the defeat of another totalitarian threat and the spread of liberal democracy and rise of globalization. You need not agree with Churchill’s Whiggish assumption of historical continuity to see what a powerful interpretive tool it was. Half-English and half-American, he articulated the lineaments of the world in which we in the West still live.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 2, on page 16
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