There is a whiff of revolution in the air. As I write these words the White House is under virtual siege and a statue of a long dead slave master has been unceremoniously dumped into a river. In London, the cenotaph and a statue of Churchill have been defaced.
It is easy to dismiss such actions as mindless vandalism but they were calculated to gain attention by striking at Britain’s very idea of itself and by extension, many British people’s own sense of identity and esteem.
The decades have been kind to Churchill. He has become a legend, that curious mixture of fact and fiction where the good is accentuated and the bad ignored or forgotten. Of course, he had the advantage of surviving the war when Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini did not. Stalin too survived but was not inclined to write his memoirs. Churchill, comprehensibly rejected at the polls in 1945, had time on his hands and began writing the history of the great events he took part in. Unsurprisingly, like all memoirs, his multi-volume history of the Second World War places him in the starring role but more importantly, it laid the foundation story many subsequent histories built upon.
The story is well known, like King Arthur, Churchill was called upon to rescue his country at its hour of greatest need. Not only did he save it from defeat, he led it to victory over one of the greatest evils in human history. Surely it is heresy to accuse this demi-god of something as base a racism?
Actually, no. The evidence is overwhelming and most of it comes directly from Churchill’s own mouth. ‘But’, you might say, context is important, wasn’t everyone racist then? While it is true to say modern concepts of racism didn’t exist in the 1940s, but it would be wrong to say they were universal. Churchill grew up in the high noon of empire and with his privileged background it would be surprising if he turned out to be anything but an arch imperialist. His doctor, Lord Moran, noted the difference between President Roosevelt and Churchill:
‘To the president, China means four hundred million people who are going to count in the world of tomorrow, but Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin; it is when he talks of India or China you remember he is a Victorian.’[i]
Speaking to Roosevelt’s advisor on the Caribbean Churchill opined, ‘… We will not let the Hottentots by popular vote throw the white people into the sea.’[ii]
Roosevelt presided over a deeply racist country that saw race riots and lynchings of black servicemen in the south during the war, but he wanted a world without the European empires, that subjugated dark-skinned peoples. That was one of his war aims, Churchill’s was to maintain the status quo and that meant maintaining the empire, even though it was clear much of it did not care for colonial rule. He despised Gandhi and India in general but still wanted to rule it. When famine struck Bengal in 1943, he resolutely opposed measures to alleviate it. In fairness the causes of the famine were beyond his control: rice imports from Burma dried up after the Japanese invasion and a cyclone devasted Bengal. As prices began to rise, merchants hoarded the remaining supplies to drive prices up further leading to serious food shortages and ultimately famine, yet Churchill was in no mood to help. India saw a wave of anti-British riots in 1943 and Churchill refused to divert admittedly stretched shipping resources to help. British soldiers were even forbidden (NOT on his orders) from giving food to starving children, though some risked disciplinary action and did so. Leo Amery, a political ally who was instrumental in the revolt which forced Chamberlain to step down thereby clearing the path for Churchill to become prime minister, commentated that Churchill, ‘knew as much about the Indian problem as George III did of the American colonies.’[iii]
The situation was finally eased after intense lobbying from the (British) government in Delhi that warned London India would be in revolt and useless to the war effort unless something was done. The famine ended up killing around 3,000,000 a figure that dwarfed the 36,000 Indian soldiers killed in British service during the war.[iv]
‘Bad people’ if I can use such a simplistic term, sometimes do good things and not always for the right reason. Stalin was the greatest contributor to Allied victory but he was a mass murderer who fought, not out of altruism or a loathing of fascism, but because Hitler invaded the USSR in a war of extermination. Churchill, in my view, saved his country not from German invasion which he did not consider a serious possibility, but defeat via a negotiated and probably humiliating peace treaty. In his favour, he carefully nurtured the war winning alliance and held it together through no small personal risk, travelling the world to various political summits in freezing converted bombers at a time when aircraft crashes were frighteningly common. He almost died in early 1944 after contracting pneumonia on a flight back from Moscow. There is no doubt Churchill inspired a battered country in its darkest days and helped keep it on track but despite his great desire to emulate his ancestor Marlborough, he was no military genius. Lord Alanbrooke, a son of Ulster, and the main force behind Allied strategy in the European war, confided to his diary, ‘Without him England would have been lost for certain, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again.’[v]
Brooke worked with Churchill at close hand on an almost daily basis and often saw a petulant, bad tempered, childish and occasionally drunken brilliant prime minister that tested his patience by constantly meddling in plans that took months of planning and negotiation. The disasters of Norway, Greece, Tobruk, Singapore and near defeat at Anzio had Churchill’s fingerprints all over them and it was he who initiated the area bombing policy that killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians. Yet, Brooke, by his own admission, still loathed and admired him in equal measure.
Closer to home, Churchill was instrumental the Anglo-Irish Treaty and unleashing the Black and Tans. Before that he also favoured Home Rule, and if my grandfather was to be believed, was stoned by unionists on a visit to Belfast. In 1940, he wanted to trade Northern Ireland for Irish participation in the war, a scheme that was still-born because De Valera smelt a rat and Chamberlain, who was still leader of the Conservative Party, refused to coerce unionists into a united Ireland.
No one likes to admit their heroes have feet of clay. I am sure that many people feel outraged at the vandalism of his statue or indeed, possibly even by this article, but history is deep, complex and often dark. Today’s world has much to feel grateful to Churchill for, but let’s be honest about him. Legends are comforting but they are seldom true.
[i] Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L3059
[ii] Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L3060
[iii] Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L3073
[iv] Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L3076
[v] Danchev & Todman (Eds), War Diaries, 1939-45, Filed Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, p.590, 10 September 1944
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam