CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO SUBSCRIBE AND RECEIVE A FREE BOOK
A typical history of Winston Churchill is one that, pre-1940, recognises his poor decision-making, his lack of economic nous, and xenophobia when advancing British interests in places like Iraq and India. The stock history will then present him as a prodigal son made good post-1940, a man who saved Britain during her darkest hour, who liberated people from the Nazi death camps and who then settled into the life of an elder statesman, playing his part in post-WWII domestic politics and warning the world against Communism. One could even depict Churchill’s failures as lending added credence to his legend. If at first you don’t succeed … There is a quasi-messianic aura surrounding him. Oh yeah, and he had a few great quotes up his sleeves.
You probably suspect that I am not going to buy into the Churchill myth. However, a dreadful tendency would be to go to extremes in pressing my point merely to prove a thesis. It would be the very mirror-image of what the hagiographers of Churchill are guilty of.
Nevertheless, it is my sincere opinion, based on the evidence, that there is very little to commend Churchill for and much to condemn. He supported or executed policies that were inhumane, uncivilised, dangerous and ultimately politically inept. You be the judge, however.
For starters, one oft-cited failure is that of the disastrous Gallipoli misssion. His cavalier attitude regarding the livrs of military personnel is the main, even sole, reason why Australia and New Zealand do not send troops to serve under British command. But even before Gallipoli, Churchill had wanted to invade Turkey when it was neutral. The intention was to open up a Southern front against Germany. He advocated the invasion of Belgium in WWI and went against other Cabinet members in 1940 by sending a destroyer into Norwegian waters when Lord of the Admirality. This violation of neutrality provoked a Nazi invasion of Norway. All this is important because the notion of neutrality was a civilising factor in European inter-state relations. Even Hitler was often reluctant to violate the neutrality of non-aligned nations.
Another oft-cited episode is the alleged support for the dropping of chemical weapons in Iraq in 1920 during a rebellion. The veracity of this incident is contentiously disputed. What is for sure is that Churchill approved the use of chemical weapons in 1919 in Russia, when the UK was trying to oust the Bolsheviks. He made the following remark not long after the WWI armistice:
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
He would later press for anthrax to be dropped on German civilians in WWII, using similar arguments. His assessment that poison gas was ‘no big deal’ remained unchanged over a quarter century. Think about how we are told time and time again that Saddam’s use of poison gas in 1988 represented a crime against humanity. How can the malevolent use of chemical weapons be considered anything other than a monstrous act? Churchill considered it no different than two soldiers firing at each other.
Churchill held a low opinion of non-Europeans. He was a comsistent racist and his white supremacism was even quite marked for his time. Look at what he said about Gandhi. He called him a ‘fakir’ and considered Indian independence to be a ‘crime against civilisation.’ In the 1950s he presaged Enoch Powell by wanting to engage his cabinet in a ‘keep Britain white’ policy. But a key difference between him and Powell was that Powell never saw non-whites as inferior. He merely considered it impractical for peoples of vastly different history and culture to live together. Churchill’s views on race – and this is no exxageration – were alarmingly like those of the author of Mein Kampf.
Which brings us to another so-called string in Churchill’s bow: the argument that Churchill saved the Jews. That is fantasy. Their saving was incidental to the greater war effort. Churchill was not greatly concerned about the rise of Hitler up to 1938 and even seems to had some respect for Hitler because of the economic performance of the German economy (he heaped lavish praise on Mussolini but Mussolini was not a Jew-hater like Hitler). There was no sign of concern for the Jews up to 3 years after the Nuremberg Laws. Churchill’s opposition to Hitler after 1938 was a typical British concern with maintaining a balance of power on the European continent. Furthermore, the belligerent policies pursued by Churchill in opposition and cabinet actually placed the entire Jewish population of Western and Northern Europe in danger. Germany could have been contained and kept out the West and North and those Jews would have survived.
Then there was the fact that Churchill was the one who instituted the policy of bombing civilians in WWII. He gave the order the very day he took office and this was long before the Blitz (up to that point, Hitler hadn’t targeted civilians directly, only using air support for an advancing army, with civilian casualties incidental). Earlier in the aftermath of WWI, Churchill had imposed a harsh blockade on Germany as Secretary of State for War. Later came the horrendous Dresden bombing, which is up there as one of the most vicious acts in the history of war. Said AJP Taylor:
So far as air strategy was concerned, the British outdid the Germans frightfulness first in theory, then in practice, and a nation which claimed to be fighting for a moral cause gloried in the extent of its immoral acts.
When we say ‘British’ though, we really mean Churchill. It was his policy.
Yet one indictment, that even his most hard-nosed champions must admit to, stands above all else and that is his political ineptitude. Throughout his career, Churchill vastly over-estimated the power of the British Empire. Unlike many others involved in WWI and II, he was enthusiastic about entry into both wars. The cost was that the UK bankrupted itself, and went from being the most powerful country in the world to a second-rate curiosity. Even worse was the fact that the US and Russia were both dragged into the centre of European politics, a role both were reluctant to assume. While US and Russian nuclear weapons guaranteed the peace in Europe, this could hardly have been a good outcome for any British politician. Churchills antipathy towards Hitler was well-founded but his anti-Nazi obsession empowered the Stalinist regime, a regime more detested across most of Eastern and Northern Europe. Churchill could have left the two totalitarian regumes cancel each other out but he consciously chose to support Stalin and extol his virtues. Result? The Iron Curtain era; the very era who Churchill himself named in Fulton, Missouri in 1946.
Because of Churchills political outlook, Britain was bankrupt economically and politically by 1945. That is his legacy. Someone like Bismarck who carefully built up modern Germany is reviled; someone like Churchill is revered. Strange.
I haven’t even mentioned the tying of the British pound to the gold standard by Churchill in 1925 up to this point. This made British exports expensive and precipated a economic depreasion. Another act which was disastrous and serves as evidence against him. Not cruel or xenophobic, just incompetent.
Any good things? One quality Churchill did possess was that of foresight. He foresaw the Bolshevik peril in 1920 and the danger of a welfare state in 1945, the latter stance costing him an election. He was also a brilliant rhetorician. Churchill made his name as a war correspondent and, as everyone knows, was a great communicator. But someone who is a great communicator and who lies about their past actions, glossing over their failings, is a bullshit artist. Our rose-tinted view of Churchill (for example, he denied sanctioning the brutal blockade of Germany after WWI) comes largely from the man himself. So, even Churchills technical mastery of English leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
The major problem with Churchills legacy is that is a live one. Plenty of sensible people would recognise the image I have portrayed. But there are many others who have bought into the Churchill myth, the myth of the stoic and uncompromising defender of humane virtue on the global stage. And some of those admirers, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, were/are movers and shakers in the political world. Thatcher, a far more accomplished and gifted politician than Chutchill, yet subscribed to the Churchillian myth of an England of individualism and enterprise; the national debt ballooned under her tenure in her drive to realise a Churchillian type Britain. Then there was Blair, who gave George W. Bush a bust of Winston Churchill. Blair, who still is influential in Btitish politics, made a classic Churchillian blunder by urging the invasion of Iraq. ‘Blunder’ though downplays the immense suffering the people of that region have endured since 2003. Indeed it was a strategic catastrophe but Blair, in celebrated Churchillian manner, has tried to blag his way out of it. Finally, there is newly installed PM, Theresa May, who recently said that she would launch nuclear strikes that could kill 100,000 in the House of Commons. This statement alone attests to the poisonous legacy of Churchill.
We started off this discussion musing on the two chapters in Churchills career. In reality, he remained consistent throughout. Only the propaganda tells us otherwise. The only difference between Churchill pre-1940 and post-1940 is in the official positions he occupied. The claim I made in the title – that he was a ‘butcher’ – has been demonstrated. The problem is thar popular opinion portrays him as the good shepherd.
As long as politicians in the UK and US remain mesmerized by Churchill, then there is a considerable factor that hinders sound political decision-making. The Churchill hagiography has very real and tragic consequences, as seen by Iraq. It is time to challenge the myth of the warrior-poet and present Churchill as he really was, a cruel and reckless butcher who handed millions over to Communist repression.