It’s Time To Abandon Our Infallible Image Of Churchill

Take a moment to read the following quotes. One belongs to Winston Churchill, the man who is so often lauded as the greatest Prime Minister to ever have graced the United Kingdom; one belongs to Adolf Hitler, the most immoral man to have ever lived. The first: “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place”, and the second: “we demand the fulfilment of the just claims of the productive classes by the state on the basis of race solidarity. To us, state and race are one.” The similarity of these racist and eugenics-supporting quotes, from two men purported to lie on the opposite ends of the spectrum between good and evil, should be cause for concern, and certainly allow a justified reassessment of Churchill as a two-time Prime Minister.

Yet criticising Churchill is anathema in British society. Those who dare to do so are branded as being “ignorant of history”, a label slapped on Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham by Churchill’s own grandson, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames. Labour was forced to distance itself from the statement: Whittingham was accused of committing electoral suicide. Where has this infallible image of Churchill come from?

The short answer is Churchill himself. In assessing Churchill, the biggest problem historians face is the origins of existing work. Churchill’s own axiom that “history is written by the victor” should make us incredibly suspicious. Yet biographies and histories take his word as gospel, not least because the most detailed of which (over five volumes) were written by Randolph Churchill: Winston’s only son. If ever an agenda were clearer, I have yet to see it. Churchill’s blatant penchant for historical revisionism is something associated more with Stalin’s Russia than Winston’s Britain, yet we find both leaders guilty of writing histories favourable to their own deeds, dominating historical orthodoxy for decades. In the Western World, we baulk at Stalin’s continued popularity in Russia (coming top in a poll to determine history’s greatest Russian in 2017), and yet we fail to see our own hypocrisy when we laud Churchill despite damning transgressions.

For the old “product of his time” defence doesn’t even stand up. Churchill’s racism made him an extremist prior to the war; Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India and Burma, concluded privately that Churchill was “not quite sane” when it came to the Bengal Famine, a wartime starvation that killed over 2 million Indians. When desperately requested for more supplies, Churchill quipped “if food is scarce, why isn’t Gandhi dead yet?”. Such statements are callousness personified.

Some might critique my point by arguing that a British Prime Minister should cater to the British first: if so, they fail to see the irony that it was Churchill who was most vehemently pushing for the maintenance of British control in India. To this end, he should have been as committed to stopping the Bengal famine. Instead, Churchill’s proponents cannot deny that this was racist subjugation: we should recognise this as part of his legacy, rather than simply downplay two million deaths as a ‘character flaw’. Nor should we tiptoe around the fact that Britain’s favourite leader was a eugenics fanatic, a lovely branch of pseudoscience that advocates selective breeding in order to achieve the perfect race. 

Yet Churchill’s revisionism makes us forget this fact. His political isolation in the 1930s is attributed to his opposition to appeasement, making him seem, to the British public, an individual hero is a sea of cowards. The far less palatable issue of Indian Home Rule is downplayed, which would far more accurately show Winston as an reactionary lunatic swimming against the sea of progress.

Churchill should be lauded as the lesser of two evils during the Second World War. Yet, when the greater of those evils is the greatest evil to ever live, the bar isn’t exactly high. In any other contest, we see Churchill for who he really was, but his contemporaries make him look good. Churchill’s racism leads to the death of two million Indians? Well, Hitler’s led to the death of six million Jews. Churchill killed 25,000 people in the bombing of Dresden, a target that warranted no military gain? Well, Truman killed 226,000 by dropping two nukes on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Churchill has been lucky to get away with his crimes. It’s time for the luck to run out.A

Image: Flickr.