Churchill: Hero Or Villain?

Should Winston Churchill be revered as a wartime leader, or condemned as a symbol of bigotry and colonialism?

Churchill

HE WAS A VILLAIN

Who believed once thought that "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph", and wrote approvingly of a "stronger race" taking the place of weaker ones? It was none other than Winston Churchill, a man now revered for defeating the Nazis, yet whose own bigotry has been largely ignored or shrugged off by most of us.

By all contemporary accounts, Churchill was a racist. Not simply by the standards of his time, either. Even those who knew him, even those who moved in his lofty conservative circles, were regularly shocked by his fierce contempt for certain races and religions.

Take the thorny issue of India, then under British control. "Churchill was very much on the far right of British politics over India," says John Charmley, author of Churchill: The End of Glory. "Even to most Conservatives, let alone Liberals and Labour, Churchill's views on India between 1929 and 1939 were quite abhorrent."

Utterly and unflinchingly committed to imperialism, Churchill despised Gandhi, describing him as a "nauseating" figure who "ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back."

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As John Charmley puts it, Churchill was "terribly alarmed that giving the Indians home rule was going to lead to the downfall of the British Empire and the end of civilisation." Speaking of India, evidence suggests that Churchill should take some of the blame for a devastating famine which killed three million people during World War Two.

Historian Madhusree Mukerjee, author of Churchill's Secret War, has described how Churchill's polices led food to be diverted out of India to be stockpiled for the war effort, while the citizens of British-controlled India were left to starve. As Mukerjee says, Churchill propagated the "social Darwinian pyramid that explains why famine could be tolerated in India while bread rationing was regarded as an intolerable deprivation in wartime Britain".

And what about Churchill's woeful admiration for eugenics? Much like his rampant racism, his belief in the degeneracy of mentally ill humans was something he had in common with Hitler. Churchill once wrote that the "rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes" was a danger to civilisation, and argued that those deemed mentally unfit should be sterilised "so that their curse died with them". He was even in favour of compulsory labour camps where such "feeble-minded" people might be put to good use.

The list of shocking and wrong-headed transgressions goes on. What about Churchill's proud service as an imperial soldier in the Victorian era? And we should also remember his infamous remarks on chemical weapons. "I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas," said the man we now remember as a champion of liberty. "I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes."

Behind the pomp and myth-making, the real Churchill stands revealed: a believer in racial supremacy and perhaps the most powerful and unapologetic symbol of colonialism ever to straddle the Earth.

HE WAS A HERO

Let's tackle the poison gas statement first. That quote by Churchill is often thrown around to discredit him, or make him sound like some kind of proto-fascist. But the inconvenient truth is that Churchill was not talking about nerve gas or some other serious toxin.

He was, in fact, talking about tear gas. And his line mocking the "squeamishness about the use of gas" was in fact an attack on the hypocrisy of those who are absolutely fine with shooting and bombing people, but inexplicably draw the line at tear gas. In Churchill's own words, "It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell, and to boggle at making his eyes water."

Churchill saw tear gas as a humane weapon for knocking out opponents without actually killing them. As for his dubious views on race and religion, it's absolutely true to say that Winston wasn't the most enlightened of men. But there's a world of difference between his petty, grumbling bigotry and the horrors unleashed by the likes of Hitler.

Winston Churchill in London in January 1942.

Winston Churchill in London in January 1942.

Churchill was a proud product of the Victorian age, and was committed to the British Empire. That meant being committed to British control of India, and his contempt for Gandhi was a logical extension of this. Churchill was not enlightened or forward-thinking enough to accept India's quest for liberty, and this was a character flaw. But hardly a reason to paint Churchill as some outrageous monster of bigotry.

Churchill, like many great historical figures, had his share of flaws and failings. Yet the fact remains, they are all overshadowed by his achievements in the war. It's too easy to forget just how close we came to giving into Hitler. Many English aristocrats and politicians actively pushed to make peace with the Nazis.

Max Hastings, author of Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45, puts it very simply: "It was his inspiration that prevented Britain from joining the rest of Europe in surrendering to the might of Nazi Germany."

As Hastings reminds us, "The Dunkirk spirit was not spontaneous. It was created by the rhetoric and bearing of one man, displaying powers that will define political leadership for the rest of time."

Not only was Churchill absolutely instrumental in literally saving Britain and European civilisation from the tyranny of Nazism, but he went on to fearlessly take on the evils of the Soviet Union with his famous "Iron Curtain" speech, which helped galvanise democratic countries against Stalinism. He was, despite all the uglier aspects of his private personality, despite his outdated Victorian prejudices and values, as true a hero as ever lived.