Open Essay

Hero or War Criminal? Churchill in Retrospect

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and the author, most recently, of Why I am a Hindu
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Nothing but gas

“HISTORY,” WINSTON CHURCHILL said, “will judge me kindly, because I intend to write it myself.” He needn’t have bothered. Of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, he is the only one to have completely escaped the odium deservingly bestowed on his rivals Hitler and Stalin, to have been crowned with a Nobel Prize (for Literature, no less), and now even with an Oscar.

As Hollywood confirms, Churchill’s reputation as what Harold Evans has called “the British Lionheart on the ramparts of civilisation” rests almost entirely on his stirring rhetoric during World War II. Churchill had nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. And, of course, an exceptional talent for a fine phrase. “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end.... We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets.... We shall never surrender.” (The revisionist British historian John Charmley dismissed this as ‘sublime nonsense’.)

And what phrases he came up with! “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.... You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” That victory, as Charmley has pointed out, resulted in the dissolution of the British Empire, and more immediately, in Churchill’s own defenestration by the war-weary British electorate in the elections of 1945. No wonder that not everyone was equally impressed by his oratory. The Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies remarked of Churchill during World War II: “His real tyrant is the glittering phrase, so attractive to his mind that awkward facts have to give way.”

Indeed, the ‘glittering phrase’ was always Churchill’s strongest suit. He never flinched from bombast: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.” Such extravagant oratory helped steel the British at a time of great adversity, but their effect was only of the moment. Yet Churchill believed that ‘Words are the only things which last forever’. The hagiology from which he has benefited in recent years suggests that he may well have been right.

For words, in the end, are all that Churchill admirers can point to. Actions are another matter altogether. Books and cinema have assiduously built up the image of Churchill the defiant bulldog who kept the British in World War II when so many of the establishment wanted peace, and Churchill the parliamentarian of rapier wit who dominated its politics at a time when Britain was the epicentre of a worldwide empire. Less well-known is the brash political upstart whose arrogance in cabinet meetings prompted Charles Hobhouse, postmaster general during World War I, to describe him as ‘ill-mannered, boastful, unprincipled and without any redeeming features’. The vaingloriously self-serving but elegant volumes he authored on World War II led the Nobel Committee, unable in all conscience to give him an award for peace, to grant him, astonishingly enough, the Nobel Prize for Literature— an unwitting tribute to the fictional qualities inherent in Churchill’s self-justifying embellishments.

Embellishment was necessary, since Churchill had a great deal to be ashamed of. There was his disastrous judgment on military matters, going back to the horrendous defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, a plan he hatched when first lord of the Admiralty, and reflected again in Norway in 1940, as well as in his decision to delay the planned 1943 invasion of Europe in favour of a pointless diversionary campaign in North Africa in 1942 (which in turn led inevitably to the great Allied losses in Italy, where the topography overwhelmingly favoured the defenders). As a military strategist, Churchill was often in error but never in doubt, his bloodthirstiness as excessive as his rhetoric.

As home secretary in 1910, he sent battalions of police from London and ordered them to attack striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales, while holding troops in reserve in Cardiff, in case the police proved inadequate. In this he acted in the interests of the employers rather than the miners, a position bitterly remembered even today in Wales, where the very name ‘Tonypandy’ evokes curses. Churchill was prepared to kill in the interests of the employers, and all too willing to mobilise the full force of the British state to ensure their interests prevailed. As home secretary, he enjoyed personally directing military repression, even assuming operational command of the police during a siege of armed Latvian anarchists in Stepney, where he took the decision to allow them to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped.

Though he did not last too long in the job of home secretary, it proved a good training ground for his subsequent career of ordering the killings of people he considered ‘lesser breeds’. “I do not admit,” he declared, “that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia, …by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, has come in and taken its place.” Shortly afterwards, during the fight for Irish Independence 1918-23, one of the few British officials in favour of bombing the Irish protestors from the air was Winston Churchill, who as secretary of state for air, suggested that aeroplanes should use ‘machine gun fire bombs’ to scatter them.

During his ‘finest hour’, World War II, when he had at last become prime minister, Churchill declared himself in favour of the ‘terror bombing’ of civilians. He wrote that he wanted ‘absolutely devastating, exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers’

Churchill was an enthusiastic advocate of military intervention to quell the Russian Revolution, and wrote ferociously about the dangers posed to the world by the ‘International Jews’, his racist term for communists, and their ‘sinister confederacy’ (his response to them was to promote ‘National Jews’—in other words, Zionists—as far more palatable). After pioneering the use of poison gas against the Bolsheviks in Russia, he urged the same in Iraq. Dealing with unrest in Mesopotamia in 1921, as secretary of state for the colonies, Churchill proudly nailed his colours to the mast as a war criminal: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes; it would spread a lively terror.” He ordered large-scale bombing of Mesopotamia, with an entire village wiped out in 45 minutes. Similarly, when some in the India Office objected to his proposal for ‘the use of gas against natives’, he found their objections ‘unreasonable’. He argued that poison gas was more humane than outright extermination: “The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.”

If it seems odd that an individual of such reprehensible views should today be regarded as a hero of democracy, consider this: throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Churchill was an open admirer of Mussolini, declaring in the 1920s that the Italian Fascist movement had “rendered a service to the whole world”. Had it been necessary, he stated, he was prepared to do in Britain what Mussolini had done in Italy: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle.” Travelling to Rome in 1927 to express his admiration for the Fascist Duce, Churchill announced that he “could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. Secondly, anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understands it, of the Italian people.” (The Times, January 21st, 1927.)

The great hero of the anti-Nazi struggle turns out to have been an admirer of Fascism and dictatorship. As for democracy, Churchill was a late convert to the cause. As late as 1931, sneering at the Indian representatives to the Round Table Conference, he declared: “The Indian Congress and other elements in this agitation represent neither the numbers, the strength nor the virtue of the Indian people. They merely represent those Indians who have acquired a veneer of Western civilisation, and have read all those books about democracy which Europe is now beginning increasingly to discard.”[emphasis added]. In other words, democracy was an idea that Europeans like Churchill were happy to discard in the heyday of Fascism. When circumstances plunged him into being the standard-bearer of democracy and freedom, he embraced the public relations opportunity. But the idea that Churchill always stood for ‘Democracy, Freedom, and all that is good in Western Civilization’, as one enthusiastic correspondent put it, reflects neither the man’s professed convictions nor his record.

Thanks to Churchill’s personal decisions, some four million Bengalis died of hunger in a 1943 famine. Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top up European stockpiles in Greece and elsewhere

Indeed Churchill was a walking policy disaster across the board. The architect of the Gallipoli tragedy of 1915 nearly wrecked the international financial system by messing with the price of gold and destabilising the gold standard, which cost him his slot in the cabinet. By 1931, he was a backbencher, consorting with the likes of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Some Germans even considered him a suitable candidate to head a pro-Nazi ‘Vichy’ government in Britain.

Churchill was a fanatical advocate of imperialism, and his own words convict him of racism and anti-Semitism. He supported the pseudo-science of eugenics, musing about the idea of sterilising the ‘unfit’. He professed scorn for women’s rights and opposed the Suffragettes who sought the vote for women. What he was interested in throughout his career was personal glory and self-promotion, and the British Empire provided him an ideal platform for that. The revolts and struggles across the Empire were nothing more than, in Candice Millard’s words, ‘an irresistible opportunity for personal glory and advancement’.

During his ‘finest hour’–World War II, when he had at last become prime minister—Churchill declared himself in favour of the ‘terror bombing’ of civilians. He wrote that he wanted ‘absolutely devastating, exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers’. Horrors like the firebombing of Dresden were the result: he ordered the policy, though he did not pick the targets. Churchill also recommended using chemical warfare against German civilians. ‘I should be prepared to do anything that would hit the enemy in a murderous place,’ he declared in a 1944 letter, ‘I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany… let us do it one hundred per cent.’ Another plan, called Operation Vegetarian, called for feeding German cattle anthrax cakes: this would kill the cattle, depriving Germans of milk and beef, but also kill German civilians eating infected cows. The amorality of either course did not unduly trouble Churchill.

Amorality rose to the fore again towards the end of the war, when Churchill approved Operation Keelhaul, forcing the involuntary repatriation of two million people to the USSR, many of whom had never been Soviet citizens. The Russian Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was scathing about this, blaming Churchill for ‘turn[ing] over to the Soviet command the Cossack corps of 90,000 men. Along with them he also handed over many wagonloads of old people, women, and children,’ he noted in The Gulag Archipelago. Similarly the expulsions of Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania were carried out brutally, resulting in great suffering and causing the death or disappearance of over 2.1 million Germans. Churchill was unfazed, telling the House of Commons on December 15th, 1944: “Expulsion [of people] is the method which, insofar as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble... A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by these transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions.”

Moral scruples were never a great part of the Churchill persona. It has been suggested that while his son, Randolph, was away at the front, he got his daughter-in-law Pamela to intimately entertain the American envoy, Averell Harriman (whom she was later to marry). Churchill was untroubled by effectively condoning his own son’s cuckolding, in the larger interests of developing closer relations with the US.

Churchill was the most reactionary of Englishmen, with views so extreme they cannot be excused as being reflective of their times: in fact, Churchill’s statements appalled most of his contemporaries

But murder appealed to him far more than sex. In Afghanistan, the bumptious Churchill, whose love of war trumped ‘such dreary matters as colonial economics’, declared the Pashtuns ‘needed to recognise the superiority of [the British] race’ and that ‘all who resist will be killed without quarter’. He wrote about how ‘We systematically, village by village, destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation…. Every tribesman caught was speared or cut down at once.’

In Kenya, Churchill either directed or was complicit in policies involving the forced relocation of local people from the fertile highlands to make way for White colonial settlers and the forcing of over 150,000 men, women and children into concentration camps. Rape, castration, lit cigarettes on tender spots, and electric shocks were all used by the British authorities to torture Kenyans under Churchill’s rule.

The actor Richard Burton, cast as Churchill in a television drama, courageously wrote for the New York Times: ‘In the course of preparing myself,… I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through history…. What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners of war, “We shall wipe them out, every one of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of the earth”? Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.’ Burton was vilified for his honesty and banned from the BBC, but he had put a finger on the undeniable reality of Churchill—his egregious fondness for slaughter in the name of imperial glory.

But the principal victims of Winston Churchill were Indians, ‘a beastly people with a beastly religion’, as he charmingly called us. Churchill’s beatification as an apostle of freedom seems all the more preposterous given his explicit declaration in 1941 that the principles of the Atlantic Charter would not apply to India. Churchill’s notions of freedom and democracy faltered at the frontiers of empire: he was an appalling racialist, one who could not bring himself to see people of colour as entitled to the same rights as himself. “Gandhi-ism and all it stands for,” declared Churchill, “will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed.” He spoke luridly of having the Mahatma tied to the ground and trampled upon by elephants.

In such matters Churchill was the most reactionary of Englishmen, with views so extreme they cannot be excused as being reflective of their times: in fact, Churchill’s statements appalled most of his contemporaries. His own secretary of state for war, Leopold Amery, confessed that he could see very little difference between Churchill’s attitude and Hitler’s.

Churchill’s wartime philosophy was simple: he would exterminate the Japanese, bomb the Germans into the ground, and starve the Indians to death. Thanks to Churchill’s personal decisions, some four million Bengalis died of hunger in a 1943 famine. Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top up European stockpiles in Greece and elsewhere. ‘The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious’ than that of ‘sturdy Greeks’, he argued. Grain for the Tommies, bread for home consumption in Britain (27 million tonnes of imported grains, a wildly excessive target), and generous buffer stocks in Europe (for yet-to-be-liberated Greeks and Yugoslavs) were Churchill’s priorities, not the life or death of his Indian subjects. When reminded of the suffering of his victims, his response was typically Churchillian: the famine was the Indians’ own fault, he said, for ‘breeding like rabbits’.

As Madhusree Mukerjee’s richly-documented account of the Bengal Famine, Churchill’s Secret War, demonstrates, India’s own surplus foodgrains were exported to Ceylon; Australian wheat was sent sailing past the Indian port of Calcutta (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to storage depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans to create stockpiles that could ease the pressure on post-war Britain, and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. The colony was not permitted to spend its own sterling reserves, or indeed use its own ships, to import food. Even the laws of supply and demand couldn’t help: in order to ensure supplies for its troops elsewhere, the British government paid inflated prices for grain in the Indian open market, thereby making it unaffordable for ordinary Indians. When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the prime minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill’s only reaction was peevishly to ask the Viceroy, Lord Wavell: ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’

In extenuation, Churchill apologists say the deaths were the consequence of difficult wartime decisions, not, as with Hitler or Stalin, a deliberate desire to kill. Adam Jones, editor of the Journal of Genocide Research, begs to disagree. He has called Churchill ‘a genuine genocidaire’, who saw Indians as a ‘foul race’ and urged the British air force chief to ‘send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them’.

This year’s Oscar rewards yet another hagiography of this odious man. To the Iraqis whom Churchill gassed, the Greek protestors on the streets of Athens who were moved down on Churchill’s orders in 1944 (killing 28 and maiming 120), sundry Pashtuns and Irish, or the brave ANZACS who died unnecessary deaths in Gallipoli because of Churchill’s folly, to Afghans and Kenyans and Welsh miners as well as to Indians like myself, it will always be a mystery why a few bombastic speeches have been enough to wash the bloodstains off Winston Churchill’s racist hands. The rest of us will remember him as a war criminal and an enemy of decency and humanity, a blinkered imperialist untroubled by the oppression of non-White peoples, a man who fought to deny us freedom.

When his statue in Parliament Square was desecrated in the May Day protests in England in 2000, the protestors spray-painted red blood around Churchill’s mouth, and gave him a Mohawk haircut, transforming the iconic war hero into the super-villain, the Joker. It was the perfect symbol for all the evil this man represented around the world.

Churchill is usually the hero, too, of a number of jokes in which his wit is inevitably portrayed as triumphant. There is one anecdote, though, which says far more about his true nature, and is therefore scarcely repeated. In 1931, as a pompous windbag and mollycoddler of Fascism, Churchill walked into the House of Commons retiring room and encountered a somnolent George Morley, a Labour MP with an expansive waistline. “Ah, Morley,” Churchill said bluffly, patting him on his bulging stomach, “what will you name the baby?” The Labour MP looked up from his chair and replied gravely, “If it is a boy, I shall name him George, after the King. If it is a girl, I shall name her Mary, after the Queen. But if, as I suspect, it is nothing but gas, I shall name it Winston.”