How bad was Winston Churchill? A False Idol?

The following piece is more or less a transcript of the 2nd episode of our podcast series on racism. I will look to put out shortened versions of each episode on this blog, as well as other pieces that relate to what has been discussed. Moreover, get in touch if you would be interested in writing a piece for this blog on any topic you find interesting! All ideas are welcome. Make sure you give our series on racism a listen – subscribe/follow ‘The Naked Student’ on all major podcasting platforms!

So, the matter at hand, Winston Churchill. He has been the topic of much media coverage at this moment in time, as part of the wider debate on the removal of statues. Moreover, the rather befuddling notion has been put forward that removing said statues equates to removing history? This is simply incorrect, and I will address this specific issue in another piece.

The overall question we need to ponder is whether we should judge historical figures by the morals of the present day. Now, Churchill is often held up as the embodiment of quintessential Britishness; a hero worthy of unwavering adulation, at the insistence of much of the right-wing media in this country. In fact, in a 2002 BBC poll, Churchill was voted the greatest Briton of all time.

As I say, Britain is fairly open in its admiration of Churchill, at times in a pseudo-cultish fashion, with figures such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Piers Morgan openly stating Churchill as a hero of theirs. In fact, former PM David Cameron believes that Churchill saved “humanity as a whole”. Now, this is a key phrase to remember, because for me what is being insinuated by Cameron here is rather insidious, regarding his view on what “humanity” is.

However, the idea of him being this infallible figure who made no mistakes is, to put it lightly, misguided. When observing humans, I like using the Game of Thrones model, as the characters presented are often rather complex. Think of Jaime Lannister as a perfect example. Good people do bad things, and correspondingly, bad people do good things. It is not as simple as good and bad. Pure and evil.

Of course, Churchill is primarily remembered for his the role as the courageous leader of Britain during World War II, which undoubtedly deserves praise. He steadily cultivated the war winning alliance and held it together through no small personal risk, travelling the world to various political summits in converted bombers, at a time when aircraft crashes were surprisingly common.

He gave several rousing speeches at a defining moment in world history. There is no doubt Churchill inspired a damaged country in dark days and helped raise morale for the task at hand, which was to fight and defeat the Nazis. Yet, it is noteworthy that Churchill was comprehensibly rejected at the polls in 1945. This begs the question of how popular he was? I mean he was a wartime PM, who was roundly defeated straight away? It appears his popularity has soared as generations have gone by.

So, after losing the election, he began writing about the events he took part in. Unsurprisingly, like all memoirs, his multi-volume history of the WWII placed him in the central role, laying the foundations for many subsequent nationalist histories to build upon. The main message has since been that he led Britain to victory over the Nazis, one of the greatest evils in human history.

However, I feel like it is reductive to merely credit victory in WWII to Churchill, and not the role of ordinary British citizens. Moreover, we often forget the role of our allies, like, I don’t know, the 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians who died during that war? The Americans? The French Resistance? Their sacrifice was critical in rescuing democracy and our freedoms against the evils of fascism. The overtly nationalist discourse that has dominated our perceptions of WWII often plays down the role our Allies played. Let’s be honest here, without them, we would have almost certainly lost.

Nevertheless, we have much to feel grateful for thanks to Churchill. He was a great wartime leader who boosted morale when it was most needed. But we need to be honest about him and his darker side.

Back to the question I posed at the start of this piece. There are arguments presented that state it is flawed to analyse a historical figure as being racist when contextually, racism was more rampant at the time. Yet, in this case, we are not talking about hundreds of years ago here. This was 80 years ago and yes, racism was more apparent in society at large, of course, but it was by no means universal?

Churchill didn’t just say a couple of throw away comments that were racist. The man was a white supremacist by any measure. He was an openly racist, bigot.

I want to lean upon the words of Dr Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP, who has written a book called Inglorious Empire on Britain and the plundering of India. He was the first person I had heard on the news who openly highlighted the injustices of Empire. Now, I myself am half Indian, so I took a personal interest in why I had never really been taught this before? It made me read more widely on the British Raj and I am dedicating an entire episode of our series to the British in India, particularly Partition. This wider reading also led me to Winston Churchill. In Tharoor’s book and talks, which are available to watch on YouTube, the term “historical amnesia” stood out to me. It can be applied to the wider view of colonialism as well, but specifically Churchill. Many in this country are oblivious to Churchill’s darker side.

Tharoor has openly argued that the former British PM’s reputation as a ‘protector of freedom’ is completely miscast. He believes Churchill “is really one of the more evil rulers of the 20th century only fit to stand in the company of the likes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin”. Placing Churchill up there with these historical leaders is pretty controversial right? We are taught that these figures are monstrosities of the highest nature, that cause a blight on human history. So a statement like was bound to receive backlash.

However, I wonder how many of you are aware of the Bengal famine? Churchill was complicit in this, diverting food to British soldiers and countries, such as Greece, while a deadly famine swept through the region. The famine resulted in the deaths of approximately 4 million Bengalis in 1943.

Being reasonable, the causes of the famine were beyond his control. Rice imports from Burma dried up after the Japanese invasion and a cyclone had devastated Bengal. As prices began to rise, merchants hoarded the remaining supplies to drive prices up,  ultimately leading to famine. Yet, Churchill did not intervene here. He refused to divert shipping resources to help. British soldiers were even forbidden from giving food to starving children, though some risked disciplinary action and did so. There is no clear evidence that this was on his direct orders, so I will not claim that outright, but he did divert resources. In fact, historians have reached a consensus that his actions significantly contributed to the Bengal famine of 1943. There’s a good reason why Boris Johnson omits the accusation that Churchill starved the Bengalis from his biography. It doesn’t fit the nationalist narrative.

Churchill also openly displayed a hatred of Indians. He said: “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks.” This is more than just politically incorrect language, as it had horrifying consequences for Bengalis.

Again borrowing Tharoor’s words: “when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life, all he could do was write peevishly in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?'”

Furthermore, Churchill stated: “Gandhi 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. Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be grappled with and crushed”

And the one that hurts me most is this: “I hate Indians, they are a beastly people with a beastly religion”.

Even if we were judging him by the morals of the day, you would have to be morally bankrupt to find this excusable. The truth is Winston Churchill was a racist and his prejudice has caused millions of deaths. Linking back to what David Cameron said, this “humanity” wasn’t saved, in fact Churchill was culpable in this massacre. So, what does humanity mean to David Cameron and other elites is what I ask? Is it wilful ignorance? Maybe for some yes, but for him? I’ll let you think about that.

Let’s also observe Churchill’s response to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. He said “I do not apologise for the takeover of the region by the Jews from the Palestinians, in the same way I don’t apologise for the takeover of America by the whites from the Red Indians, or the takeover of Australia from the blacks. It is natural for a superior race to dominate an inferior one.” Charming, right?

Why is it that any criticism of the colonial atrocities Churchill was involved in, or even his racist rhetoric, is somehow regarded as almost heretical by large portions of the nation? To me, Churchill is just another example of how our supposedly ‘great’ empire was built on the genocidal extermination and subjugation of other races and cultures.

The glorification of Churchill is detrimental to our understandings of race moving forward. How can we be expected to have an informed conversation about the British empire, or racism for that matter, when we continually venerate this contentious figure – conveniently forgetting his horrific actions and racist pomposity?

Make sure you catch the next episode in the series later this week.

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