UPDATE Out of over 2,400 posts in 10 years of this blog this post has received the highest number of hits ever – over 117,000 so far and climbing. The second highest blog, at the beginning of the year was on Ahed Tamimi, the gaoled Palestinian child and the no. of hits was 104,000. Clearly this post has struck a chord.
As a child I lived in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales for a year. One of the things that has stuck with me since
that time was the hostility amongst Welsh working class people to Churchill as
a result of his sending the troops and police into the valleys to help the coal
owners defeat the striking miners, some of whom were shot.
But Churchill’s reputation was made primarily in imperial affairs. It is indisputable
that Churchill was primarily responsible for the slaughter at Gallipolli in 1915. Prior to that there was his period as Home
Secretary when he took personal control of the Sydney Street siege in January 1911. Two Latvian revolutionaries were
holed up there and they were besieged by police and troops. When the building caught fire he ordered the
fire brigade not to put the flames out and allowed those inside to burn to
death. As Colonial Secretary he presided
over Partition in Ireland and over the beginning of the Mandate in Palestine. In Palestine he introduced the murderous
Black and Tans who had seen bloody service in Ireland.
Churchill saw very early the potential of Zionism as an antidote to Communism amongst Jews
Whether it was sending in the army to protect the coal owners in Wales or presiding over the famine in Bengal in 1942,
Churchill was a mass murderer. Churchill’s
whole career had been dedicated to the preservation of the Empire. In January 1931 he resigned from the
Conservative Shadow Cabinet over self-government for India. Churchill was a died-in-the-wool supporter of
the British Empire.
Churchill made his reputation in the second world war, primarily through
his fighting speeches. However his
opposition to Hitler was not from an anti-fascist perspective. He saw Hitler as a threat to British interests. Initially he had welcomed Hitler as an
anti-communist. During the War Churchill
was distinguished by his refusal to do anything to alleviate the position of
the Jews including the bombing of Auschwitz and the railway lines leading up to
it. He was however a die hard Zionist and
that is why Zionist supporters treat him kindly, despite his undoubted anti-Semitism.
Striking up a familiar pose
During the war he advocated the mass bombing of German cities like
Dresden and Nuremburg. Thousands died as a result yet the war itself was
advanced. These were undoubtedly war
crimes. When Greece was liberated he put
the local Nazi collaborators back in power as his main goal was keeping the Greek
Communists out of power.
His most famous tract Zionism and Bolshevism was published in the
Illustrated Sunday Herald on 8 February 1920.
Suffice to say that Churchill was not overfond of revolutionary Jews! He wrote of the ‘International Jew’ as being responsible
for all the ills his class suffered from, including the French Revolution!
Churchill enjoying himself at the Sydney Street siege
‘The adherents of this sinister confederacy are mostly men reared up
among the unhappy populations of countries where Jews are persecuted on account
of their race…. This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of
Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela
Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States),
this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the
reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious
malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing. … It has
been the mainspring of every subversive movement during the Nineteenth Century;…
There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of
Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these
international and for the most part atheistical Jews.. …
Zionism offers the third sphere to the political conceptions of the
Jewish race. In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the
Jew a national idea of a commanding character.’
Churchill like most of his class saw Zionism as an alternative to the
attractions of revolution for Jews. Those who see that the origins of Zionism were
progressive are very much mistaken.
Churchill’s Police confront the miners in South Wales
A statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill is silhouetted in front of the Houses of Parliament in London in 2015., Luke MacGregor/Reuters
“History,” Winston Churchill said, “will be
kind to me, for I intend to write it myself.” He needn’t have bothered. He
was one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, yet is the only
one, unlike Hitler and Stalin, to have escaped historical odium in the
West. He has been crowned with a Nobel Prize (for literature, no less), and
now, an actor portraying him (Gary Oldman) has been awarded an Oscar.
As Hollywood confirms,
Churchill’s reputation (as what Harold Evans has called “the British Lionheart on the ramparts of civilization”) rests
almost entirely on his stirring rhetoric and his talent for a fine phrase
during World War II. “We shall not flag
nor fail. We shall go on to the end. … We shall fight on the beaches, we shall
fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.
… We shall never surrender.” (The revisionist British historian John
Charmley dismissed this as “sublime nonsense.”)
Words, in the end, are all that
Churchill admirers can point to. His actions are another matter altogether.
Blenheim Palace where Churchill was born
During World War II, Churchill declared himself in favor of
“terror bombing.” He wrote that he
wanted “absolutely devastating,
exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers.” Horrors such as the
firebombing of Dresden were the result.
In the fight for Irish
independence, Churchill, in his capacity as secretary of state for war and air,
was one of the few British officials in favor of bombing Irish protesters,
suggesting in 1920 that airplanes should use “machine-gun fire or bombs” to scatter
Dealing with unrest in
Mesopotamia in 1921, as secretary of state for the colonies, Churchill acted 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.
In Afghanistan, Churchill declared that the Pashtuns “needed to recognise the superiority of [the
British] race” and that “all who
resist will be killed without quarter.” He wrote: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we 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 more than 150,000 people into concentration camps. Rape, castration, lit cigarettes on
tender spots, and electric shocks were all used by the British authorities to torture Kenyans under
But the principal victims of
Winston Churchill were the Indians — “a
beastly people with a beastly religion,” as he charmingly called them. He wanted
to use chemical weapons in India but was shot down by his cabinet colleagues,
whom he criticized for their “squeamishness,”
declaring that “the objections of the
India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable.”
Churchill’s beatification as an
apostle of freedom seems all the more preposterous given his 1941 declaration
that the Atlantic Charter’s principles would not apply to India and the colored colonies. He
refused to see people of color as entitled to the same rights as himself. “Gandhi-ism and all it stands for,” he declared, “will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed.”
In such matters, Churchill was
the most reactionary of Englishmen, with views so extreme they cannot be
excused as being reflective of their times. Even his own secretary of state for
India, Leopold Amery, confessed that he could see very little difference between Churchill’s attitude and Adolf
As a dedicated racist Churchill was a strong believer in racial purity and selective breeding – eugenics
Thanks to Churchill, some 4
million Bengalis starved to death in a 1943 famine. Churchill 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. When
reminded of the suffering of his Indian victims, his response was that the
famine was their own fault, he said, for “breeding
Madhusree Mukerjee’s searing
account of Churchill’s role in the Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War,”
documents that while Indians starved, prices for foodgrains were inflated by
British purchases and India’s own surplus grains were exported, while
Australian ships laden with wheat were not allowed to unload their cargo at
Calcutta (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the
streets). Instead, Churchill ordered that grain be shipped to storage depots in
the Mediterranean and the Balkans to increase the buffer stocks for a possible
future invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. European warehouses filled up as
This week’s Oscar rewards yet
another hagiography of this odious man. To the Iraqis whom Churchill advocated
gassing, the Greek protesters on the streets of Athens who were mowed down on
Churchill’s orders in 1944, sundry Pashtuns
and Irish, 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 Churchill’s
Many of us will remember
Churchill as a war criminal and an enemy of decency and humanity, a blinkered
imperialist untroubled by the oppression of non-white peoples. Ultimately, his
great failure — his long darkest hour — was his constant effort to deny us
Winston Churchill is rightly remembered for
leading Britain through her finest hour – but what if he also led the country
through her most shameful hour? What if, in addition to rousing a nation to
save the world from the Nazis, he fought for a raw white supremacism and a
concentration camp network of his own? This question burns through Richard
Toye’s new history, Churchill’s Empire, and is even seeping into the Oval Office.
George W Bush left a bust of Churchill near
his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with the war
leader’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain.
It’s not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was
imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill’s watch,
for resisting Churchill’s empire.
Can these clashing Churchills be reconciled?
Do we live, at the same time, in the world he helped to save, and the world he
helped to trash? Toye, one of Britain’s smartest young historians, has tried to
pick through these questions dispassionately – and he should lead us, at last
and at least, to a more mature conversation about our greatest national icon.
Churchill was born in 1874 into a Britain
that was washing the map pink, at the cost of washing distant nations blood
red. Victoria had just been crowned Empress of India, and the scramble for
Africa was only a few years away. At Harrow School and then Sandhurst, he was
told a simple story: the superior white man was conquering the primitive,
dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilisation. As soon
as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples“.
In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, a crack
of doubt. He realised that the local population was fighting back because of
“the presence of British troops in
lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if
she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead
they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a
“strong aboriginal propensity to kill”.
He gladly took part in raids that laid waste
to whole valleys, destroying houses and burning crops. He then sped off to help
reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three
The young Churchill charged through imperial
atrocities, defending each in turn. When concentration camps were built in
South Africa, for white Boers, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering”. The death toll was almost
28,000, and when at least 115,000 black Africans were likewise swept into
British camps, where 14,000 died, he wrote only of his “irritation that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men“.
Later, he boasted of his experiences there: “That was before war degenerated. It was great fun galloping
Then as an MP he demanded a rolling
programme of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”.
There seems to have been an odd cognitive dissonance in his view of the
“natives”. In some of his private correspondence, he appears to
really believe they are helpless children who will “willingly, naturally, gratefully include themselves within the golden
circle of an ancient crown”.
But when they defied this script, Churchill
demanded they be crushed with extreme force. As Colonial Secretary in the
1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tan thugs on Ireland’s Catholic
civilians, and when the Kurds rebelled against British rule, he said: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned
gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror.”
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss any
criticism of these actions as anachronistic. Didn’t everybody think that way
then? One of the most striking findings of Toye’s research is that they really
didn’t: even at the time, Churchill was seen as at the most brutal and brutish
end of the British imperialist spectrum. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was
warned by Cabinet colleagues not to appoint him because his views were so
antedeluvian. Even his startled doctor, Lord Moran, said of other races: “Winston thinks only of the colour of their
Many of his colleagues thought Churchill was
driven by a deep loathing of democracy for anyone other than the British and a
tiny clique of supposedly superior races. This was clearest in his attitude to
India. When Mahatma Gandhi launched his campaign of peaceful resistance,
Churchill raged that he “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.” As the
resistance swelled, he announced: “I
hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” This
hatred killed. To give just one, major, example, in 1943 a famine broke out in
Bengal, caused – as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proved –
by the imperial policies of the British. Up to 3 million people starved to
death while British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the
region. He bluntly refused. He raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits“. At
other times, he said the plague was “merrily”
culling the population.
Skeletal, half-dead people were streaming
into the cities and dying on the streets, but Churchill – to the astonishment
of his staff – had only jeers for them. This rather undermines the claims that
Churchill’s imperialism was motivated only by an altruistic desire to elevate
the putatively lower races.
Hussein Onyango Obama is unusual among
Churchill’s victims only in one respect: his story has been rescued from the
slipstream of history, because his grandson ended up as President of the US.
Churchill believed that Kenya’s fertile highlands should be the preserve of the
white settlers, and approved the clearing out of the local “blackamoors“. He saw the local
Kikuyu as “brutish children“.
When they rebelled under Churchill’s post-war premiership, some 150,000 of them
were forced at gunpoint into detention camps – later dubbed “Britain’s
gulag” by Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Professor Caroline Elkins. She
studied the detention camps for five years for her remarkable book Britain’s
Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, explains the tactics adopted under
Churchill to crush the local drive for
independence. “Electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and
fire,” she writes. “The screening teams whipped, shot, burned,
and mutilated Mau Mau suspects.” Hussein Onyango Obama never truly
recovered from the torture he endured.
Many of the wounds Churchill inflicted have
still not healed: you can find them on the front pages any day of the week. He
is the man who invented Iraq, locking together three conflicting peoples behind
arbitrary borders that have been bleeding ever since. He is the Colonial
Secretary who offered the Over-Promised Land to both the Jews and the Arabs –
although he seems to have privately felt racist contempt for both. He jeered at
the Palestinians as “barbaric hoards
who ate little but camel dung,” while he was appalled that the
Israelis “take it for granted that
the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience”.
True, occasionally Churchill did become
queasy about some of the most extreme acts of the Empire. He fretted at the
slaughter of women and children, and cavilled at the Amritsar massacre of 1919.
Toye tries to present these doubts as evidence of moderation – yet they almost
never seem to have led Churchill to change his actions. If you are determined
to rule people by force against their will, you can hardly be surprised when
atrocities occur. Rule Britannia would inexorably produce a Cruel Britannia.
So how can the two be reconciled? Was
Churchill’s moral opposition to Nazism a charade, masking the fact he was
merely trying to defend the British Empire from a rival?
The US civil rights leader Richard B. Moore,
quoted by Toye, said it was “a rare
and fortunate coincidence” that at that moment “the vital interests of the British Empire
[coincided] with those of the great overwhelming majority of mankind”.
But this might be too soft in its praise. If Churchill had only been interested
in saving the Empire, he could probably have cut a deal with Hitler. No: he had
a deeper repugnance for Nazism than that. He may have been a thug, but he knew
a greater thug when he saw one – and we may owe our freedom today to this
wrinkle in history.
This, in turn, led to the great irony of
Churchill’s life. In resisting the Nazis, he produced some of the richest
prose-poetry in defence of freedom and democracy ever written. It was a cheque
he didn’t want black or Asian people to cash – but they refused to accept that
the Bank of Justice was empty. As the Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah wrote:
“All the fair, brave words spoken
about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took
seed and grew where they had not been intended.” Churchill lived to
see democrats across Britain’s dominions and colonies – from nationalist leader
Aung San in Burma to Jawarlal Nehru in India – use his own intoxicating words
Ultimately, the words of the great and
glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel
and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the darker-skinned peoples of
the world. The fact that we now live in a world where a free and independent
India is a superpower eclipsing Britain, and a grandson of the “savages” is the most powerful man
in the world, is a repudiation of Churchill at his ugliest – and a sweet,
ironic victory for Churchill at his best.