“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” So said Oscar Wilde and so describes the life and legacy of Britain’s most famous and revered leader, Winston Churchill, a political giant who wore his racism and imperialism proudly.
New Churchill movie: history or hagiography?
In the wake of the release of the Hollywood biopic on Churchill, ‘Darkest Hour,’ which is attracting rave reviews and features Gary Oldman as Churchill and Kristin Scott Thomas as his long-suffering wife Clementine, a raft of articles on the man and his legacy has been produced, confirming that his place in history remains the subject of dispute and conjecture over half a century after his death in 1965.
‘Darkest Hour’ focuses on the period of Churchill’s life for which he is most famous, when as prime minister he led Britain during the darkest period in its history after the military disaster of Dunkirk in May 1940.
Prior to his ascension to the role of the nation’s prime minister, Churchill had spent years on the backbenches as a lone Cassandra, warning of the threat posed by Hitler. As far back as 1932, after returning to Britain from a trip to Germany, he addressed the House of Commons thus: “All these bands of Teutonic youths, marching through the streets and roads of Germany, with the light of desire in their eyes to suffer for their Fatherland, are not looking for status. They are looking for weapons.”
At the end of May 1940, with Hitler’s panzers at the Channel ports of northern France, it would have come as small comfort to know that he had been proven right, and the bulk of a British political establishment in which Nazi sympathies ran deep throughout the 1930s was proven wrong.
The movie depicts the seminal struggle that took place between Churchill and those within his cabinet, led by the country’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane), who believed there was no prospect of defeating the Germans militarily after Dunkirk, and who were adamant that the country should now seek terms with the Nazi dictator with the objective of saving the empire.
Churchill, as history reveals, saw things differently. This is powerfully depicted in the film when, exasperated at Halifax’s repeated urgings that the time had come to negotiate, he slams his desk and bellows, “When will the lesson be learned? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
The ugly side of Churchill’s legacy
But, if 1940 was Churchill’s finest hour, there were countless hours of ignominy and mendacity in his life too, which his legion of fawning admirers have done their utmost to elide in favor of the legend.
Winston Spencer Churchill, born in 1874, was a scion of class privilege in a British society suffering the dead weight of aristocracy in the late 19th century. From a young age he was captivated by war and military life, developing a Nietzschean attachment to conflict as the testing ground of so-called manly virtues of courage, honor and discipline. He experienced war up close, when as a young army officer he saw combat in India, Sudan and on the Western Front during the First World War.
This sets him apart from contemporary British ‘war leaders,’ the likes of Tony Blair and David Cameron, who’ve sent British military forces into combat with the objective of establishing their own Churchillian legacy, resulting in disaster.
The ugly side of Churchill’s legacy is, as averred in the opening paragraph, the racism and imperialism that underpinned his worldview. His belief in racial hierarchy was outlined in the testimony he gave to the Peel Commission in 1937, which was established to investigate the 1936 Arab revolt against the influx of European Jewish settlers to Palestine with the connivance of the British.
When asked about the rights of the indigenous people in Palestine, Churchill refused to accept that they had any: “I do not admit, for example, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the Black people of Australia. I do not admit that 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 in that way, has come in and taken their place.”
Years previously, as Britain’s secretary for war, Churchill had championed the use chemical weapons to put down rebellion in India and Iraq, writing in a memo, “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” He was also responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Russia in 1919 with the aim, in conjunction with various other imperialist powers, of crushing the Russian Revolution.
During the Second World War, Churchill’s disdain for non-white European peoples was laid bare with his culpability in the deaths of three million men, women and children in the Bengal Famine of 1943.
Despite the starvation that had swept through this blighted province of India, Churchill ordered the diversion of desperately needed food from India to Europe. The fact that the 70,000 tons of food exported by the British from India in the first seven months of 1943 would have kept 400,000 people alive for a year is a chilling one. “I hate Indians,” Britain’s most venerated prime minister is said to have told one of his underlings. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Veneration and vilification in equal measure
The veneration accorded Winston Churchill for his leadership of a country on its knees after the military disaster of Dunkirk in 1940 must be weighed in the balance against his disgusting racism and fanatical imperialism. And though Churchill’s defiance of Hitler and his Nazi war machine was important, it should be pointed out that Hitler’s military and strategic priority had never been war with Britain.
On the contrary, the fascist dictator was an admirer of the British empire, which he sought to emulate in Eastern Europe with the colonization and plunder of large swathes of Russia. As William L. Shirer writes in his landmark work, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,’ after the fall of France, convinced that Britain would see sense and seek peace terms, Hitler expressed “his admiration of the British empire and [was] stressing the necessity for its existence. All he wanted from London, he said, was a free hand on the continent.”
The answer to the question of who Winston Churchill was can never be answered in a movie made with the purpose of reinforcing the reverence in which he is held in the West. Born with the blood of the English aristocracy running through his veins, he was a man for whom the world was divided between racially and culturally superior white European peoples and non-white Europeans fated to occupy the role of latter day Helots.
Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London between 1932 and 1943, captured the contradictions that defined Churchill, when in his voluminous diaries he noted, “For all his seriousness, Churchill is a rather amusing man!”
Churchill the great wartime leader or Churchill the racist and imperialist? The simple answer is that he was both.
By John Wight