During the May Day protests in England in 2000, nothing infuriated the British establishment — its press, its politicians, its courts of respectable opinion — more than the desecration of Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. The savage blood red spray-painted around Churchill’s mouth, the livid green strip of grass giving him a mohawk haircut, transforming the stoical father of the nation into the Joker, was unconscionable. Iconoclasm was all very well, to be encouraged even, but not when the target was an actual icon!
It is difficult to convey the symbolic and emotional value of this man to Britain’s ruling class, and to a significant though declining number of its citizens. Those whose national consciousness is shaped by folk memories of World War II, probably the last moment of “greatness” save for England’s World Cup win in 1966, mostly know Churchill as the man who, more than any other, crushed the Nazi menace. Leading a wartime coalition government, he exhorted what had been a badly led and sold-out nation to dare, and win. He saved the British state, steering it through one of its worst crises. In his lifetime, Churchill was the last truly loved British leader; no one has since come close.
When I was at school in the 1980s in the north of Ireland, emerald jewel of the Empire, this was still a powerful sentiment. Our red-faced, Unionist history teacher, exploring World War II, recounted with pride an apocryphal story wherein Hitler, having heard that Churchill was leading the war effort, said with awe-stricken wonder, “What will we do now?” And we pupils, bright-eyed and remote, were deeply satisfied to think of it. What will you do now? Get your ass kicked, that’s what. Don’t mess with the best.
Churchill is, besides being a national myth, a minor cottage industry, and the source of endless nostalgic tat. Books celebrating his wicked wit, mugs adorned with his mug, tea towels quoting the great man, endless court historians — and when it comes to Churchill, there is almost no other kind of historian — recapitulating his glories. Is there a movie about him now, with Gary Oldman? Throw it into the pile with the last movie with Brian Cox, and the one before that with Brendan Gleeson, and the one before that with Albert Finney, and the one before that with Michael Gambon. The industry is tantamount to a Works Progress Administration for our actorly “national treasures,” and a mini-boom may now be underway as certain sentiments circulating around Brexit have fueled a cultural return to Empire.
For me, though, the luster wore off long ago, and I found myself in Parliament Square admiring the handiwork of those protesters. What went wrong?
The culture industry is not always such a bad place to find out about Churchill. The actor Richard Burton, when preparing for his role as Churchill in a television drama, famously 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.
For this iconoclasm, Burton was barred from future work at the BBC, accused of having “acted in an unprofessional way” and evidently regarded as having committed treason. Yet his query touched on something about Churchill that has often embarrassed British sensibilities, so that it is generally not talked about: his gung-ho fondness for imperial slaughter. Everywhere one looks, one finds Churchill dripping blood from his mouth. He was fanatical about violence.
Churchill was the progeny of high aristocracy, the son of Chancellor Lord Randolph Churchill, a boy who would have been destined for high office whatever he did. It is important to note that the young Churchill was not an outright reactionary. A member of the Conservative Party, he considered himself Liberal in all but name, his attitudes — secular, pro-free trade, pro-democracy, and in favor of some mild ameliorations for the working class — reflecting the ideologies of a Whiggish Liberalism that was even then in decline. (The single exception to this affiliation was that he rejected the idea of Irish Home Rule.)
But to be a Liberal at this time was in no way incommensurate with imperialism, racism, antisemitism, support for eugenics, and patriarchal disdain for Suffragism. As Candice Millard suggests in Hero of the Empire, her history of Churchill’s derring-do in the Boer War, he was a politician raised in, and formed by, the British Empire. Churchill reached adulthood with an advanced sense of his own potential greatness, as someone who prized his reputation for courage in the face of death. The British Empire had offered millions of people willing to travel halfway across the world to rule over people they knew next to nothing about the chance for that kind of adventure. Across an empire enfolding 450 million in its death grip, revolts and struggles were appearing in southern Africa, Egypt, and Ireland. Millard writes:
To Churchill, such far-flung conflicts offered an irresistible opportunity for personal glory and advancement. When he entered the British army and finally became a soldier, with the real possibility of dying in combat, Churchill’s enthusiasm for war did not waver. On the contrary, he had written to his mother that he looked forward to battle “not so much in spite of as because of the risks I run.”
Churchill succeeded in proving himself a man by those imperial standards, fighting in India and Sudan, helping the Spanish suppress Cuba’s freedom fighters, and, after a brief South African parliamentary career, fighting in the Second Boer War. This experience primed Churchill to seek similar solutions to domestic trouble. When he joined the 1906 Liberal administration, he advocated aggressively authoritarian measures to curb social disobedience. Churchill’s promotion to home secretary four years later came at a time of still-rising political turmoil in the United Kingdom: Irish struggles for Home Rule, Suffragism, strike waves. Churchill opposed them all violently.
There is much emphasis, in Churchill hagiography, on refuting the idea that he ordered troops to attack striking miners in South Wales (something for which he is despised by the local community to this day). What in fact happened is that Churchill sent battalions of police from London, and held troops in reserve in Cardiff, in case the police couldn’t get the job done. There was never any doubt that Churchill was on the side of the employers, and prepared to mobilize the full force of the British state to see matters settled on their behalf. During a standoff with armed Latvian anarchists in Stepney, he took the unusual step of assuming operational command of police for the duration of the siege, and ultimately opted to kill the enemy by allowing them to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped.
That role was short-lived, however. Churchill was appointed, instead, to a senior military position, first lord of the admiralty, that put him in political command of the Royal Navy. A technophile, he pushed for modernization, aerial combat, and later the tank. But nothing in his life experience could prepare him for the glory of the First World War: “My God!,” he effused in 1915. “This, this is living History. Everything we are doing and saying is thrilling—it will be read by a thousand generations, think of that! Why I would not be out of this glorious delicious war for anything the world could give me.”
Churchill’s gung-ho nature may have been to blame for the military disaster in Gallipoli in 1915. In an effort to claim control of the Dardanelles Straits and thus freeze Turkey out of the war, he was responsible for an operation sending British, French, New Zealander, and Australian forces — mostly volunteers, half-trained — to besiege the Gallipoli Peninsula. The ensuing debacle chewed up those units, and resulted in Churchill being demoted, leaving the government, and joining the Army to command a battalion.
Had his ruling class credentials been less estimable, he might have been unmade by his failure. Instead, he returned to parliament in 1916 and once again rose through the ranks — minister of munitions, secretary of war, and then secretary of air. He was a ferocious advocate of intervention to quell the Russian Revolution, and wrote furiously about the dangers of the “International Jews” (communists) and their “sinister confederacy,” against whom he invoked the far more acceptable “National Jew” (Zionism) – writings which have been mystifyingly interpreted by hagiographers such as Martin Gilbert as evidence of his philosemitism.
In addition to being motivated by a profoundly antisemitic “good Jew-bad Jew” dichotomy, the colonial underpinnings of Churchill’s support for Zionism were later made clear when he addressed the Palestine Royal Commission on the subject of Palestinian self-determination. Resorting to bestiary for his imagery, he compared self-rule to the dog running its own manger, a right he did not acknowledge. “I do not admit,” he went on, “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.”
As an imperial tactician, Churchill recommended fighting the insurgency in British Mandate Iraq by gassing them. Indeed, he had already pioneered such deadly weapons in Russia, against the Bolsheviks. It is important to recognize that, as with his support for aerial combat, he tended to justify this as a humane, high-tech alternative to more brutal methods. “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes,” he wrote, before explaining: “The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.”
When some in the India Office caviled at “the use of gas against natives,” he deemed their objections “unreasonable.” “Gas is a more merciful weapon than a high explosive shell and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war.” Such a logic, as historian Sven Lindqvist reminds us, has underpinned some of the most barbaric innovations in war. Even the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified in part as a means to save lives.
Churchill, as a liberal Tory, ought perhaps to have been alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe. Yet he was overwhelmingly sanguine. He believed Mussolini to be a good ruler for Italy, and fascism a useful bulwark against Communism. His nationalism, militarism, and support for social order and tradition colored his interpretation of the emerging movement.
“With fascism as such . . . he had no quarrel,” the historian Paul Addison writes. “In February 1933 he praised Mussolini . . . as ‘the greatest lawgiver among men.’” Paul Mason adds that Churchill thanked Mussolini for having “rendered a service to the world” in his war against communism, trade unions, and the Left. Visiting Italy in 1927, he declared: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” He wrote of his “intimate and easy” relations with Mussolini, adding that “in the conflict between Fascism and Bolshevism, there was no doubt where my sympathies and convictions lay.”
In 1935, Churchill expressed his “admiration” for Hitler and “the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to . . . overcome all the . . . resistances which barred his path.” Addison explains that while Churchill didn’t approve of the Nazi regime’s persecution of the Jews, it was the “external ambitions of the Nazis, not their internal policies, that caused Churchill most alarm.”
But which external ambitions were troubling, and which weren’t? Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in no way perturbed Churchill. That was far off, in a zone seen as legitimate for colonial conquest. As for the Third Reich, many of its strategic and territorial conceptions drew inspiration from the British Empire. In fact, its most sacred fetish-object, “the Aryan race,” had been invented by the British, by its philologists and archaeologists working in southeast Asia. Hitler wanted to take the motifs of empire and apply them to Europe.
This might entail a war of annihilation against “Jewish-Bolshevism,” and it is difficult to believe that Churchill or anyone else in the British ruling class would have had a problem with that. But expanding across the European mainland was another proposition. In other words, fascism only became a problem when Churchill recognized a threat to the British Empire and the European order of nation-states to which it was integrated. Only then, and only in that regard, did fascism become worse than Communism.
Churchill became a prominent advocate of rearmament and an enemy of the majority of the British military and political establishment, who wanted to be on Hitler’s side in his war against Russia. Yet he continued to think that the Nazis might be isolated, and that an axis of unity might be forged with Italian and Spanish fascisms, and as such continued to flatter Mussolini and opposed any support for Republican Spain. In the Spanish Civil War, in many ways the prelude to World War II, he deemed the Republic a “communist front” and the Hitler-backed Fascists an appropriate “Anti-red movement.” Certainly, Churchill could have had no objection as Franco bombed and gassed his enemies, bringing the methods of suppression refined in Morocco back to Spain, since these were methods that he himself deemed humane and condign.
Ultimately, Hitler’s aggression forced the British ruling class to abandon its majority preference for collaboration with the Third Reich (“appeasement”). The invasion of Poland persuaded Neville Chamberlain’s government to take arms, and saw Churchill promoted once more to first lord of the admiralty. But the government’s half-hearted prosecution of the war soon resulted in a crisis, triggering its collapse, and the formation of a new coalition government led by Churchill.
Even after his appointment, Churchill persisted in seeking an alliance with the less globally ambitious fascist regimes. The historian Joanna Bourke reports Churchill’s desperate plea to Mussolini in May 1940:
Is it too late to stop a river of blood from ﬂowing between the British and the Italian peoples? . . . Down the ages above all other calls comes the cry that the joint heirs of Latin and Christian civilization must not be ranged against one another in mortal strife. Hearken to it, I beseech you in all honor and respect before the dread signal is given.
The same year, he addressed Franco in a similar tone:
British interests and policy are based on the independence and unity of Spain and we look forward to seeing her take her rightful place both as a great Mediterranean Power and as a leading and famous member of the family of Europe and Christendom.
While this was unavailing in Italy, Churchill did succeed in striking an alliance with Franco that extended the life of his regime.
Of course, as many people have suggested, the Second World War was not merely one war. Ernest Mandel argued that it was at least five wars: alongside a war between imperialist powers, there was also an anti-colonial people’s war involving the colonial subjects of South Asia and Africa, Russia’s self-defense, China’s struggle against Japanese imperialism, and a popular antifascist war. There were people’s struggles against fascism in Greece, Spain, Yugoslavia, Poland, and France, while it was soldiers in China, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia who resisted Japanese imperialism. Even in Britain, there was a marked radicalization after 1940, and concerted efforts to turn the war effort into a popular, antifascist war.
For Churchill, however, it was an imperialist war alone, and he prosecuted it as such. It was the British who first bombed civilians during that conflict, attacking them in the suburbs of Berlin. Britain could not defeat the Third Reich through a massive continental army, he declared, but “must destroy the Nazi regime through an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers.” The great majority of bombs were aimed at and fell on built-up residential areas, rather than the strategic infrastructure. According to the director of Air Intelligence, quoted by historian Richard Overy, they were directed at “the livelihood, the homes, the cooking, heating, lighting and family life of that section of the population which, in any country, is least mobile and most vulnerable to a general air attack — the working class.” This culminated, notoriously, in the firebombing of Dresden.
The tactic of incinerating civilians bet, absurdly, on the idea that this would demoralize the population and grind down the resistance — an idea that the British Empire had to be repeatedly disabused of in the colonial wars. An antifascist war might have conspicuously spared the civilian population, seeking to build support for an antifascist resistance movement that would quicken the regime’s collapse. But to Churchill, this would have been simply unthinkable. This was the man who had joined a cavalry charge in Omdurman to avenge General Gordon, and whose whole military career was marked by an enthusiastic love of danger and death. This was the man who had fought to suppress insurgents everywhere, the man who saw fit to gas and bomb the “natives” wherever they refused British designs. Total war was the logical culmination.
After the war, when there was Allied discussion of using Franco’s dependence on their oil to persuade the regime to moderate, Churchill angrily dissented, declaring that it was “little less than stirring up a revolution in Spain. You begin with oil, you will quickly end in blood.” Communists, he said, would “become masters of Spain” and the “infection” would “spread very fast through both Italy and France.” Nazi aggression defeated, Communism was once again the main enemy, as he would signal in his March 1946 “iron curtain” speech heralding the Cold War.
Churchill ended the war greatly diminished. He had been extremely popular during it, and would continue to be widely respected for his decision to fight, and his implacable energy in fighting. But there was demand for major social reform, and that meant a Labour landslide.
He enjoyed one more stint as prime minister beginning in 1951, during which he maintained most of the reforms implemented by Labour, and — this was also mostly bipartisan — waged brutal, uncompromising war against the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the Malayan insurgency. In the Malayan Emergency, Churchill was once more a modernizer: Britain was the first state to use Agent Orange and similar herbicides, and cheerfully adopted the same policy of saturation bombardment that the United States would deploy in Vietnam. And then, falling decisively ill, Churchill retired.
Having spent much of his life repelling “native” threats to the British Empire, he had helped save it from the Third Reich. But the people he saw fit to rule, in most cases succeeded in overthrowing that rule, in part precisely because of the worldwide mobilizations triggered in the struggle against Hitler.
It makes sense that the British state idolizes Churchill. His history is its history. But who, knowing what that history is, can join in the reverence?