Updated: Jun 14
Should Winston Churchill be remembered as a hero?
Few figures occupy the collective imagination of Britain quite like the colossus of Winston Churchill. Imperious, resilient, and like almost any hero, fundamentally flawed. The man was voted the greatest Briton of all time and has a bronze bust in the US President’s oval office. But there is now an increasing number who see him as a villain, with the legacy of British Empire linked to the early years of Churchill’s political career.
The question of racism and Winston Churchill is more prevalent than ever. The historical legacy of such figures enshrined in statue-form has been called back into urgent debate by the #BlackLivesMatter group. After a day of protests, 17th century slave owner Edward Colston now sleeps with the fishes in Bristol, and Churchill’s own statue was graffitied with the slogan, “was a racist”. This debate on Churchill’s status is necessary for us as a society to have, as we make sense of our own history and decide where we want to go from here.
A Racist Legacy
There exists an abundance of evidence to suggest Churchill held extreme views of racial hierarchy and Anglo-Saxon supremacy, and many of his views were outdated even to his contemporaries at the time. Quotations such as “I hate Indians”, “They are beastly people with a beastly religion.” Or referring to Palestinians as “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.”
He also spoke of the “squeamishness” of colleagues who were not in “favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” The poisoned gas he mentions was the equivalent of today’s tear gas, and not the deadly mustard gas used in WWI. Not that it makes the sentiment much more palatable.
Additionally, “I do not admit... 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.”
Possibly the most damning chapter in Churchill’s record is the Bengali famine, a tragedy in the British administered region in 1943 which resulted in three million Indians perishing. During this time, there were wartime shortages of food and the British were accused of stockpiling supplies to give preference to feeding liberated European prisoners. Although, there is no concrete evidence that the famine was engineered or that Churchill had wanted to perpetrate genocide, the rhetoric of Churchill, stating the catastrophe wasn’t helped by Indian people “breeding like rabbits”, hardly helps his case.
There is undoubtedly a dark side to Churchill’s legacy. Denial of this would be to complement the emperor’s new clothes. Even though to the modern reader these quotes display clear racism, in his early parliamentary career at the turn of the 20th century, they would not have been far outside the norm for the times.
Unfortunately, most historical figures would struggle to live up to modern day scrutiny, even T.V Shows from ten years ago find this difficult. We live in a world of constantly changing rules, in many ways this is a good thing. However, in such an environment, it is easy for a man born almost 150 years ago to fall afoul of the ideals of the multicultural society we now inhabit. Fundamentally, it is important to remember that this was a time of a different lexicon, different ideas and utterly different experiences.
WATCH: Members of the public turn out to clean Churchill's statue of graffiti
Saving the world
Prior to WWII, few would have predicted Churchill’s rise. Seen as a mostly spent and anachronistic force in his own time. His stock had been hampered with his contemporaries during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign he had planned in WWI, and by his switching of allegiance from the Conservatives to the Liberals and back to the Conservatives again.
In 1940, with WWII going terribly, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign. The government looked to the man who had warned them about Hitler all along and had publicly criticised Chamberlin’s policy of appeasement, Winston Churchill.
Between the surrender of France in 1940 and the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, there was a bleak period where Britain faced the might of the German war machine alone. In this period, British hopes outside of suing for peace seemed faint. With money reserves almost depleted, the island gradually starving, the Army in North Africa being dealt defeat after defeat, and the civilian population facing the wrath of the Luftwaffe in merciless bombing raids every day.
Despite calls from within his own government to sue for peace. Churchill kept up to the fight against the fascist ideology he had warned of for years before its brutal hegemony came to fruition.
Had Churchill and Britain capitulated in this vital period, Hitler could’ve focused the full force of the Blitzkrieg on his Russian campaign, and America would never have had the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of Britain, which served to launch the joint liberation of Europe at the 1944 Normandy Landings.
Throughout the war, he remained an emblem of British pride and courage, through his personality and rousing speeches. Moreover, it is not overstating the point, that this crucial period in which Churchill oversaw Britain’s survival until America joined the conflict by the end of 1941, changed the course of history in a monumental way.
In literature it is often suggested that a hero can only be as good as the villain they’re facing. Perhaps, it could be argued that the legacy of Churchill could never have reached such heights without being diametrically opposed to the evil of Hitler. When your opponent is using death camps, bombing civilian targets and enforcing brutal occupations, you have to ‘take off the gloves’ to beat him.
It isn’t just Churchill
There are numerous examples of previously revered individuals whose morals were accepted by contemporaries but face severe criticism, and rightly so, in the modern day.
In 2018, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was removed from the University of Ghana campus, as a result of activists who were angry at some of his earlier writings. While in South Africa in 1903, Gandhi wrote that “the predominating race” should be white people and that black people “are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.” Towards the end of his life, it is also documented that Gandhi slept in a bed naked with his teenage grandniece while he was in his 70s to test his power of his abstinence from sex. Behaviour which in the modern day would be classed as sexual assault.
No one person is wholly good. Much like Churchill’s, Gandhi’s views on race were undoubtedly ignorant and damaging. They were also a construct of the times he lived through, and they began to change towards the end of his life. In India today, Gandhi is treated as the father of the nation, his face is on the currency and almost every city has a memorial to him. Much the same as Churchill is in Britain.
He is but a man
Churchill was the leader of an empire and not afraid to resort to tough measures to get the job done. When applied to civilian life this could be, and often was, a bad thing. Particularly in the case of the Tonypandy riots of Welsh coal miners or the brutal repression of Irish rebels using the Black and Tans.
However, in the theatre of war, this was what made him a hero. This was likely also the view of the British people at the time, since they removed him in favour of Attlee at the end of the war, because they wanted a civilian government not a military minded one. Though they revered him all the same for having delivered victory over fascism.
A man of inspiring rhetoric, capable of galvanising a nation brought to the brink of destruction with a seemingly unmovable resolve. Winston Churchill was no saint, nor in living did he ever pretend to be, despite the pedestal he is held up in British history. He was much too human. He leaves behind a complex and problematic legacy, but his story is ultimately one of redemption.
Had it been Lord Halifax and not he, who led the country after Chamberlain’s resignation, in seems inevitable that Britain would have sued for peace with Hitler’s Germany. The implications this would have had for the rest of Europe, and the whole world are almost unfathomable. The landscape of the world we live in today arguably owes as much to the stoicism of Churchill as any other person in our history. His numerous flaws should be understood, but his achievements should remain unforgotten.