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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Winston Churchill, Imperial Monstrosity

Tariq Ali’s new book focuses on Churchill’s numerous imperial crimes, inverting the storied narrative of the British leader.

In today’s Britain, the figure of Winston Churchill is all but deified. His face adorns the £5 note, where he glares sternly out at passersby, the only Prime Minister to be so honored; he is a perennial subject for BBC documentaries and high-budget biopics, and he even has his own series of Doctor Who radio dramas, where he routinely saves the world from alien invasion. (Yes, really.) To hear the cultural mainstream tell it, Churchill almost single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany with a few rousing speeches, and remained a beacon of British fortitude and “Blitz Spirit” throughout his public life. It’s an undeniably compelling image, but in the new book Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes, Tariq Ali argues that it’s also a carefully constructed falsehood.

One of Ali’s central premises is that a “Churchill Cult” has become entrenched in British society, inflating the memory of its subject beyond all reason and shutting down well-deserved criticism before it can begin. To test this assertion, we can do no better than to examine the writings of Boris Johnson—the UK’s current Prime Minister, and probably the Cult’s foremost acolyte today. When he’s not spewing homophobic slurs or telling the fire department to “get stuffed,” Johnson also writes historical nonfiction, and in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, he goes to frankly embarrassing lengths to burnish the image of his predecessor:

Across the globe—from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East—we see traces of his shaping mind. Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could have done it. He is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. The point of the Churchill Factor is that one man can make all the difference.

One is inclined to remind Johnson that Churchill is also dead, and therefore immune to flattery. But for all its extravagance, his view is a fairly common one in the UK, and the Anglosphere more generally. Like the American Founding Fathers (so-called), Churchill has ascended to a level of pure hero-worship, and is barely perceived as a political figure, let alone a partisan one. When protestors in 2020 spray-painted the words “IS A RACIST”—a straightforwardly true statement, as we’ll see—beneath Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the British tabloid press went apoplectic, and throngs of counter-protestors came out to “defend” the statue, as if it were an actual person. There is a sense that any negative comment about the Great War Hero, however mild, is beyond the pale.

But as Ali points out, Churchill’s status as a revered national icon is a fairly recent invention. When he was actually in power, the British public had far less patience for the man, and those who marched at his command were among the loudest to voice their disapproval. At the height of World War II, soldiers of the British Army stationed in Egypt held a series of debates known as the Cairo Forces Parliament, culminating in a mock election in February of 1944—and when their votes were tallied, Churchill came in dead last. Later, when the war was won, Churchill found himself heckled and booed by crowds in Walthamstow, who chanted “We Want Labour!” as the usually-smooth PM became increasingly flustered. Finally, in 1945, he was voted out for real, less than two months after the German surrender that should have been his crowning achievement. Clearly, Churchill’s contemporaries—although many certainly admired him—saw him as anything but an untouchable paragon.

So where, after all, does the “Churchill Cult” come from? Like so many bad ideas, it has its roots with Margaret Thatcher. In his opening chapters, Ali draws on the analysis of Anthony Barnett, his onetime colleague at the New Left Review, who argued in 1982 that Thatcher’s government was drumming up “Churchillism” in order to justify the Falklands War:

All the essential symbols were there: an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator, and finally the quintessentially Churchillian posture—we were down but we were not out. The parliamentarians of right, left and centre looked through the mists of time to the Falklands and imagined themselves to be the Grand Old Man. They were, after all, his political children and they too would put the ‘Great’ back into Britain.

To this end, British Conservatives did everything possible to draw parallels between themselves and Churchill: overnight, their meetings became a “War Cabinet,” and those who wanted to see a peaceful diplomatic settlement with Argentina were accused of “appeasement.” For her part, Thatcher took up the habit of referring to her predecessor as “Winston,” implying a personal friendship that had never actually existed—an ironic move, since Churchill was a vehement sexist, and claimed that “only the most undesirable class of women” wanted to be involved in politics. In this way, the Falklands campaign was successfully sold to the British public, and “Churchillism” passed into the nation’s political orthodoxy, where it remains largely unquestioned.

The most basic assumptions behind this narrative, however, are very much questionable, and none more so than the idea that Churchill was a staunch opponent of fascism. Long before he promised to “fight on the beaches,” Churchill expressed a disturbing amount of sympathy for the fascist government of Italy, calling Mussolini the “greatest law-giver among living men” in 1933, and praising his “magnificent courage and audacity” as late as 1937—more than ten years after the March on Rome and the banning of all opposition parties. A lifelong royalist, Churchill had been personally outraged by the success of the Russian Revolution, and believed that fascism could serve as a necessary—if distasteful—corrective to the “pestilence” of workers’ uprisings; as he told Mussolini, “If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I would have been whole-heartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Moreover, he embraced much of the antisemitic rhetoric of his time without question, writing of a “sinister confederacy” of “International Jews” in the essay “Zionism versus Bolshevism”:

In violent opposition to all this sphere of Jewish effort rise the schemes of the International Jews. 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. Most, if not all, of them have forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes of the next world. 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 played, as a modern writer, Mrs. Webster, has so ably shown, a definitely recognisable part in the tragedy of the French Revolution. It has been the mainspring of every subversive movement during the Nineteenth Century.

Given this passage without attribution, the average reader could be forgiven for thinking it came from Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, rather than the man credited as Hitler’s nemesis. Indeed, the “able” Mrs. Webster is mainly known for her contributions to The Cause of World Unrest, a collection of articles commenting on the Protocols. Such, apparently, was Churchill’s choice of casual reading material!

When Churchill made his famous speech to the House of Commons in May 1940, urging Parliament to reject negotiations with Hitler and fight on despite the dire situation at Dunkirk, he made no mention of any fundamental quarrel with fascism or antisemitism. At the moment of truth, there was no talk of “bestial appetites” or “envious malevolence,” as there was when he referred to socialists. Instead, his concern was simply that “The Germans would demand our fleet —that would be called ‘disarmament’,” and that “We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up under Mosley or some such person.” In other words, it was not really an antifascist war that he wanted to wage—he had urged “the strictest neutrality” in the Spanish Civil War, just five years previous—nor a strongly ideological one at all. Instead, it was simply a war to preserve Britain’s status as a sovereign superpower on the world stage. It was the notion of a rival empire arising, and surpassing Britain, that was intolerable—and it was within this logic of imperialism that all of Churchill’s most important decisions, both in wartime and outside it, were made.

It’s in relation to imperialism, then, that Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes really shines. By Ali’s conservative estimate, there are over a thousand books about Winston Churchill available today—but in most, the overwhelming majority of the page count is dedicated to Churchill’s role in World War II, while much less attention is paid to his actions before and after it. At first glance, this may seem reasonable enough—World War II, after all, was a very big deal. But in another light, the war represents only a seven-year chunk of Churchill’s career, which spanned at least fifty years and four continents. To zero in so exclusively on those seven years carries an uncomfortable implication, suggesting that conflict in Europe is inherently important and interesting, while Africa, India, and the Middle East are less so. (For reference, this is the same ingrained Eurocentrism that gives us 24/7 media coverage of the war in Ukraine, and virtually none of the similarly horrific one in Yemen.) The important thing about Ali’s book, even after a thousand on the same subject, is that it is primarily interested in Churchill’s years in service to British imperialism, and only secondarily interested in World War II, inverting the usual balance. It’s this shift in focus that allows Ali to place Churchill in a more complete world-historic context—and to begin the task of exposing his titular crimes.

Chronologically, at least, the place to start is with Ali’s fourth chapter, “The Irish Dimension.” Here, we learn that Churchill spent a formative portion of his childhood—from the ages of three to seven—living in Dublin after his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was made Lord Lieutenant for the British occupation government. Like most upper-class fathers of his generation, Lord Randolph was distant at best, and the young Winston was left in the care of an English nurse named Mrs. Everest for weeks at a time. From this upbringing, he learned the doctrine of imperialism along with his ABCs, being told that the Irish were “a very ungrateful people” for wanting their independence, and that Fenian rebels were “wicked people, and there was no end to what they would do if they had their way.” In this way, national liberation fighters served the same role for Churchill that the bogeyman does for most children—and at the risk of being glibly Freudian, this fact explains a lot about his later life.

As an adult, Churchill’s attitude toward Ireland was straightforward: it was British property, and any move toward independence was treasonous. Serving as the Secretary of State for War in 1919, it was Churchill who oversaw the deployment of the notorious “Black and Tan” death squads to Ireland, intended to crush the Republican movement once and for all. Composed mainly of ex-soldiers from the First World War, the Black and Tans quickly became known as a ruthless occupation force, prone to randomly beating and shooting Irish civilians. In the orders of one Col. Gerald Smyth, we can see the casually murderous tone of British military policy:

Should the order ‘Hands up’ not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching a patrol carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent people may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some of the time. The more you shoot the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.

For giving this order, Smyth was assassinated by the IRA in the summer of 1920—but it was Churchill who was the driving force behind him, and whose tacit approval was reflected in his words. In the following December, British forces carried out the Burning of Cork, putting over 300 homes and businesses to the torch in reprisal for IRA attacks—and shooting at firefighters when they tried to help. In his account, Ali draws a clear line between Churchill’s imperial intervention, and the further violence of the Troubles that racked Ireland for decades to follow, the one laying the seeds of the other. Today, as the aftermath of Brexit continues to destabilize relations between Ireland and the UK, the fallout may be far from over.

This pattern repeats itself in India, where if anything, Churchill’s anti-independence rhetoric was even more strident. He had a particular loathing for Mahatma Gandhi, calling the Indian leader a “malignant subversive fanatic” and a “seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east”; even couched in the most nonviolent terms, the idea that Indians could govern themselves without British supervision was anathema to his imperial pride. When Gandhi announced the “Quit India” strike in 1942, halting Indian cooperation with the British war effort to extract a guarantee of freedom, Churchill was quick to have the entire leadership of the Indian National Congress thrown in prison. Then, when Gandhi took up a 21-day fast in protest, he scoffed that “we should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.” Once again, Ali draws the connection between the callousness of the adult Churchill and his experiences as a young man. Deployed to patrol the Indian/Afghan border—one of many purely arbitrary lines drawn across the map by British diplomats—as a soldier in 1897, Churchill found the Pashtun fighters who dared to resist the Empire “among the most miserable and brutal creatures on earth,” and wrote long, whinging entries in his diary, complaining that “in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased.” To modern eyes, this casually genocidal sentiment is horrifying—but it formed a core part of Churchill’s thought, and it should have surprised no one when he actually oversaw a genocide in India later on.

The Bengal Famine, as Ali points out, is a touchy subject for Western historians. It does not appear in Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II, which became an international bestseller, nor in the Oxford History of the Twentieth Century; certainly I could find no mention of it in Johnson’s Churchill Factor. And yet, Ali reveals that Churchill’s actions and inactions during the war led directly to the deaths of at least 3 million Indians—a toll that would be considered unforgivable if it were taken by anyone else, anywhere else. Like the late Christopher Hitchens in his underrated book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Ali appoints himself Churchill’s prosecutor, and lays out the evidence for his complicity in the Famine in meticulous order, leaving little room for doubt. The result is a compelling historical indictment that, even if the rest of the chapters were pure filler, would justify the book’s existence by itself.

So what, precisely, happened? In 1942, the Bengal region had 60 million inhabitants, most of whom relied on rice and fish for their daily meals. As the first part of India to be colonized by the British in the 18th Century, it was under particularly firm imperial control, and “the word of the British administrator was law” in all matters, including those of agriculture. The region was also prone to severe cyclones and other weather phenomena, and most Western accounts blame these for the Famine. However, as Ali is quick to point out, the crop harvests of 1943 were only 5% smaller than those of 1942, despite a tsunami that flooded much of the Ganges Delta. “It was not the lack of food that killed millions,” he writes; rather, “It was simply that the food was made inaccessible on orders from the highest levels of the imperial bureaucracy in Delhi, who were carrying out instructions from London.”

In issuing these instructions, Churchill explicitly prioritized the survival of Europeans over that of Indians, extracting thousands of tons of grain from Bengal to both feed British soldiers and aid a parallel famine taking place in Greece. As even the sycophantic Churchill Project of Hillsdale College is forced to admit, he openly said that “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks,” a statement which can hardly be read as anything but homicidally racist. (Consider, here, the cultural connotations: the Greeks were associated with the much-fetishized Classics that formed the backbone of British elite education, while Indians were still seen as the “miserable and brutal creatures” of Churchill’s army days.) Later, when it looked as if Imperial Japan might capture Bengal, a second motivation was added to Churchill’s calculus, and his policy became one of “Denial,” stripping the countryside of any resources it could provide to prevent the Japanese from using them. According to Ali’s figures, 43,000 fishing boats were seized or destroyed, and a further 123,000 tons of rice carted away, leaving little or nothing for Bengalis to subsist on. People became displaced from their homes, overwhelming hospitals as they moved en masse; they sold everything they owned for a few bowls of food, became prey to extortionate money-lenders, and resorted to theft and even cannibalism simply to survive. It is impossible to truly imagine the hell that British policy unleashed on East India, but Ali’s account brings the reader as close as possible—and lays the mountains of corpses squarely at Churchill’s door.

Exact numbers are difficult to confirm, but by the most conservative tallies, at least 3 million people died in the Bengal Famine. According to the Indian documentarian Satyajit Ray, cited extensively by Ali, the true number may be closer to 5 million, with many perishing in distant villages no government record-keeper ever reached. Why, then, is Churchill not considered a murderous monster on the order of Stalin, who caused a similarly lethal famine in Ukraine? How can we castigate one man, while upholding the other as a hero? Sadly, the answer is simply imperial racism. Even today, many historians—whether consciously or unconsciously—consider Indian lives to be less valuable than those in nearer, whiter nations, and the financial incentives of academia and publishing reflect this prejudice. Books and documentaries about Churchill the bombastic hero sell; grim accounts of mass starvation, rather less so. Against this dominant trend, Ali’s book—along with those of Bengali scholars like Janam and Madhusree Mukerjee—is a vital corrective, although there is still much work to be done.

We could go on in this vein forever, touching on atrocities in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Palestine, among other places. Ali’s book is not exhaustive, but simply a summation of key moments; the full story of Churchill’s imperial violence would take many volumes to tell, and much of it has been lost or deliberately erased. Along with the sections on India, one of the book’s strongest chapters is “War Crimes in Kenya,” which shines a light on a particularly well-suppressed portion of Britain’s colonial history. Relying heavily on the research of Harvard Professor Caroline Elkins, whose 2005 book Britain’s Gulag first exposed many of the incidents involved, Ali relates how the British constructed an elaborate system of apartheid in Kenya, in which indigenous Kenyans could not own land outside certain “reserves”—which held the worst and least fertile ground—and could not vote. For his part, Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of this regime, and remarked in 1921 that “It is absurd to go and give the naked savages of the Kikuyu and Kavirondo equal electoral rights, although they are human beings— you cannot do that.” Once again, the mildest demand on the part of indigenous people—not even that the British cease their occupation of Kenya, but only that they allow a shred of political freedom within their domain—drew only unyielding scorn.

After decades of this treatment, nationalist Kenyans launched the Mau Mau uprising in 1952, just after Churchill had finally returned to power in England. Poorly armed in comparison to British troops and their collaborators, Kenyan rebels still managed to execute a series of successful guerrilla raids across the country, killing 32 colonists. In response, Churchill’s government carried out a wildly disproportionate military crackdown, imprisoning over 80,000 Kenyans who were suspected of sympathizing with the independence movement—or who happened to be mistaken for someone else, or simply who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Men, women, and children alike were herded into “detention camps”—really concentration camps—where conditions of food and hygiene were atrocious, and beatings and torture were routine. (The slogan above the gates of Agathi, a particularly notorious site, read He Who Helps Himself Will Also Be Helped”—one shade away from the Nazi Arbeit Macht Frei, in an irony that was apparently lost on the camp’s overseers.) In an interview with the Times of London, the widow of one prisoner recounts the abuses he suffered at the hands of his British captors:

The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed […] He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down […] That was the time we realised that the British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies.

And even this harrowing story might have been forgotten—if the tortured man’s name was not Hussein Onyango Obama, and his grandson was not the President of the United States. No stranger to war crimes himself, Barack Obama removed a large bust of Churchill from the Oval Office as one of his first acts in power—only to be reprimanded, with stunning callousness, by Boris Johnson for the “snub to Britain.” Apparently, even the suffering of one’s direct relatives does not permit any sacrilege against Churchill’s graven image.

When he spoke of his future legacy, Winston Churchill had a favorite saying, to which he often returned in slightly different forms. “I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history,” he said, “especially as I propose to write that history myself.” In life, he did precisely that, publishing hundreds of thousands of words about his own exploits; in death, he appears to have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, leaving behind a cultural after-image that any world leader might envy. His moments of courage and foresight have been buffed to a golden glow, and his much darker history of imperialism, white supremacy, and ruthless violence have been minimized—so much blood under the bridge. But in allowing this constructed image to stand, we commit a grave injustice, both to the past and the future. When we give the credit for winning World War II to a bloviating racist, we rob it from the working people of Europe, who made the truly astonishing sacrifices while Churchill sat securely in his bunker. And when we downplay the horror of colonial violence around the world, and allow one of its foremost perpetrators to enjoy national-hero status, we only encourage future bloodshed. In his Preface, Tariq Ali makes clear that he does not support toppling Churchill’s statues wherever they stand—but rather, a deeper battle on the field of historiography, against a consensus that “appears hegemonic but remains vulnerable.” This is the context in which Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes is written—and in which, if I’m any judge at all, it succeeds admirably.

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