In the wake of the George Floyd killing, protests have erupted around the world. Now Winston Churchill has been caught up in the maelstrom.
His monument in London’s Parliament Square has been boarded up after protesters daubed “was a racist” in red paint on it. His granddaughter Emma Soames told the BBC that the statue may have to be placed in a museum for its own protection.
The Churchill monument is by no means alone in attracting controversy. Confederate statues have been removed or covered with graffiti all over the South. Statues of Columbus have been toppled or vandalized in Miami, Richmond, and St. Paul. Those actions, whatever one might believe about their propriety, are at least understandable. It is hard to make sense of some of the other statue protests. In Boston, a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black volunteer infantry unit in the Civil War, was defaced, and a petition to take down a statue of Abraham Lincoln has attracted 7,000 signatures. In Leicester, England, a petition to remove a statue of Churchill’s erstwhile foe Mahatma Gandhi has received nearly 5,000 signatures.
One can only say, with Mark Antony: “Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt.”
But is the assault on Churchill’s monument mere mischief? Or was he in fact a racist?
In these times of upheaval and uncertainty, an answer of absolute conviction is due. So the only proper response to that question is an adamant: “Yes, but.”
Winston Churchill was born in 1874 and died in 1965. During his nine decades, his literary output – not only in books and articles, but also in everyday correspondence – was prodigious; one estimate puts it at 20 million words. With that much writing, it is unsurprising that a little excavation will unearth quotations sufficient to make the most devoted Churchill fan shudder.
“Why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority?” he asked. “We are superior.” Recalling his service in India, he later wrote: “When you learn to think of a race as inferior beings it is difficult to get rid of that way of thinking; when I was a subaltern the Indian did not seem to me equal to the white man.” And of course there is his oft-quoted description of Mahatma Gandhi as “a half-naked fakir.”
These are the kinds of remarks the red paint daubers in Parliament Square doubtless had in mind when they added “was a racist” to finish the sentence beginning with “Winston Churchill.” They are real, but they do not tell the whole story.
The word “racist” did not even exist when Churchill was growing up. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word occurred in 1902. When Churchill and his countrymen talked about “the dominant race” (as they often did), they meant the British, not the whites. The British Empire by then covered one quarter of the world’s population and land mass. Britons thought it proper that they should rule native peoples, but they did not think the Dutch, German, Russian, or other white nations should do so, and they were willing to fight to prevent that from happening.
As a young soldier-journalist, in India and the Sudan, Churchill fought against native peoples. But he also fought alongside them, and he recognized and respected their abilities. In fact, those abilities sometimes worried him. “Intrinsic merit is the only title of a dominant race to its possessions,” he wrote in The Story of the Malakand Field Force, his account of the uprising in the Northwest Frontier of India. He feared that young English soldiers could not compete with older and more experienced Sikhs and Gurkhas. Churchill considered it wonderful if the English could merely match these natives in martial skills. “That they should have held their own is a splendid attribute to the vigour of our race.”
Part of Churchill’s sense of superiority was neither nationalistic nor racial. It was plain old-fashioned snobbery. Churchill was an elitist, and he relished the company of other elitists, regardless of race. For example, Churchill believed in polo as an important factor in preserving the Empire. As he recalled from his service India:
I could not help thinking, that polo has had a good deal to do with strengthening the good relations of the Indian princes and the British officers. It may seem strange to speak of polo as an Imperial factor, but it would not be the first time in history that national games have played a part in high politics. Polo has been the common ground on which English and Indian gentlemen have met on equal terms, and it is to that meeting that much mutual esteem and respect is due.
Churchill had his doubts as to whether British and native officers could ever serve together “on the same footing,” but he allowed that “if it should ever came to pass, the way will have been prepared on the polo ground.”
To add to the complexity, compared to some contemporaries, Churchill could appear downright progressive on race relations. In 1899, Churchill was captured by the Boers in South Africa. Even as a prisoner of war, Churchill felt free to speak his mind, and engaged his jailer in a debate over the Boers’ odious system of apartheid. His jailer angrily remarked: “We know how to treat Kaffirs in this country. Fancy letting the black filth walk on the pavement!” When Churchill suggested education as a remedy, his jailer retorted:
Educate a Kaffir! Ah, that’s you English all over. No, no, old chappie. We educate ’em with a stick. Treat ’em with humanity and consideration—I like that. They were put here by the God Almighty to work for us. We’ll stand no damned nonsense from them. We’ll keep them in their proper places.
Churchill recorded the end of the debate: “And after that no more agreement: but argument growing keener and keener; gulf widening every moment.”
It must also be acknowledged that Churchill’s belief in the superiority of British civilization was sometimes warranted. Churchill fought in the Sudan where slavery was openly practiced. He served in India where sati – the tradition of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres – was widely observed. British rule brought an end to both abominations.
But even if we concede that Winston Churchill harbored racist views, we must also remember that Churchill lived a very long time, and that over the course of his nine decades, he occasionally changed his mind. As his biographer, the late William Manchester, wrote in the first volume of his biography, The Last Lion :
Churchill … always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity.
Churchill’s infamous reference to Gandhi as a “half-naked fakir” is an example. Churchill made the remark in 1931. A few years later, he said:
Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables. I do not like the India Bill but it is now on the Statute Book…[so] make the thing a success. I did not meet Mr. Gandhi when he was in England but I should like to meet him now.
After learning of these remarks, Gandhi told a friend:
I got a good recollection of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colonial Office and somehow or other since then I have held the opinion that I can always rely on his sympathy and goodwill.
Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence was based on his expectation that a British withdrawal would lead to murderous violence between Hindus and Muslims. And he was right. Independence was followed by the partition of India into separate Hindu and Muslim-majority states. Partition was accompanied by horrifying massacres. Over 15 million people were displaced, and between one to two million killed. But after Indian independence was an accomplished fact, Churchill accepted it. He developed a personal friendship with Jarahawal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister (and a fellow Harrovian). They met for a friendly dinner in 1948, while Churchill was out of power. In 1955, at the end of his second term as British Prime Minister, Churchill wrote to Nehru expressing the great pleasure he felt that their personal relations had been so agreeable “after all that has happened in relations between India and Britain.”
All of this should go to show that the paint daubers did not so much err as over-simplify. Winston Churchill was a complex character. He expressed views that qualify as racist, even if the term had not yet been coined. He venerated the British Empire, and believed that there was something in the British character that justified preserving it. But he was also capable of seeing the world through others’ perspective, and of changing his mind.
If that were the whole story, we could conclude this investigation by thanking the vandals for raising the issue and admonishing them against over-simplifying.
But of course there is much more to the story, and when it is taken into account, it renders the paint-daubers much worse than mere over-simplifiers. It shows them to be a herd of ignorant jackasses.
The additional element to the story is the fact that no man on earth did more to prevent the triumph of racism than Winston Churchill. We speak here not of quotidian, bad-form, socially impolite racism. Nor do we speak of economically damaging racism. Rather, we speak of matters of life or death on a mass scale. We speak of the murderous and genocidal racism that animated the Axis Powers, and plunged the world into the bloodiest struggle in human history.
The monument to Winston Churchill stands in Parliament Square not because he was some kind of social progressive. It stands to remind the world that Churchill saved Great Britain, and humanity, from Nazi domination. At a time when France was collapsing, the United States was isolationist, and the Soviet Union was party to a non-aggression pact with Hitler, Great Britain stood virtually alone against the Axis Powers. At that heavy juncture, Churchill was called upon to lead his country. Many wise and respected statesmen of the time, as well as much of the establishment press, favored an accommodation with the Nazis. In retrospect, it seems clear that Hitler was willing to let the British keep their Empire if they would allow him a free hand elsewhere.
Shortly after his appointment as Prime Minister, Churchill’s cabinet convened to discuss policy. There was a stalemate between the accommodation and resistance camps. Churchill, never a particularly popular man, was in a shaky position. “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man,” he began, referencing Hitler. After exploring the options, he explained why resistance was the only acceptable course. Negotiation meant that “[w]e should become a slave state” under “a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet.” It was not enough for Churchill to win over the minds of his cabinet members. He needed their hearts. And so he concluded:
I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley and surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.
Diarists in attendance record that the men in the room were so deeply moved that they rose up in cheers, many of them coming around the table to slap him on the back.
Those who profess concern about racism today are obliged to look back at what that moment eighty years ago signified. It meant there would be no turning back in the struggle against the Axis Powers, even if the British Empire had to wage the struggle alone.
In any serious discussion about racism, it is important to remember what a victory for the Axis, and a defeat for Churchill, would have entailed. The German and Japanese programs were based on racial doctrines far more pernicious than anything modern protesters can imagine.
Nazi ideology was based on the eradication of inferior peoples. That meant the physical elimination of the Jews, homosexuals, and the Roma people. It also meant the forced sterilization or outright elimination of blacks living in Europe. After World War I, black troops from Africa and the United States had been among the soldiers stationed in the occupied Rhineland. Relationships with German women developed, resulting in thousands of mixed race children. In Mein Kampf, Hitler denounced “contamination by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe,” which he said, “suits the purpose of the cool calculating Jew.” A top member of the Nazi Party wrote, “It is essential to exterminate the leftovers from the black Shame on the Rhine. These mulatto children were created either through rape or by white mothers who were whores. In either case, there is no moral obligation whatsoever to this progeny of an alien race.”
The Imperial Japanese harbored similar racial animosity toward the Chinese. Women of conquered cities were subjected to organized rape campaigns. Prisoners of war were kept in subhuman conditions. Some were subjected to horrific medical experiments, as though they were laboratory animals – because that is exactly how the Japanese viewed them.
This was 20th century racism in all its hideous foulness. And this is what Churchill, more than any other man, thwarted.
Any judgment of Churchill must acknowledge the temper of his times, and the complexity of the man. But more, it must stare at the horror unleashed on the world in 1939, and weigh Churchill’s role in checking it. In assessing his supposed racism, it is gross negligence to ignore the real genocidal racism he stood against, even when most of the world and many of his own countrymen were disposed toward accommodation.
By vandalizing his monument, the paint-daubers committed an act of desecration. But their transgression is probably excused by the poor quality of their education. If their petty crime encourages their contemporaries to study some history and to learn a bit more about Winston Churchill than their facile slogans convey, they will have rendered a valuable service.