Who springs to mind when you think of warmongering, trigger-happy military leaders? George W. Bush? Donald Rumsfeld? Vladimir Putin? What about Sir Winston Churchill, the inspiration behind the cute, dependable talking Churchill Insurance TV dog and voted the Greatest Briton of All Time by the British public in a 2002 BBC poll?
As far as wrongfully revered 20th century politicians go, Churchill is up there at the very top. By the time he croaked in his London home at the age of 90, Churchill had become many things: the British Bulldog, the prime minister who "launched the lifeboats" that saved Europe from Hitler, Time's Man of the Half-Century, and the unwavering wartime leader who helped to beat back the Nazis and secure the fate of the liberal democracy the West enjoys today.
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He was also the man who described Indians as a "beastly people with a beastly religion," raged against Palestinians as "barbaric hordes who [eat] little but camel dung," and once mused of his beloved country: "'Keep England White' is a good slogan."
Churchill, born Winston Leonard Spencer–Churchill to an English lord and an American socialite, was an army man through and through. After graduating from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he quickly sped through jovial assignments in Bombay, Egypt, and Sudan. In a speech to Bristol University students in 1929, he characterized this romp through the colonial empire as "scurrying about the world from one exciting scene to another" in the days when "England had a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples."
In today's terms, he did everything to seek celebrity but release a sex tape.
But let's not hoist a man by his own petard. Churchill did know his way around a good phrase—we shall fight on the beaches of BrainyQuote and so on—but after all, he was a journalist. As a young man, he grew dissatisfied with his military wages and sought to boost his income by writing about his travels as a budding war correspondent. But his grasp on the facts was less than exemplary. In South Africa, where the British Army built some of the world's first concentration camps to intern civilians during the Second Boer War, his assessment after reporting from there was that the camps were responsible for a relative "minimum of suffering." (It is estimated that 26,000 women and children died in the camps.)
By the time Churchill landed a seat as an MP, he was commanding £10,000 (or more than £1,000,000 in today's money) for speaking tours across Britain and the US. His primary source of inspiration? Himself. In City Journal, writer and historian Mark Riebling calls him the "Paris Hilton of British politics": "If he toured Africa with 17 pieces of matched luggage, or got hit by a car crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, he wrote about it. His life became a forerunner of reality TV; in today's terms, he did everything to seek celebrity but release a sex tape."
The indulgence with which Churchill treated his personal life and foibles was not a courtesy he extended to anyone else. In fact, he shared one thing in common with his World War II foes in Nazi Germany: a keen enthusiasm for eugenics. As the Home Secretary in 1910, Churchill asked officials to consider sterilizing and preventing the marriage of people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities. "The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race," he wrote in a memo to the Prime Minister that same year. A year later, he argued in Parliament for the introduction of forced labor camps for "mental defectives"; a year after that, he attended the first International Eugenics Conference in London.
Come on—it was the 1900s! I can hear you cry. Back then, who didn't believe in a little pruning of the genetic tree to preserve the master race? But Churchill's passion for eugenics indicated a much deeper abhorrence for anybody who didn't fit the ideal of the cheery white Englishman who woke up with a cup of Twining's and colonized India in time for supper. It would have deadly ramifications on the rest of the world.
For example: The use of chemical weapons was not limited to Hitler, or dictators like Saddam Hussein or Assad. In fact, Churchill was an early advocate of using poison gas to subdue an uprising of Kurds and Arabs in British-occupied Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. In a 1920 letter to Sir Hugh Trenchard of the Royal Air Force, he wrote: "I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them." In another governmental memo, he argued: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," though historians argue that he was mainly referring to tear gas, and there is little proof that Britain did end up using any kind of chemical weapons in the Middle East.
By the 1930s, the UK parliament was considering granting some form of independence to India, the jewel in its colonial crown. Churchill vehemently opposed this, in a hateful, long-running campaign that raised eyebrows—even back then—as verging on the undemocratic and verging on totalitarianism. It's not for no reason that this decade was known as Churchill's wilderness years—he was effectively cast out of the political elite, widely regarded as hopelessly out of touch on the topic of India. While Gandhi was absolutely no saint, neither was Churchill, who said of universal suffrage in the then-colony: "Why at this moment should we force upon the untutored races of India that very system, the inconveniences of which are now felt even in the most highly developed nations, the United States, Germany, France, and in England itself?"
Though he later softened his position on Gandhi, he made his feelings clear on the impertinent colonial subject at a political meeting in 1931: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace." John Charmley, the historian who wrote Churchill: The End of Glory, told the BBC that "even to most Conservatives, let alone Liberals and Labour, Churchill's views on India between 1929 and 1939 were quite abhorrent."
This wasn't just a personal vendetta against Gandhi—as the scholar Samar Attar notes, Churchill felt this way about pretty much any group of indigenous people attempting to lay claim to their own land. At the Palestine Royal Commission—commonly known as the Peel Commission—in 1937, Churchill testified on the right of Britain to decide the destiny of Palestine: "I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race… has come in and taken their place."
(His aggression translated to geopolitical flippancy when drawing up the land boundaries between disputed peoples. Churchill enjoyed his fair share of booze while making political decisions that would have implications for the Middle East for decades to come. There's a reason why the jagged border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is called "Winston's Hiccup.")
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Even as Churchill was in the midst of his great military battle with Nazi Germany, he still wasn't exactly behaving like the glorious leader he is now valorized as. In 1943, famine struck the state of Bengal in India, leading to an some three million deaths. But even as British officials telegrammed for aid, Churchill remained unmoved. Relief would do no good, he assessed, and it was Indians' fault for "breeding like rabbits." As the British secretary of state for India noted in his diaries: "I… couldn't help telling him that I didn't see much difference between his outlook and Hitler's… I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane."
But what about the actual war that cemented Churchill's reputation as Britain's greatest leader? Churchill wasn't a blameless figure here, either. The historian Richard Overy argues that it wasn't Hitler who started the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Nope, that was Churchill, who made it clear that he had zero "conscientious or legal objections" to bombing once he took over Prime Minister duties from Neville Chamberlain in 1940.
German historian Jörg Friedrich has also controversially described the Allied bombing of cities like Dresden, Hamburg, and Cologne as a war crime for which Churchill has never stood trial. Friedrich says that the bombing campaign killed more than 635,000 civilians, including around 75,000 children—and many of the bombings were carried out on small towns of little strategic value. Friedrich is not alone in this opinion—German novelist Günter Grass believed that the firebombing of Dresden alone constituted a war crime.
As for Churchill himself? Though he was in the middle of waging a war, he always had a keen eye for self-preservation. As German bombs rained down on Britain during the Blitz, he told his private secretaries to bundle up his official papers so that he might use them for his memoirs. The resulting book deal for Second World War was a record breaker, landing him $27.5 million in contemporary value.