Beginning ten years ago with a flawed account of the 1943 Bengal Famine, and fanned by a small cadre of influential writers, Churchill has been slandered with the label of white supremacist. A colleague to whom I often turn for wisdom has a thoughtful judgment on this and other dubious accusations. “In a controversial time, an understanding of Churchill is very difficult to achieve. That is because the life of Churchill is an important thing. And every important thing is highly controversial today.”
Excerpted from an article for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the complete text, click here.
1. Western Reserve University
A reader writes: “I’m interested in your response to this quote from a piece in the Washington Post”: The author was a Western Reserve University history professor:
In my World War II class recently, I had my students pore through the speeches and letters of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from the years around the war’s start in 1939, searching for his basis for opposing the Nazis. They found Churchill wanted to stand up to the Nazis’ expansionism, fight their anti-democracy posture and resist what he called (but largely left undefined) their anti-Christianity. What he did not do, however, was call for the destruction of the essence of Nazism: race supremacy…. [Like President Roosevelt,] he never framed his opposition to Germany as a rejection of race hierarchy or race nationalism…. The Allied leadership did not fight the war over fascist race-nationalism…. What if that principle was, through the greatest global struggle of humankind, woven into our social DNA?
Several things are wrong with this statement. The first is the implied sin of omission: Churchill didn’t attack white supremacy (not a common term in 1939). Ergo, he must have shared Hitler’s racial attitudes. But the statement is wrong on its face. Churchill constantly referred to Nazi race hierarchy or race nationalism, from the early 1930s through his war memoirs in 1948-54.
Churchill on Nazi racism
Western Reserve students researched “the years around the war’s start in 1939”—a very narrow corridor. Churchill had excoriated Hitler and his creed since 1930. So brief a period—dominated as it was by battle, defeat, and the threat of national extinction—is unlikely to produce learned appraisals of Nazi “race superiority” from the Prime Minister.
Moreover, the assignment suggests a narrow understanding of Nazism. Far worse than white supremacy, Hitler preached the mastery of the herrenvolk over everybody—including most whites living in Europe. One has only to read Mein Kampf to comprehend that.
In 1938 Churchill said Britain could never be friends with a regime “which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution…”
Contrary again to the professor’s statement, Churchill did not leave anti-Christianity undefined. He often referred to the enemies of “Christian civilization.” By that he did not mean to exclude Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims. He meant those words in a much broader sense. They stood, he believed, for universal principles. They are embodied in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, charity, forgiveness, magnanimity.
Today, of course, if one refers to “Christian civilization,” a thousand Thought Police will proclaim his excommunication from the Church of the Politically Correct. Surely Churchill would be mystified by this—as indeed would the Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims of his time, who wholeheartedly endorsed what he said, and fought the war with him. Over 2.5 million Indian volunteers fought with the Allies, and Churchill acknowledged their sacrifice.
Churchill, a curious racist
Those who call Churchill a racist will have to explain to me why he harangued his Boer captors in 1899 defending equal rights for native Africans. His jailer asked: “…is it right that a dirty Kaffir should walk on the pavement?… That’s what they do in your British Colonies.”
Churchill called this the root of Boer discontent: “British government is associated in the Boer farmer’s mind with violent social revolution. Black is to be proclaimed the same as white…. nor is a tigress robbed of her cubs more furious than is the Boer at this prospect.”
Why as Colonial Undersecretary in 1906 did Churchill earn Gandhi’s praise for supporting equality for the Indian minority in South Africa? Why in 1935, hosting Gandhi’s friend Ghanshyam Das Birla, did he say, “Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables.”
Why in 1943 did he say this to India’s representative on the War Cabinet?: “The old idea that the Indian was in any way inferior to the white man must go. We must all be pals together. I want to see a great shining India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Canada or a great Australia.”
These are not the remarks of a white supremacist, but a man who exalted above all, despite a Victorian imperialist upbringing, the rule of law under a just constitution—inspired in India’s case by Britain’s.
…opposing the flagrantly anti-Semitic Palestine White Paper, Churchill said: “We are now asked to submit—and this is what rankles most with me—to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and by Fascist propaganda….
None has suffered more cruelly than the Jew the unspeakable evils wrought on the bodies and spirits of men by Hitler and his vile regime. The Jew bore the brunt of the Nazis’ first onslaught upon the citadels of freedom and human dignity. He has borne and continued to bear a burden that might have seemed to be beyond endurance. He has not allowed it to break his spirit; [and has] never lost the will to resist. Assuredly in the day of victory the Jew’s sufferings and his part in the struggle will not be forgotten. Once again, at the appointed time, he will see vindicated those principles of righteousness which it was the glory of his fathers to proclaim to the world.
Given Churchill’s record, does anyone believe he did not comprehend and oppose Hitler’s “race-nationalism”?
2) Trinity College
Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut is a small liberal arts institution founded in 1822. Recent events there seem a little odd for a college named Trinity. Brittany Slaughter of Liberty University reports in The College Fix:
…the student government at Trinity College recently rejected a request for official recognition from the students’ Churchill Club to support discussions on themes underpinning Western Civilization. The club is named after Winston Churchill…. supporters declare the Churchill Club’s existence marginalizes them and makes them feel unsafe and that it supports white supremacy and ethnocentricity.
Forty faculty members endorsed the student government, but Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney declined to act. Not out of any declared love of Western civilization or Winston Churchill. She merely said the Club met with approval by the Office of Student Activities, Involvement and Leadership.
On April 29th, fifty students stormed the administration building, shouting that allowing a Churchill Club condones white supremacy. President Berger-Sweeney issued a statement: “I denounce white supremacy, and all that it represents in society today. I denounce racism and discrimination against historically and traditionally marginalized groups… I offer those members of our community my strongest support, recognition, and affirmation.” Just declare that you agree with everybody. Safe words. Who would argue with them?
“Everybody was a racist then”
It is insufficient to defend Churchill’s isolated remarks deemed racist today by saying everybody thought that way then. Of course, on occasion, Churchill said such things. He also expressed quite opposite ideas, as in the quotes above. I referred this question to a Churchill scholar deeply schooled in Churchill’s thought: was WSC just typical of his time? To say that, he replied, is to miss the singular feature….
You can quote Abraham Lincoln, and most of America’s founders, in the same sense. That is not the remarkable thing. The remarkable thing is not that any of them, or Churchill, had the standard view of questions like race. The remarkable thing is that Lincoln, for the slaves, and Churchill, for the Empire, believed that people of all colors should enjoy the same rights, and that it was the mission of their country to protect those rights.
We spend a lot of time arguing that Churchill was remarkable. Then when something comes along that we do not like, we excuse it as typical of the age. I do not think Churchill was typical of the age on this question.
The abject ignorance that governs knee-jerk disparagement of respected figures of the past is very routine nowadays. The students and teachers at these two institutions need to think more deeply. Why do we still broadly admire such figures? There is a reason.