Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University. Her most recent book is “Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.”
Winston Churchill was always ambitious for attention. Today he occupies a central place in heated disputes about the past and present of racism, and whether to celebrate or redeem Britain’s imperial history.
In March, protests against police violence against women prompted the government to ring Churchill’s statue in central London with police protection, even hours after people had dispersed. A few weeks later, rallies against proposed laws curtailing the very right to protest, including harsh punishments for defacing statues, prompted the same government response — though protestors showed little interest in attacking the statue.
Boris Johnson’s government, with its nostalgia for British imperial greatness, habitually translates criticism of its policies into attacks on the prime minister’s personal hero. Those who do criticize Churchill, like the (now disbanded) scholarly working group on “Churchill, race and empire” at Cambridge University’s Churchill College, are also threateningly rebuked for failing to grasp that his violently racist views were merely typical of his time.
In fact, Churchill’s views not only reflected but also enormously influenced his time; more interestingly, over his long career, they were at times significantly out of step with his time — typical only of his place as a member of Britain’s ruling upper class.
In 1974, the actor Richard Burton wrote in The New York Times that to play Churchill was to hate him. Burton was the son of a Welsh miner, and his essay is a reminder of the extent to which people’s views are often typical of place rather than time: Welsh miners have never forgiven Churchill for violently crushing their strike when he was home secretary in 1911. Likewise, Britain’s ruling class found Burton’s view practically treasonous: The BBC drama department banned him for life.
A decade had not yet passed then since Churchill’s death. We now have a longer view, more records and a more inclusive historical profession that ought to be better able to understand Churchill’s historical impact. But questioning his legacy continues to arouse intimations of treason from those who insist that Churchill’s pivotal role in defeating the Nazis puts him beyond criticism. That this is a view conditioned by class is clear, for Churchill was continually reproached in his own lifetime.
Even before World War II was over, Britons rejected him in the election of 1945, looking to the Labour Party for new social and imperial policies, partly because many of Churchill’s wartime policies were so controversial. His 1944 decision to destroy rather than support Greece’s anti-fascist resistance before the Nazis had even been defeated, for instance, was challenged by members of parliament in stormy debates. His majority in his Woodford seat shrank in the 1959 election.
If electoral accountability was not treasonous then, why should historical accountability be today?
Even earlier in his career, during World War I, Churchill was demoted for his hand, as first lord of the admiralty, in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. In the election of 1922, he lost his seat in parliament.
In such spells of defeat, Churchill took up his pen (and painting brush), aware that his work as a historian would mitigate the criticism of his contemporaries for future generations. He would consciously shape our view of him as the man who stood between freedom and fascism, though the truth, as always, was more complex.
From his youth, he had lived his life in a manner aimed at producing material for historical writing. Conscious of his lineage as a descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, he felt destined for greatness, holding himself to a different moral standard than an ordinary person. Coming of age in the late Victorian era, when imperial imagery and sounds permeated Britain’s emerging mass culture, he recognized the good fortune of his family name and used it to take part in conflicts abroad in order to make the history he would write. After helping the Spanish suppress Cuban freedom fighters, he joined British expeditions in India, where he also read Edward Gibbon and Thomas Macaulay, two earlier historians whose popular works had crucially motivated Britain’s imperial expansion.
His experiences as a journalist accompanying the relief of a British garrison on British India’s Northwest Frontier furnished the material for his first book, “The Story of the Malakand Field Force” (1898), earning him authorial and military fame. The garrison was besieged by those whose lands had been partitioned by the border the British drew (the Durand Line) between Afghanistan and British India. Churchill was outraged at the sight of “weapons of the 19th century … in the hands of the savages, of the Stone Age” — but on his next adventure, he saw no savagery in British use of the new Maxim machine gun to kill thousands of Sudanese anticolonial rebels while losing less than 50 British soldiers in the Battle of Omdurman, which he participated in and described in “The River War” (1899). His next books recounted his adventures in the South African War, appearing as he launched his parliamentary career in 1900. They traded in powerful racist and orientalist tropes that both reflected and influenced popular images of empire.
This is not to say that Churchill lacked nuance. He opposed a bill against Jewish immigration in 1905 and helped draft the first National Insurance Act in 1911. If he violently crushed workers’ strikes and proposed sterilizing “degenerate” Britons, he was also friends with the anticolonial poet Wilfrid Blunt and was willing to use force to implement Irish home rule and prevent the partition of the island. As secretary of state for air and war in 1919, he planned and executed a sustained chemical attack against Bolshevik-held villages in the Russian Civil War and urged the use of chemical weapons against Northwest Frontier tribes over the objections of his colleagues in the India Office — but then he was aghast at the use of bombardment for tax collection in British Iraq, advocating using nonlethal gas instead.
Whether these views were “of” his time is a misleading and impossible question: In every time, including ours, multiple value systems are in contest. Churchill’s decisions were guided less by intellectual consistency than an unapologetic sense of entitlement to make decisions (often opportunistically) based on his romantic intuitions. Churchill hero-worshiped T. E. Lawrence, with whom he designed a regime of aerial terror for policing British Iraq after the First World War. For Churchill, Lawrence’s dreamy aura of the intuitive military genius and epic writer, famed for his covert wartime adventures in the Middle East, kept the possibility of great-man historical agency alive even as the war’s tragic European battles stoked intense doubt about it. He devoted a chapter to Lawrence in his 1937 book on “Great Contemporaries” and, in World War II, modeled the Special Operations Executive on Lawrence’s activities.
Churchill’s sense of historical birthright, of masculine, upper-class entitlement to make history without accountability for human costs, is what Britain’s ruling classes hanker after today. But in Churchill’s time, that prerogative was precisely what began to be questioned. His autocratic expansion of empire in the Middle East was what cost him his seat in parliament in 1922, which went instead to E. D. Morel, a leading figure in the movement for democratic control of foreign policy.
To be sure, Churchill found more like-minded thinkers in the Conservative Party after 1924, but this was an era, increasingly, of doubt about empire — and Churchill deliberately staked a position against that trend. His defiance of his times is evident in the contrarian phrasing of his statement to the Peel Commission on Palestine in 1937: “I do not admit … that a great wrong has been done” to Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals by their replacement by “a stronger race.” His convictions about the superiority of “Aryan stock” resonated with Nazi ideology to an uncomfortable extent for many interwar Britons.
He praised Mussolini through the 1930s and continued to flatter him during the war itself. He sided with the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and admired Hitler, who also garnered a chapter in “Great Contemporaries.” He didn’t object to fascism but to the threatening continental expansionism that it inspired in Germany.
His gift for words and his belligerent disposition enabled him to rouse a frightened nation to fight at a crucial juncture — but as the head of a coalition government anchored by Labour. In his questionable wartime decisions, like the bombing of German civilians, he tellingly soothed his conscience with faith in the higher poetic justice of “the shattering stroke of retribution.”
When requisitioning policies caused famine in Bengal in 1943, his refusal to comply with the viceroy of India Lord Wavell’s requests for emergency grain shipments were not the mark of a uniquely villainous soul; other British politicians might have acted similarly in his place. That said, many officials, including his own India secretary, Leo Amery, an arch-imperialist who crushed wartime Indian anticolonial rebellion ruthlessly, found Churchill’s racist defenses of his decision — that Indians breed like rabbits, that if the famine was so bad why was Gandhi still alive, that the starvation of Bengalis mattered less than starvation of “sturdy” Greeks — remarkable.
Churchill was “not quite sane” on India, Amery concluded, finding little difference “between his outlook and Hitler’s.” Even leaving aside the opinions of Indians and other “non-Aryans,” in a time when many Britons recognized Aryanism as a Nazi ideology and even fellow Conservatives found Churchill’s views extreme, it is difficult to dismiss them as typical of his time. They emerged from a class-based sense of his personal historical role as someone destined to stoically tolerate all manner of evil in the name of progress. These were the unchristian ethics of empire that anticolonial thinkers so deplored. They also shaped Churchill’s oversight of Britain’s brutal war in Kenya in the 1950s, in which countless people were killed and tortured in a “pipeline” of concentration camps, and the violent counterinsurgency in Malaya, where the British became the first power to use Agent Orange.
How far do we want to take the justification of “typicality,” given mass opposition to such policies in the colonies and significant opposition within Britain itself? The Churchill who defied Hitler also overthrew the democratically elected Iranian prime minister in 1953 for daring to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (in which Churchill had gotten his government to purchase a majority share in 1912), at a time when Britain itself was nationalizing key industries. The U.K. and the U.S. installed a brutal royal dictatorship in the prime minister’s place. Churchill had to implement his view covertly partly because it went so against the time.
To what extent does obligatory Churchill worship do a disservice to Britons who embraced genuinely anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist outlooks in his very time?
Amery and Wavell believed the Bengal famine would forever blacken Britain’s name. But Churchill and the legion of biographers who followed ensured that it did not. And the backlash in recent years, as a new generation of scholars has put the forgotten episode back on the table, is testimony to the consecration of the Churchill legend, which has become more stubbornly entrenched even as the historical imagination that shaped Churchill’s life has come into question: a vision of history as something made by great men who dare to rise above ordinary moral standards.
Churchill’s views were not typical of his time; they were typical of his race, class and gender in his time — and, partly because of his cultural influence, in ours too. Of course the British ruling class adore him; but then even more understandable is the rest of the world’s inability to.
Those who refuse to consider him as anything more complicated than Hitler’s nemesis are those who see no need to apologize for Britain’s imperial past because they remain committed to the values of innate upper-class white supremacy on which it was founded. Indeed, Churchill helped extend their life with his vision of the “iron curtain” of the Cold War, which inaugurated a new era of imperial contest, and the war on terror, rooted in British machinations in the Middle East on Churchill’s watch, extended them further into the 21st century.
Britons avoided reckoning with the racist and violent reality of their empire, allowing myth to cloud memory, erase famine and substitute pride in abolition for acknowledgment of slavery (which persisted well after abolition). The Churchill cultural industry, the endless stream of films, hagiographic biographies and TV shows that have made him a talisman-like fixation for Britain’s elite played no small part in this — and for American elites too, not least because of the superior “Anglo-Saxon” bond he helped popularize as a descendent of America’s upper class through his mother.
This Churchill, devoid of racial views or colonial importance, bears no resemblance to the Churchill who made himself, practically speaking, unavoidable in serious history on British colonialism. But popular desire to come to terms with that imperial past after endless deferral has intensified in the form of demands for racial equity, reparations, restitution, memorials, apologies and reconsideration of which historical figures Britons should venerate in stone — as well as growing awareness of how such veneration perpetuates the great-man vision of history that enabled empire.
For Britain’s ruling class, to question Churchill’s place in that pantheon is to question the instrumental view of history that guided him and justified imperialism, the very instrumentalism that prompts members of the Johnson government to call on Britons to quietly (without protest) tolerate all manner of trial, from lockdowns to Brexit, on their promise, as would-be great men, that Britain will then once again emerge as “the greatest place on Earth.” These are the ethics not of a particular time but a particular class (defined racially, too) that sees its dominance as a birthright.