On May 10, 1940 when Germany was swiftly on its way to invade France, the constitutional monarch of Britain, George VI, asked Winston Churchill to take over the reigns of prime ministerial authority over an embattled Great Britain. Churchill, until then, was hardly considered worthy of the post. Rather, he was almost ignored by most parliamentarians. But as noted by the popular American writer Ralph Ingersoll, “he was simply the right man in the right job at the right time.” In the next few months and years as Churchill rode over a war-torn Britain marching towards its victory over the Axis powers, the rather unpopular image of Churchill underwent a sudden whitewash. He transformed into the ‘greatest living Englishman’.
In 1941 Time magazine pronounced him ‘man of the year.’ In 1949, he was named Time’s ‘man of half-century’. In 1953, he was awarded the Nobel prize for “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”. While the BBC named him the ‘Greatest Briton’ of all times, there were others who regarded him to be the ‘man of the twentieth century’ in whose absence, the world would never be able to get rid of the biggest threat it faced in modern times, that being Fascism.
It must be noted though, that the pages of history books might well be silent about the failings of the victors, but never has that meant an irredeemable wipe-out of the same. From the 1940s on, as the new found glory of Churchill in Britain echoed loud and clear across the globe, what got shrouded in the process was a rather uncomfortable image of the man. The apparent saviour of the world was, on one hand, a staunch racist and mass murderer in the colonial world. On the other hand, in Britain, he was widely viewed as ‘a young man in a hurry’, self-centred, over-excitable and also someone who craved publicity. But the one moment in history that redeemed Churchill of all his flaws was the Second World War. Through awe-inspiring speeches and a fiery spirit to win, Churchill wiped away his unpopularity, saving himself from the disgrace accorded to Hitler and Stalin. When Gary Oldman starer ‘Darkest Hour’ tracing the leadership of Churchill as he swept away the Nazi powers, won the Oscars earlier this month, the far-reaching popularity of the man was yet again reiterated.
Churchill, the racist, unpopular politician before Second World War
In 1913, the Punch magazine in Britain came out with an issue that featured a caricature of Churchill. A lazing Churchill was depicted dozing in an armchair, while prime minister H.H. Asquith stood by browsing through newspapers. ‘Any home news?’ asked Churchill and was swiftly responded to by the prime minister stating, ‘how can there be, with you here?’ The cartoon succinctly summarised just what Churchill stood for in the political landscape of pre-war Britain.
“Churchill was thought to be a man always hugely enthusiastic for the project of the hour, but with ideas not obviously rooted in any firm political philosophy,” wrote historian John Ramsden in his book, ‘Man of the century, Winston Churchill and his legend since 1945.’ His frenzied nature was further made despicable by an egocentric attitude. Well known to be basking in his own glory, Churchill was noted on various occasion to be reading his biographies or autobiographies.
Interestingly, as noted by Ramsden, there was some degree of liking for Fascism as well in Churchill. In the 1920s, he is believed to have proclaimed his admiration for Mussolini, calling him a “Roman genius…the greatest lawgiver among men”. As late as 1937, he is noted to have announced in the House of Commons that given a choice between Communism and the Nazis, he would choose the latter.
But his unpopularity reached a whole other level when seen through the eyes of the part of the world colonised by the British. By the time Churchill reached his adulthood, the British empire was at its peak and Churchill was firmly convinced in the rationale behind Britain’s imperial mission. Protecting the empire was perhaps the most important and consistent cause in his career throughout and accordingly was very much against giving India dominion status.
In the eyes of the British statesman, racism was foremost in understanding the empire. “for Churchill, the magnetism and excitement of the Empire lay in the dominion of the British over the coloured people of Africa and Asia, and the two most evocative spots on the globe were Egypt and India,” writes historian Paul Addison.
So deep-rooted was his despise for coloured people that he did not for once hesitate in recommending destructive techniques in silencing them. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” he wrote in a secret memorandum in 1919 when he was secretary of state for war.
But perhaps the strongest evidence of his ruthlessness is the havoc he caused during the Bengal famine of 1943. In an interview to UK Asia, politician and writer Shashi Tharoor remarked that “Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does. The Bengal Famine – millions died because of the decisions he took or endorsed.” In response to the Japanese invasion of Burma during the same period, Churchill removed all supplies of rice from the Bengal region, aggravating the impact of the famine. An estimated 3.5 million deaths are believed to have taken place as a result of the disaster. Noting the wreckage caused by his policies during the famine, Shashi Tharoor calls it the “British colonial holocaust.”
Churchill the greatest man of the twentieth century after the Second World War
A popular anecdote on Cuban Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro notes that when he visited New York in 1964, he announced that he was reading Churchill’s war memoirs. Asked how he could admire such a staunch imperialist, Castro is believed to have said, “if Churchill had not done what he did to defeat the Nazis, you wouldn’t be here, none of us would be here.” The Second World War had altered the image of Churchill in ways that he was not just the hero of the British Isles and North America, but also the roars of his praises could be heard in parts of the colonised world. Even Nehru is believed to have admitted that his admiration for Churchill outweighed the fact that the latter was strongly opposed to Indian independence.
It was during the period of war that Churchill’s rise to glorification began. Right from the day, he took office as prime minister, he delivered some of the most impassioned speeches, building British confidence in the inevitability of victory. “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival,” he roared in the House of Commons on May 13, 1940. Yet another oft-cited example of his oratory excellence is the wartime phrase- “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. … We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. … We shall never surrender.”
But it was not just his words that carried him to the thrones of grandeur. Works of eminent historians and writers like Martin Gilbert, Roy Jenkins, and Norman Rose, made Churchill the name of the twentieth century. The American writer, Robert Lewis Taylor was more passionate in ensuring the influence of his work. His book, ‘Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness’ was serialised in the Saturday Evening Post and translated into a large number of languages.
But perhaps the strongest emphasis needs to be placed on the words and actions of Churchill himself in ensuring that history was kind to him. Noted for his self-absorbed personality, Churchill is believed to have time and again bestowed glory upon himself. “’History will be kind to me. for I intend to write it myself,” he is believed to have said.
The popularity of the statesman was most evident in the pomp and significance that was attached to his funeral. “Both contemporaries and subsequent historians accepted that the deaths of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria had that significance,” wrote Ramsden. For that matter, it is interesting to note that Churchill rode to his funeral in the same gun carriage that was used for Victoria in 1901. Politicians, writers and the general public in Britain and overseas agreed that Churchill’s death was the end of an era in British history. Yet as Ramsden rightly questions in his book, “had this war not come, who would speak of Winston Churchill?”