The Myth of Churchill’s Greatness

A brief debate on the crimes against humanity and political leanings of Winston Churchill, which sprang from the following  quotes:

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.

Winston Churchill, departmental minute (Churchill papers: 16/16) 12 May 1919 War Office

One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.

Winston Churchill, “Hitler and His Choice” The Strand Magazine, November 1935

He was brutal!  And he lived in brutal times.  In the context of the early part of the century the gas thing doesn’t really surprise me; this was way before any warfare being ‘ethical’, which is still a strange concept now.  I think many people at the time probably wouldn’t really see much difference between shooting someone in the face, lacerating someone or indeed gassing someone, but a lot has changed since then.  The term ‘uncivilised tribes’ is somewhat disconcerting, although I’d need to know who he was talking about to put it into context … As for the Hitler quote, well I can’t see anything wrong with that, especially as it was 4 years before the war even started?

“Ethics” certainly did exist back in those times and then as now warfare has never been “ethical”… unless of course you’re proposing the “just war” concept which stems from the Romans and Catholics – two groups with a history of unbridled genocide if ever there was one. Perhaps the only “justifiable” war is one of defense, and seeing as Churchill was talking about using gas on the “uncivilized tribes” of Iraq I don’t think that counts. Personally I fail to see how any context could make the expression “uncivilised tribes” acceptable… death by gas, incidentally, is considerably more horrendous, painful and drawn out than being shot/blown apart by artillery…

As for not seeing anything wrong with the quote about Hitler – Mein Kampf had been out for 10 years by this point; Hitler’s ambitions, militarism and general nastiness was pretty well established by this point; he’d been chancellor for 2 years and his totalitarian streak was already well apparent not least in the much earlier beer hall putsch and vocal emulation of Mussolini’s fascism, consolidated with the Enabling Act of 1933 – 2 years before the Churchill quote –  establishing him as a de facto dictator. 1934 had seen the Night of the Long Knives – mass assassinations of political opponents. He’d already by this point made soldiers and sailors swear oaths directly to himself, rather than the position of commander-in-chief – his rearmanent plans for Germany had been well under way for some time, of which Churchill would have been perfectly aware.

Incidentally, the trials of Nuremberg – and the principles established there – were perverted beyond any resemblance to “justice” to prevent the “allies” from being charged with war crimes as well – Churchill’s saturation fire-bombing of Germany and the deliberate massacre of 100,000s of women and children would’ve guaranteed his imprisonment/execution if the standards established hadn’t been thoroughly perverted to prevent his prosecution. Robert McNamara of the American war office admitted in the 1990s that the Nuremberg principles were tampered with, and that had they been just he too would’ve been tried as a war criminal for the fire bombing of Tokyo and elsewhere.

Regarding the saturation bombing of Germany and the ‘deliberate massacre of 100,000s of women and children’; admittedly I don’t possess the knowledge to contest this accurately at the moment although I’d expect that Churchill wouldn’t have made woman and children his top priority, as given the situation at the time and the limited resource I think even the most psychotic of leaders would probably be concentrating on the military targets!  As to those poor innocent people who were killed in the bombings, well, I’ll have to comment on how avoidable this was at a later date once I’ve read both Masters and Commanders, by Andrew Roberts, which I’ve just started, and the well-known critique entitled ‘Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked, by Nigel Knight, which is next on my list.  I could of course search Google for information supporting my view and knock you up a response claiming it to be a considered assessment of what happened, but being aware of the psychology of confirmation bias as the most significant threat to objectivity, it would be pretty pathetic of me, therefore I would rather admit that I don’t know everything about everything, and revisit the specifics when I feel qualified to do so.  This isn’t after all about my ego;  It might turn out that I agree with you…

The brief history of Hitler up until 1935 is of course accurate, and yes I was already aware that he was well into his ideological journey by this date, not to mention countless examples of disgusting behaviour, some of which was overtly idealistic and abrasive, much of which was also covertly sinister.  What I’m struggling to understand is the relevance and/or point of this when considering Churchill’s quote:

One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”

Perhaps I should have explained this in more detail before, but I wasn’t pointing out the fact that it was 4 years therefore Churchill wouldn’t know anything about Hitler, I was pointing this out because at the time he was in a position in which he had to express his disdain towards them ideologically, but also not p1ss them off!  Even looking at this quote in isolation I can’t see anything wrong with it.  The biggest criticism I could level at it is that it sounds overly patriotic and nationalist, although I would submit to you that a sense of national pride – although I despise it in modern society – would have been an essential attribute for us during the war.  It isn’t advocating Hitler ideologically or methodologically in any way; all it’s doing is admiring his drive and ‘patriotic achievement’  I’m not sure what you were trying to say by showing us this quotation.  Was it to suggest that Churchill actually liked Hitler?  Or perhaps you are suggesting that they are similar?  I don’t think it suggests either, and if it doesn’t in isolation, it certainly doesn’t when taken in it’s true context, within the full article that Churchill penned for the Evening Standard in 1935:

http://www.scottmanning.com/archives/friendshipwithgermany.php

One last thing, and this is from the horse’s mouth; no I don’t advocate chemical warfare; I was trying to put things into historical context based on values at the time.  Also after consideration I agree with your opinion of the use of the term ‘uncivilized tribes’ being at best unsavoury when you’re talking about gassing people!

“I’d expect that Churchill wouldn’t have made woman and children his top priority, as given the situation at the time and the limited resource I think even the most psychotic of leaders would probably be concentrating on the military targets!”

Simply not the case – saturation bombing is well known to be the least accurate method of striking military targets and produces far higher civilian casualties – I’d recommend watching the documentary The Fog of War where Robert McNamara admits that they were fully aware of this when the US airforce began increasing the altitude of their raids on Tokyo. Saturation bombing is intended specifically to strike fear into the civilian population (and was chosen as a tactic by the War Office for precisely this reason) – the Dresden bombings were in fact orchestrated to disrupt a civilian evacuation. Regardless, your response does remind me of the current US excuse for the regular killing of women and children, i.e. the “it was unintentional/collateral damage” response that obviates them any responsibility for the death of innocents. I don’t think there’s a genuine moral/ethical case for this attitude, now or during WW2. Dropping tens of thousands of bombs on built up civilian populations then saying “I wasn’t aiming at them!” when thousands upon thousands of innocents die doesn’t really cut it. In my books, anyway.

Regarding Churchill’s quote about Hitler you say: “The biggest criticism I could level at it is that it sounds overly patriotic and nationalist, although I would submit to you that a sense of national pride – although I despise it in modern society – would have been an essential attribute for us during the war … all it’s doing is admiring his drive and ‘patriotic achievement’  I’m not sure what you were trying to say by showing us this quotation.”

And yet as you know we weren’t at war with Hitler in 1935, so I’m not sure how your point is relevant. Unless of course, you’re intepreting it to fulfil a confirmation bias 😉 Your interpretation of that quote – even in the context of the article in the Standard it derives from (which is where I took it from, of course) appears to me an expression of your subjective view on Churchill (indeed, every response appears to be a rejection of my negative view of the man in favour of your positive opinion, judging by the rationalisation of his recommendation of the use of poisoned gases etc). It isn’t a statement favouring patriotism/national pride as an abstract concept, it’s specifically about “his” – i.e. Hitler’s – patriotic achievement. Two very different things. It’s a considerable point in my view, given that Hitler’s patriotism was at that point undergoing a transformation into the worst form of nationalistic fervour that the world has ever seen and Churchill would’ve been fully aware of the methods being used by the Nazis to stimulate this sense of patriotism. The context, moreover, does not denigrate my view – if anything, further reading supports it, as Churchill goes on to say, “If our country were defeated I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”

Hitler as “indomitable champion”? True, he wishes for Hitler to become the “Hitler of peace” but this appeal – to me at least – falls flat given Churchill’s own historic use of (and appeal to) force (and flatter still given that he was writing in a mainstream publication and would certainly have moderated/self-edited his views). So I’m afraid I disagree unreservedly that this quote was taken out of context – and no doubt you will continue to disagree back.

Have fun reading Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked – haven’t read it myself yet but hear it’s an interesting riposte to the run of the mill rose-tinted idealization of Churchill. I’d recommend Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler for an interesting analysis of how fascism had plenty of support from some unexpected places. Although you may already be aware of the Bush family ties to Hitler as this has been well documented recently in the mainstream media.

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2 responses to “The Myth of Churchill’s Greatness

  1. Pingback: Reconsidering Columbus Day | Orwellwasright's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Churchill Wanted to ‘Drench’ Germany With Poison Gas | Orwellwasright's Weblog

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