Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Of course Winston Churchill was racist, but it also doesn’t matter

  • The real question is whether the ‘greatest’ British prime minister could look beyond his racism in dealing with other peoples and making rational judgments in such situations

I read with great amusement and a little outrage an article from last week’s Spectator, the conservative British publication, which claimed to have examined “Churchill’s 20 million published words, including nearly 60 books, 2,000 articles, thousands of speeches and private letters and papers, [as well as] 60 million words about Churchill by biographers and memoir writers”.

Titled “Was Winston Churchill a racist? A look at the evidence”, it concluded he was not. The research was based on the Churchill Project at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian liberal arts college in Michigan, the United States. But what prompted it is the ongoing debate, mostly in Britain and India, about Churchill’s alleged racism, which has, in recent years, led to the defacing of his public statues and demands for their removal.

This public spat between conservatives or traditionalists on the one hand, and social justice warriors and Indian nationalists on the other strikes me as a storm in a teacup. But it has, unfortunately, caused his fans to portray him in a more positive light than historically warranted.

Of course Churchill was racist. He dismissed the People’s Liberation Army before the outbreak of the Korean war: “Four million pigtails don’t make an army.” Writing in 1954, he declared: “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Slit eyes maybe, but Chinese communist pigtails?

He once said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Another time, he raged against “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans” because the Indians kicked the British Empire out of the subcontinent.

Well, I guess you could be as white as the Germans and still be considered “beastly” in his book. Of course, he didn’t always hold such a view of the Germans. I dug up for this column an essay he wrote in 1935, titled “Hitler and his choice” and later republished in his book Great Contemporaries. In the 1937 book, a collection of essays, he reserved his nastiest venom for Leon Trotsky, whom he described as “a skin of malice”.

But, oh boy, how admiring he was of the fuhrer! He certainly wasn’t racist with the Germans then. The essay is just six pages long. The 1937 version was rewritten from the earlier one. The dates are important, as they showed that his view of Hitler was still largely positive up to that late period.

Thanks to the International Churchill Society, we now have the two versions of the fuhrer essay for easy comparison. Consider the following four passages. Words in […] were those removed from the 1937 version:

(1) “It is not possible to form a just judgment of a public figure who has attained the enormous dimensions of Adolf Hitler until his life work as a whole is before us. Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds [or remove the guilt of blood], history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, [wicked] and even frightful methods, but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.”

(2) “In the fifteen years that have followed this resolve he has succeeded in restoring Germany to the most powerful position in Europe, and not only has he restored the position of his country, but he has even, to a very large extent, reversed the results of the Great War. Sir John Simon said at Berlin that, as Foreign Secretary, [said at Berlin that] he made no distinction between victors and vanquished. Such distinctions, indeed, still exist, but the vanquished are in process of becoming the victors, and the victors the vanquished. When Hitler began, Germany lay prostrate at the feet of the Allies. He may yet see the day when what is left of Europe will be prostrate at the feet of Germany. Whatever else may be thought about these exploits, they are certainly among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world.”

(3) “While all these formidable transformations were occurring in Europe, Corporal Hitler was fighting his long, wearing battle for the German heart. The story of that struggle cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the [single mindedness] perseverance, and the [personal] vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, [overcome, or] conciliate, or overcome all the authorities or resistances which barred his path. He, and the ever-increasing legions who worked with him, certainly showed at this time, in their patriotic ardour and love of country, that there was nothing they would not do or dare, no sacrifice of life, limb or liberty that they would not make themselves or inflict upon their opponents.”

(4) “That is where we are today, and the achievement by which the tables have been completely turned upon the complacent, feckless, and purblind victors deserves to be reckoned a prodigy in the history of the world, and a prodigy which is inseparable from the personal exertions and life-thrust of a single man.”

Are you surprised? Perhaps the great philosopher Martin Heidegger could offer Churchill the same excuse he used for his own Nazism: there was a big difference between supporting Hitler in 1930, 1936 and 1942.

Like many Europeans, Churchill thought, for a long time, the fuhrer could be Bismarck 2.0 rather than the one and only Hitler. Of course, Churchill’s view took a big U-turn the following year, in 1938, when he denounced the Munich agreement in one of his most famous speeches. The point is that contrary to his subsequent hagiography, he could easily have been another Neville Chamberlain rather than becoming Churchill. Rather than being prophetic, he was actually Johnny-come-lately.

We are all a little bit racist. I am not “woke” enough to condemn Churchill for making offensive remarks about non-whites. Being Chinese myself, I am slightly amused that he called Chinese “chinks”. In the end, though, it’s not his words but what he did that mattered. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, the profession of commitment to noble causes is itself a disguised display of personal superiority – and that presumably includes woke anti-racism.

Of course, there is still the small matter of the Bengal famine of 1943, in which up to 3 million perished; people will long debate Churchill’s responsibility. Would he have acted differently if Indians had paler skins? I don’t know enough to judge.

Churchill certainly had Indian friends. He might dislike their race, but he managed to see at least some of them as individuals. The real question is whether he could look beyond his racism in dealing with other peoples and making rational judgments in such situations.