Churchill wanted a captured Hitler to die 'like a gangster' in the electric chair

Newly released documents from National Archive also show PM was prepared to see Ghandi starve to death
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The Independent Online

A side of Winston Churchill's character rarely glimpsed - that of the vengeful, rather than magnanimous, war leader - has emerged in hitherto secret government documents. They reveal that he wanted to take the unprecedented step of sending Adolf Hitler to the electric chair, had he been captured, and was also content to see Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi starve to death during a hunger strike in 1943.

The Prime Minister, talking in a War Cabinet meeting in July 1942, described Hitler as "the mainspring of evil" and, in his flamboyant fashion, jokingly suggested leasing an electric chair - known as "Old Sparky"- from the Americans to execute him like "a gangster" if and when he was caught.

The new insight into Churchill's deep anger and bitter hatred for the Nazi Führer - whom he held responsible for more than half a million British casualties - comes in a set of classified Cabinet Office notebooks released by the National Archives this week. The notes, taken by the Deputy Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook during some of the most critical top-level meetings of the war, shed fresh light on the thoughts and fears of Britain's leaders during the period.

The argument over how to deal with the Nazi leadership, if and when they were captured, resurfaces a number of times in the hand-written diaries.

At one key meeting, on 6 July 1942, Churchill says: "If Hitler falls into our hands we shall certainly put him to death. [He is] not a sovereign who could be said to be in [the] hands of ministers, like [the] Kaiser."

The Prime Minister then goes on to outline his preferred method for Hitler's execution: the most torturous means available - the electric chair. He even jokes to cabinet colleagues that one might be available on "lease-lend" from the US.

Gill Bennett, chief historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said the idea of using the electric chair to execute Hitler was "typical Churchill". "This is very much Churchill's style. He was always a man of grand gestures, and he expressed what he believed was the will of the British people," said Ms Bennett. "The whole Cabinet felt very strongly about the evils of Nazism."

By 12 April 1945, just over two weeks before Hitler's suicide at his bunker in Berlin, Sir Norman's notes show just how far the argument had heated up. The Americans and Russians were pushing hard for a series of show trials, but Churchill still favoured summary execution as soon as possible. The Prime Minister tells his War Cabinet: "The trial will be a farce ... they should be treated as outlaws."

A spokesman for the Home Office warns against making Hitler a martyr in Germany, but Churchill, aware of the dictator's talent for powerful rhetoric, is determined that he should not be given a public stage on which to plead his case. "I would take no responsibility for a trial - even though [the] US want to do it," he tells those assembled, ironically on the very day that President Franklin D Roosevelt dies.

Further evidence of Churchill's bullishness emerges in the diaries during 1943, when it becomes clear that he is happy to let the Indian spiritual leader Gandhi die during a hunger strike in British custody. At another meeting of the War Cabinet in May 1945, Churchill addresses the fate of Hitler's right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler, in similarly pugnacious fashion. He is recorded as asking whether it would be possible to "negotiate" with the head of the SS, "and bump him off later". Disappointingly for Churchill and his vivid imagination, Himmler, like Hitler, committed suicide before he could be brought to trial.

Had Hitler been condemned to the electric chair, the sentence could have been carried out in the US, where it had been a means of execution since 1890.



Head of the SS and commander-in-chief of German home forces. He committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide.


Head of propaganda. A day after Hitler died, he committed suicide with his wife in the Berlin bunker, after killing their six children.


Gestapo founder, Luftwaffe chief and Reichmarshal. Killed himself in prison before he could be hanged.


Foreign minister of the Reich. Hanged at Nuremberg on 16 October 1946.

MARTIN BORMANN (1900- 1945)

Hitler's private secretary. Left Hitler's bunker in May 1945. His remains were found in Berlin in 1972.

RUDOLF HESS (1894-1987)

Deputy Nazi leader. Was captured and spent the rest of his life in prison. Died at Spandau in 1987, aged 93.