Winston Churchill: Accusations of anti-Semitism, economic inexperience and the blunt refusal that led to the deaths of millions

It's the anniversary of the funeral of the iconic PM who led Britain to victory against Hitler's Nazi Germany. But he had a darker side, too

Jenn Selby
Friday 30 January 2015 10:25 GMT
The prime minister of the wartime Coalition government Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill during a speech 0n 2 July 1945. The July 1945 general election resulted in a resounding victory for the Labour Party
The prime minister of the wartime Coalition government Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill during a speech 0n 2 July 1945. The July 1945 general election resulted in a resounding victory for the Labour Party

Had Winston Churchill not come to power in Britain in the Forties, the entire history of the world would be different.

The political leaders of Britain that succeeded him could never compete with his iconic legacy. But the truth is, because of his triumph over Hitler’s despotic regime, they haven’t had to.

Thanks to his strong leadership during World War Two, the nation prospered in the face of idealistic adversity and against stark odds to defeat the threat of Nazi Germany. And it hasn’t faced such a challenge to its freedom since.

But his career – which included being an officer in the British Army, as well as a historian, a Nobel Prize-winning author and an artist – was not without its darker moments.

Here are some of his biggest controversies.

Churchill’s inexperience as a chancellor was a major factor in bringing about the Great Depression…

According to heralded economist John Maynard Keynes, who believes it was his decisions that put Britain back onto the gold standard in the 1920s, ultimately causing the largest national economic downturn in the 20th century.

As a politician in the 1930s, his attitudes towards some nations bordered on racist…

As Mahatma Gandhi launched his campaign for peaceful resistance, Churchill, who fought as a young army officer in British India, said he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”

“I hate Indians,” he later stated as the resistance movement strengthened. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

He didn’t believe Native Americans had been wronged when they were invaded between 1776 and 1887…

Nor the Aborigines of Australia. Speaking to the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937, he wrote: “I do not admit... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race... has come in and taken its place.”

Churchill’s blunt refusal to supply food to Bengal arguably led to the deaths of 3 million people…

British officials in the Indian region begged the Prime Minister to send aid to the Indian region, which was hit by wide-spread famine in 1943. Churchill said it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. He said the plague was “merrily” culling the population.

He strongly supported the use of poisonous gas in war zones…

“I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas,” he told the House of Commons during an address in the autumn of 1937. “I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.”

He “disliked Hitler’s system” but “admired his patriotic achievement”…

In his 1937 book Great Contemporaries, a collection of 25 essays about famous people, he wrote: “If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as admirable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.“

He touted Jewish conspiracy theories not unlike that of Hitler’s in some of his written works…

In an article for the Illustrated Sunday Herald in February 1920, titled 'Zionism versus Bolshevism', he wrote: “This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States)... this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing. It has been the mainspring of every subversive movement during the 19th century; and now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.”

However, Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, argues that Churchill was himself a fervent Zionist…

And “a fervent believer in the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own and that state should be in what we then called Palestine.” Like much of Britain in the Thirties and Forties, however, he adds that Churchill “shared the low-level casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind”.

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