Last Friday the latest Winston Churchill film, Darkest Hour, opened in British cinemas. It is already being tipped for the Oscars, with Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill at the helm of speculation.
I can attest, having already seen the film, that Oldman’s performance is indeed brilliant, but let us be clear. While it is a great piece of cinema that, artistically speaking, deserves, and will almost certainly receive, numerous awards, it is also a film that glorifies a certifiably vile man.
When watching we should bear in mind that Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, the man voted “greatest Briton” by the British public in 2002, was not just a “terribly inconsiderate man,” as one of his secretaries once described him. In fact, she said she’d “never known anyone who was so inconsiderate.” He was also a staunch imperialist, a racist supremacist and a eugenicist who advocated the forced sterilisation of the mentally ill, prevention of their marriage and their internment in compulsory labour camps.
In December 1910, aged 36, Churchill wrote to prime minister Herbert Asquith warning of the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes” (general terms then used to describe the mentally ill and impaired).
Their rapid growth, he argued, coupled with the “steady restriction [of the] thrifty, energetic and superior stocks” (folks like himself, of course), constituted “a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”
He argued that they should be “sterilised” or “segregated under proper conditions so that their curse died with them and was not transmitted to future generations.”
He told Parliament of the need for compulsory labour camps for “mental defectives” and that for “tramps and wastrels […] there ought to be proper labour colonies where they could be sent for considerable periods and made to realise their duty to the state.”
As he put it, “100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race.”
Only a decade earlier, at the age of 26, Churchill had declared his life’s commitment to the “improvement of the British breed.”
As historian John Charmley, author of Churchill: The End of Glory: A Political Biography (1993), wrote, “Churchill saw himself and Britain as being the winners in a social Darwinian hierarchy.”
Indeed, the reality omitted from most depictions of our “greatest Briton,” including from Darkest Hour, is that he was both a right-wing nationalist and a white supremacist. It should be no surprise that the far right has always idolised him, from the BNP, EDL and Britain First to neoconservatives in the US).
When speaking in 1902 of the “great barbaric nations who may at any time arm themselves and menace civilised nations,” he asserted that the “Aryan stock is bound to triumph.”
In 1937, aged 62, he justified mass genocide of indigenous peoples on the grounds of white supremacy, announcing to the Palestinian Royal Commission: “I do not admit […] that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.
“I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
Of Palestinians themselves he said that they are just “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.”
But what of the argument that he was a product of his time — didn’t everyone think like that back then?
As historian Richard Toye has shown in his book, Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made (2010), they didn’t.
Many of Churchill’s colleagues saw him at the more extreme end of racist and imperialist ideology, referring to him as a “Victorian” because of his outdated views.
Prime minister Stanley Baldwin was warned by Cabinet colleagues not to appoint him and his doctor Lord Moran said of his approach to Chinese and Indians: “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin.”
It should be no surprise then that he was vehemently opposed to Indian independence, declaring that Gandhi “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. Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be […] crushed.”
He would later remark: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
It also warrants noting here his advocacy for the use of chemical weapons to repress other peoples under Britain’s imperial rule.
When Iraqis and Kurds revolted against British rule in northern Iraq in 1920, Churchill, then secretary of state at the War Office, said: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes. It would spread a lively terror.”
Of course, you will detect none of this side of Churchill from watching the Darkest Hour because, as usual, he is portrayed as a flawed but lovable rogue who endeavoured virtuously to save democracy and the free world from the jaws of fascism.
The problem with this cliched narrative, however, is that, contrary to virtually every mainstream account, Churchill was in fact explicitly and openly supportive of fascism prior to the second world war, notably in Italy.
He wrote lovingly to Mussolini: “What a man! I have lost my heart! […] Fascism has rendered a service to the entire world […] If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely.”
As late as 1935 he wrote affectionately of Hitler: “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.”
Like the US government and much of the British Establishment at the time, including the royal family and the intelligence services, Churchill enthusiastically favoured fascism as a bulwark against Bolshevism and only became overtly anti-fascist when German expansionary ambitions directly threatened the empire.
None of this is an exaggeration. You can, as is nowadays fashionable to say, “fact-check” it all. And this is to illustrate but a fraction of Churchill’s odiousness.
The truth is that, behind the cult-like worship and glorification of him that plagues the Anglosphere, manifested in films like Darkest Hour, Churchill was in reality a horrid man who, if around today, would most certainly be ridiculed and reviled by decent-minded folk for the hideously archaic views he possessed.
Follow Callum Alexander Scott on Twitter @CallumAScott.