On 7th June 2020, the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London was decorated by protestors during an anti-racism demo. The painted message claimed that Churchill was a racist … and they are absolutely right.
Winston Churchill was a white supremacist and a fierce supporter of the British Empire – an empire sustained through violence right up to its collapse in the 1960s. He saw the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians as a form of evolution – “a stronger race, a higher-grade race … has come in and taken their place.“
Even his Conservative Party colleagues were dismayed at Churchill’s repeated opposition to the introduction of Home Rule (managed democracy) to British India. Churchill also despised Mahatma Gandhi, fantasizing about him being trampled to death by an elephant in front of the people of Delhi.
Nevertheless, Churchill remains a popular historical figure, winning a 2002 BBC poll to be named greatest ever Briton. Most people believe Churchill opposed appeasement from the start, before becoming Prime Minister and saving the country from conquest by the Nazis.
This poses an interesting question – did Churchill really oppose fascism (seeing it for the moral abomination it was), or did he only oppose Nazi Germany out of a desire to preserve the British Empire?
What Did Winston Churchill Believe?
Churchill was in his mid-40s when fascists began to gain power in the aftermath of the First World War, and well into his 60s by the time Hitler invaded Poland. A long time for a man to grow and change his opinion, and Churchill loved to give his opinion. A great self-publicist, Churchill was constantly writing articles, publishing books and going on long speaking tours. With so many potential sources, it can be difficult to work out what Churchill thought at any given time.
It also doesn’t help that Churchill is lauded as one of the greatest Britons of all time, so he is either lavished with undeserved praise or denounced as “history’s greatest monster” to get some cheap attention.
A Fervent Anti-Communist
Looking back, the first thing we notice is that Churchill hated the Bolsheviks. He had no great love for the Tsars, but he admired their war effort against Germany. After Nicholas II was deposed, Churchill viewed the Provisional Government with suspicion and may have helped incite the Kornilov Affair against the socialist Kerensky. When the even more radical Bolsheviks took power and made peace with Germany, Churchill was apoplectic with rage.
Churchill denounced the Brest-Litovsk treaty as a “treacherous desertion of an ally without parallel in the history of the world“, claiming that every “British and French soldier killed (in 1918) was really done to death by Lenin and Trotsky“. At the Paris Peace Conference, Churchill pushed hard for Britain and the other Allied powers to declare war on the Bolsheviks – most of the fighting would be done by the White armies of Denikin and Kolchak, but they would need additional men and equipment.
This plan came to nothing – the British government was forced to speed up demobilization of its conscript army by a series of soldier mutinies in January 1919. The “Hands Off Russia” movement (composed of trade unionists and socialist activists) also lead a highly successful campaign against intervention – dockers sabotaged or refused to load munitions bound for the White Russians.
Thwarted, Churchill decided to change tactics – Germany must be rehabilitated and its army rebuilt, a bulwark against the spread of communist revolution. As he told Lloyd George in April 1919: “Feed Germany; fight Bolshevism; make Germany fight Bolshevism”.
Mussolini – “the greatest lawgiver among living men”
Mussolini came to power in October 1922, the first fascist leader to do so. Mussolini’s triumph was built on years of brutal violence against striking workers, left-wing politicians and peasant co-operatives. This did not bother Churchill. When he visited Italy in January 1927, he wrote to his wife Clementine:
“This country gives the impression of discipline, order, goodwill, smiling faces. A happy strict school… The Fascists have been saluting in their impressive manner all over the place.”
At a press conference held in Rome, Churchill spoke of Mussolini’s great popularity among the Italian people. He breezily dismissed the violent suppression and murder that underpinned the regime:
“If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to the finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.“
It may seem unfair to damn Churchill for words he uttered during an Italian press conference but five years later, his opinion of Mussolini was unchanged. During a speech to the Anti-Socialist Union in February 1933, Churchill praised Italy’s “ardent Fascisti, her renowned Chief, and stern sense of national duty“.
So, Winston Churchill in 1933 – fascist sympathizer.
Franco’s “patriotic, religious and bourgeois forces … marching to re-establish order by setting up a military dictatorship.”
In July 1936, civil war erupted in Spain after a botched military coup against the left-wing Republican government. Churchill advocated a policy of non-intervention (a popular position at the time) but in an article he wrote for the Evening Standard on 10th August, Churchill made it clear where his sympathies lay:
All the national and martial forces in Spain have been profoundly stirred by the rise of Italy under Mussolini to Imperial power in the Mediterranean. Italian methods are a guide. Italian achievements are a spur. Shall Spain, the greatest empire in the world when Italy was a mere bunch of disunited petty princedoms, now sink into the equalitarian squalor of a Communist State, or shall it resume its place among the great Powers of the world?
Churchill never renounced his support for the Spanish Nationalists (who from September 1936 were led by General Francisco Franco), and this is where his reputation as an anti-fascist is thrown into serious doubt. While Churchill continued to support non-intervention as Mussolini and Hitler sent copious military aid to Franco, hundreds of thousands of Britons resolved to help the Republic fight the fascists.
Right from the start, the Spanish Civil War captured the imagination of the British public, generating a great deal of debate and discussion. British views of Spain were often ill-informed or prejudiced, but the idea that saving the Republic would help save “Western civilisation” or even democracy itself became rooted in public discourse.
Anti-fascist solidarity manifested itself in a number of ways. Around 4,000 men and women volunteered to fight in Spain – the most famous of course being George Orwell (who had been a pacifist before the war broke out). Although Labour MPs resisted calls for intervention, the party membership was much keener – local constituency parties lobbied again and again for a change in policy. Campaigns were also organized to sponsor shipments of food and medical supplies to the Republic – by 1939 over £2 million had been donated via trade union and Labour Party branches.
The Republicans were eventually defeated by Franco’s Nationalist forces in March 1939, but the British solidarity campaign had a lasting effect. Hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to anti-fascist ideas for the first time – historian Richard Overy even argues that these campaigns fostered public support for military confrontation with Nazi Germany. This was a process that Churchill, with his Francoist sympathies, played very little part in.
Churchill, Hitler and Appeasement
So, Churchill sympathized with Mussolini and Franco but what about Hitler? Today, Churchill is lauded by the British public for recognizing the threat Hitler posed before others did, and there is some truth in that. Even before Hitler became Chancellor, Churchill was convinced that the Nazis would re-militarize Germany and use armed force to achieve their goals. A sound prediction, but Churchill’s insight only took him so far. He remained committed to a narrow political discourse that venerated British exceptionalism, imperialism and anti-communism.
It is difficult to view Britain’s politics during the interwar period and not come away with the impression that the country was confused and in denial about the changes the First World War had brought. The preservation of peace demanded Britain’s active involvement in European affairs, a role successive governments were hesitant to play. Appeasement was arguably one expression of this hesitation.
As we discussed earlier, Churchill felt that Germany could be a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism. He was therefore uncomfortable with the harsh terms placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, believing they could not be the foundation of a lasting peace. As such, when Hitler started to break these terms, Churchill’s condemnations were rather mild. When the Rhineland was re-militarized in 1936, Churchill praised the French for not retaliating with force, but instead appealing to the League of Nations – in a speech to the House of Commons he spoke of Germany’s “legitimate aspirations” and the need to preserve international order. This of course contrasts with his dismissive attitude when the Spanish Republic was threatened.
It is true that Churchill called for rearmament sooner than most MPs, but that had as much to do with his desire to preserve the British Empire as it did a need to confront Nazi Germany. While Churchill praised the League of Nations as an alternative to war in Europe, he repeatedly undermined the League when it suited him, defending the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, both of which severely undermined the credibility of the League. Churchill’s commitment to imperialism prevented him from a more through understanding of the threat fascism posed and what would be necessary to defeat it.
Churchill only decisively broke from the government over its appeasement policy during the Munich Crisis of 1938, but he was far from the only MP to do so. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden resigned in protest over the Agreement. Two days before Churchill made a speech in Parliament condemning the government, Leader of the Opposition Clement Attlee declared that:
“This has not been a victory for reason and humanity. It has been a victory for brute force. At every stage of the proceedings there have been time limits laid down by the owner and ruler of armed force. The terms have not been terms negotiated; they have been terms laid down as ultimata. We have seen today a gallant, civilized and democratic people betrayed and handed over to a ruthless despotism. We have seen something more. We have seen the cause of democracy, which is, in our view, the cause of civilization and humanity, receive a terrible defeat….”
Conclusion – was Churchill antifa?
Winston Churchill cannot be considered an anti-fascist. He had no serious moral objections to fascism – his hatred and fear of communism was a much stronger motivator. He also did not unequivocally oppose appeasement – he broke with the government during the Munich crisis, but that agreement was far more controversial than we often assume. The crowds cheering Chamberlain when he declared “peace in our time” did not speak for everyone in Britain.
Churchill certainly played a role in defeating fascism, but he does not deserve his status as an antifascist icon.
Richard Overy, “Parting with Pacifism“, History Today vol 59 (8) – August 2009
Was Winston Churchill a supporter or an opponent of Fascism?