This year marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which is almost universally seen in Britain as purely a war against the Nazis and their UK-bound warplanes. Unlike the First World War or the wars in Indochina and Iraq, the Second World War is somewhat unique in that it is likely the only modern war whose reputation has remained pristine throughout the decades, being regarded as the ‘Good War’. But the impetus behind Britain’s involvement was as much imperial as it was defensive. At the end of the 1930s, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden believed Germany to be a significant threat to their empire, and not Britain’s national security. Some of the ruling class entered the Second World War reluctantly, and contrary to many propaganda cartoons, British elites did nothing to aid the Poles; they did, however, evacuate a segment of the Polish army to deploy in their own objectives in 1940.
Even after the Battle of Britain, Whitehall still marginally favoured Hitler. Indeed, its objection to the Hitler-Stalin pact was merely that it gave Stalin too much power. Between the spring of 1940 (the fall of France) and 1943 (the Allied landing in southern Italy), the British army fought the majority of their battles in northern Africa. Churchill was deeply concerned about the safety of Suez Canal and the region’s oilfields, along with Saudi Arabia, which he sought to keep from Roosevelt’s influence.
The traditional view of the war, however, is a picture of democracy versus fascism, good versus evil. But this was not the motivation for the Allied leaders, as Chris Harman wrote in A People’s History of the World (Verso, 2008, p. 536):
The Churchill who demanded a no-holds-barred prosecution of the war was the same Churchill who has been present during the butchery at Omdurman, sent troops to shoot down striking miners in 1910, ordered the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish rebels in British-ruled Iraq, and praised Mussolini. He had attacked a Conservative government in the 1930s for granting a minimal amount of local self government to India, and throughout the war he remained adamant that no concessions could be made to anti-colonial movements in Britain’s colonies, although this could have helped the war effort.
At the Yalta Conference, Churchill informed Roosevelt and Stalin that ‘While there is life in my body, no transfer of British sovereignty will be permitted’ in India. His stubbornness over the issue was so extreme that in 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad, instead of pushing back the Nazis thousands of British troops were viciously suppressing demonstrations in India. Churchill’s inflexibility on the issue of sovereignty was so extreme that it led to a famine in Bengal which killed three million.
As historians like Harman and Danny Gluckstein (in A People’s History of the Second World War) have documented, the Second World War was comprised of two wars; one ‘from above’ and one ‘from below’. In a typically hypocritical act of pseudo-internationalist policy formation, during the war ‘from above’ in August 1941 Roosevelt and Churchill pledged to respect, in one of the principles of the Atlantic Charter, ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’. Applying different standards to his own actions, Churchill later stressed, when presenting the Charter to the House of Commons, that it did ‘not qualify in any way the various statements of policy which have been made [regarding] the British Empire’, since it only applied to ‘the States and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke’ (The Times, 10 September 1941). The war was consequently a disagreement between the major world governments about who should dominate, and not a battle against domination itself.
As early as the fall of Singapore in 1942, plans were already being made in Whitehall to reclaim parts of the empire, with the examples of Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong and Nigeria being the most notable. Churchill even drew up a plan, vetoed by the US, of taking over Thailand (covered by P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins in their 1993 study British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction 1914-1990). He also issued a stern instruction to Eden towards the end of 1944: ‘[H]ands off the British empire is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue’. Labour had long confessed a principled opposition to imperialism, though had a change of heart after assuming office in 1945, supporting the renewal of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act and the establishment of a managerial structure run by several generations of educated colonial subjects. As Ernest Bevin modestly put it, ‘our crime is not exploitation; it’s neglect’ – where ‘neglect’ should be understood in its proper sense of ‘more exploitation’ (for discussion, see Robert D. Pearce’s 1982 The Turning Point in Africa: British Colonial Policy 1938-1948).
In 1936, the Greek king appointed General Ioannis Metaxas as a fascist dictator, who sought to bring about a ‘Third Hellenic Civilisation’. A British liaison officer sent to wartime Greece, C.M. Woodhouse, believed Metaxas to be ‘benevolent’, having ‘high-minded motives for undertaking supreme power’ (The Apple of Discord: A Survey of Recent Greek Politics in their International Setting, Hutchinson, 1948, pp. 16-17). Britain supported Metaxas because, as a different liaison officer explained in 1944, three years after the dictator’s death, the Greeks ‘are a fundamentally hopeless and useless people with no future or prospect of settling down to any form of sensible life within any measurable time’. Any remnants of the Atlantic Charter had by now been long discarded from political consciousness. The Allies proceeded to bomb Athens in order to destroy the Greek resistance movement, EAM (the National Liberation Front) and its military arms, ELAS (the National Popular Liberation Army). During the war, zones controlled by EAM underwent large-scale self-government to a level of sophistication rivalling the Spanish anarchists. Residents voted for municipal councilors and judiciaries in mass assemblies, while expensive lawyers were dispensed with and regular justice prevailed.
‘Communist’ Russia also declined to support EAM/ELAS, and ordered the resistance to fuse with the government of the king. In an effort to dominate as much of the country as possible, Churchill’s coup later overthrew the Greek government while also suppressing the communists. Churchill informed General Scobie, in language to match that of any of the century’s great dictators, ‘Do not hesitate to fire at any armed male in Athens who assails the British authority or Greek authority … [A]ct as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress’. He later informed parliament of his view on EAM/ELAS, preferring collaborators to anti-fascists: ‘The security battalions came into existence … to protect the Greek villagers from the depredations of some of those who, under the guide of being saviours of their country, were living upon the inhabitants and doing very little fighting against the Germans’, unlike the ‘security battalions’ deployed by the Greek government who pledged loyalty to Hitler and who, according to Churchill, ‘did the best they could to shelter the Greek population from German oppression’.
Post-war Greek persecutors also worked alongside US counterinsurgency forces. Whereas Russia allowed the Nazis to crush the Polish communist resisters, the AK, Churchill actively sought the destruction of the Greek anti-fascists. In 1947 the American New Republic reported that ‘Churchill’s victory is complete – and neatly underwritten by hundreds of millions of American dollars. It could only be slightly more complete if Hitler himself had engineered it’ (15 September 1947). Like the US, Churchill also thoroughly approved of Mussolini. After visiting him in 1927, Churchill once again picked up his pen to confess how he ‘could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by his gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise’ (Extract from press statements made by Churchill, January 1927, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/82 B). When Mussolini fell in 1943, Churchill promised that ‘Even when the issue of the war became certain, Mussolini would have been welcomed by the Allies’.
Earlier in the 1920s, Churchill had proclaimed his desire for justice when he confessed that poison gas would be an excellent weapon against ‘uncivilized tribesmen and recalcitrant Arabs’. This tactic was in clear violation of the Hague Declaration of 1899, calling on all adherents to refrain from ‘the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’, which Britain eventually agreed to sign in 1907. During the Good War, he added that ‘It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women’. Expressing his concern for the safety of the British public, he continued in a secret memo:
If the bombardment of London became a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fell on many centres of Government and labour, I should be prepared to do [underline] anything [stop underline] that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention. We could stop all work at the flying bomb starting points. I do not see why we should have the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. There are times when this may be so but not now.
Britain engaged in what Churchill called the ‘absolutely devastating’ tactic of ‘area bombing’ of German cities instead of hitting specific military targets. Because of the power of aerial bombing, as Prime Minister Baldwin had explained in 1932, ‘The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves’. During the later years of the war, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris took this message to heart more than any other RAF commander. He took pride in the fact that his Bomber Command had ‘virtually destroyed 45 out of the leading 60 German cities. In spite of invasion diversions we have so far managed to keep up and even exceed our average of two and a half cities a month’; that is, in spite of the existence of actual military targets to hit, Harris continued to wreak unnecessary and horrific damage on Germany.
On February 13th 1945, the Allies initiated the bombing of Dresden, an act which only hardened the resolve of the German military and encouraged it to step up its production of armaments. British and US bombers devastated Dresden’s cultural centre, the Altstadt, and destroyed 19 hospitals, 39 schools and residential areas. Meanwhile, core military and transport installation remained unscathed. Between 35,000 and 70,000 people died, and only 100 were soldiers; a civilian:soldier death ratio which would make even Benjamin Netanyahu blush. The only reason the bombing stopped was because Churchill realised that a completely demolished Dresden would leave no spoils, such as ‘housing materials … for our own needs’. Likewise, two years earlier, after the end of the Battle of Britain in May 1941, Churchill had wept over the ruins of the House of Commons, though not, strangely, over the deaths of thousands of Londoners.
After the Siege of Sidney Street in January 1911, in which Churchill, Home Secretary in the Liberal government, directed police to attack two jewelry robbers who had left three policemen dead the previous month in Houndsditch, the building the robbers were hiding in ended up in flames and all three were killed. Lindsey German and John Rees comment in A People’s History of London (Verso, 2012, p. 167).
Churchill reveled in such confrontations, and exploited the furore over the killing and the emerging popular press’s witch-hunt of anarchists to stoke up his own reputation and justify repressive methods overall. In fact the dead men were not anarchists but Latvian social democrats, engaged in what was called an ‘expropriation for the cause’.
Consequently, because of Churchill’s authoritarianism and the media’s assault on anarchists, Latvians, and Russians, one anarchist noted that ‘Anyone who walked along in a Russian blouse was considered a suspicious character and sometimes assaulted’. It’s against this cultural and political backdrop that any histories of Churchill and the Second World War should be assessed – and any judgements of the benevolent claims of present statesmen should be made.