Dresden. Tonypandy. Gallipoli. Bengal. Winston Churchill’s reputation has withstood an array of charges, made by each generation with their own prejudices. Whereas in the 1970s it was Richard Burton and Jim Callaghan accusing him of a vendetta against the Welsh miners, today it’s racism, imperialism and white supremacy. The words ‘Was a Racist’ were scrawled on his statue in Parliament Square during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Earlier this week police protected the statue at a rally as protesters chanted ‘Protect women, not statues’.
Last month Cambridge academics held a panel on ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’, in which the country’s wartime leader was attacked for his ‘white supremacist perspective’, which supposedly informed his devotion to British Empire. One panellist declared that the ‘British Empire was worse than the Nazis’. Another denied he can claim credit for victory in the second world war. ‘Of course it was the Soviet Union that defeated the Nazis and the Americans who defeated the Japanese.’
For activists and academics to deny his most famous achievement — defeating Hitler — and credit the USSR instead misses the point of his premiership. There are, of course, many criticisms that should be levelled at Churchill’s wartime policies. But there is one in particular that, in the rush to paint him as a racist imperialist, has avoided scrutiny: his relationship with Stalin. Churchill, in fact, sacrificed British imperial interests in order to save Soviet communism. Stalin could not have asked for a friendlier British government.
When Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister in May 1940, it did not mark a rightward lurch into reactionary imperialism. He was seen by the British left as a huge improvement over Chamberlain, whose wariness of Stalin’s USSR had informed Britain’s ‘appeasement’ policy in 1938.
Months before Churchill entered No. 10, Chamberlain’s government nearly went to war with the USSR over Stalin’s brutal invasion of Finland during the winter of 1939. Churchill, in contrast, went out of his way to cultivate the Soviets: he privately assured Stalin’s ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, that in order to weaken Nazi Germany, Britain did not view Soviet expansion into the Baltic region unfavourably.
In the war cabinet in November 1939, Churchill urged Chamberlain not to make the ‘mistake’ of ‘trying to stiffen the Finns against making concessions to the USSR’. For this reason Churchill’s premiership was warmly welcomed by Maisky and Soviet-aligned groups in Britain, such as the Daily Worker and the Russia Today Society. The latter expressed hope that Churchill would reverse ‘the previous government’s policy of hostility towards the USSR’. Churchill courted Stalin’s favour, too, though less successfully. Loyal to his 1939 pact with Hitler, Stalin refused to answer any of the Prime Minister’s many letters until 18 July 1941 — four weeks after Hitler invalidated the pact by invading the USSR.
Churchill threw all of his support behind Stalin’s armies despite Stalin’s alliance with Hitler during the first 21 months of the war — the USSR having invaded the same number of countries as Nazi Germany (seven), having supplied the German Wehrmacht as it invaded France and the Low Countries, and having literally fuelled the Luftwaffe as it bombed London in 1940.
This support was more than rhetorical. In a gesture of astonishing (and short-sighted) selflessness, Churchill responded to news of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union by sending Stalin 200 brand-new Hurricane Hawker pursuit planes which had been pledged to defend Singapore against Japanese attack. Churchill then ‘re–gifted’ Stalin 200 Tomahawk fighters and 300 Douglas A-20 Havoc bombers from Britain’s own Lend-Lease consignments, and shipped Stalin 2,000 tonnes of processed aluminium for Soviet warplane factories, despite it being desperately needed at home.
Even more striking was Churchill’s decision to ship Stalin nearly 600 tanks, which helped tip the balance in the Battle of Moscow in December 1941. Churchill even agreed to strip Cairo command of hundreds more tanks in 1942, routing them to Stalin’s USSR via Iran to bail out the Red Army at Stalingrad, which left Egypt vulnerable to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Churchill doubled down on his pro–Soviet policies even in areas where Britain had her own clients, such as Yugoslavia. Despite hosting the Yugoslav exile government in London, by September 1943, Churchill abandoned that government’s commander on the ground and threw his full support behind Stalin’s man, Josip Broz (‘Tito’). Bamboozled by a Soviet smear campaign against Colonel Draža Mihailovic, Churchill cut off Mihailovic’s Chetniks and shipped Tito more than 100 times more war materiel over the next nine months than Mihailovic had received in the previous two years.
At Tehran and Yalta, Churchill showed more resistance to Stalin’s plans to impose a puppet communist government on Poland, despite getting no help at all from US president Franklin Roosevelt. Nonetheless, Churchill allowed Stalin to sideline the Polish exile government he was hosting in London. What’s more, he pressured Polish leaders to move the country’s borders westward so as to satisfy Stalin’s designs, including a forcible population exchange.
Churchill eventually summoned up some of his old fire at the end of the war by trying to get first Roosevelt and then his successor, Harry Truman, to resist further Soviet encroachment in eastern Europe. (Churchill first used his ‘Iron Curtain’ phrase on 12 May 1945.) By then, however, it was too late to contain the damage wrought by his earlier embrace of Stalin’s regime and its interests.
The painful truth about Churchill is that a man who believed in Britain as a force for good carried out policies which sacrificed a relatively liberal and racially tolerant empire. He did so to defeat Hitler’s Nazi regime — while enabling and furthering the expansion of Stalin’s totalitarian, slave-hunting communist empire from Berlin to Beijing. Whether or not the payoff was worth the price is a question well worth debating, but it is hardly fair for people today to blame Churchill for selfish devotion to the beloved empire he sacrificed.
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Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War (Allen Lane) is published next month.
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