By Jamie Morse
Winston Churchill led the country through its darkest hour. Under his leadership Britain and her allies went on to topple the Nazi German regime that had slaughtered close to six million Jews. Unsurprisingly, Churchill has topped many a list of ‘Greatest Britons’. Despite this noble legacy however, Churchill is increasingly becoming a controversial figure by modern standards. This man, whose perceived heroism is an immovable aspect of our national character, is increasingly branded a ‘racist’ and an ‘anti-semite’.
If only these allegations were unfounded. If only the essay “How the Jews Can Combat Persecution”, penned by Churchill in 1938, ordered to be hidden upon his elevation to Downing Street had been buried a little deeper. Churchill’s claim that the Jews were “inviting persecution – that they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer” or indeed his characterisation of the Jew as “an incorrigible alien” are comments you’d expect more from the most capricious Nazi than you would from any British national hero.
We can hardly blame our predecessors for viewing morality as merely black and white. The Nazis were a threat our grandparents lived through, a threat they perhaps fought themselves. I cannot blame anyone for having viewed Churchill as a hero based purely on the fact his leadership made defeating fascism possible.
However, it is simply a reality that modern day debate does not work this way. It would be easier to neglect problematic aspects of our national heroes, but this is far from realistic. The internet ensures a certain level of free speech, and we cannot expect everyone to pardon Churchill from retrospective criticism. Rather, we should ask ourselves to what degree we feel we can continue to support these past heroes unconditionally. We must ultimately decide in Churchill’s case, are his comments merely product of the time, or do they portray a man who despite his wartime activities, held views that demonstrate the anti-semitism rife throughout 1940s Europe.
To me, Winston Churchill remains a hero. Any good history book will attest to how the man put his physical and mental health on the line to protect Britain’s sovereignty, and the principle of a Europe free from totalitarianism. The most fascinating thing about Churchill’s anti-semitism is the truth (often forgotten) that Jewish persecution in Europe did not emerge with the Nazis. In the decades before the Second World War, it was common to see the same anti-Semitic arguments amongst the British elite. This information reminds us of the world’s legacy of mistreatment of Jews, and it is information I would hate to ever envision us forgetting.
We cannot simply bury aspects of our heroes which we dislike. Indeed, my understanding of Churchill has only been enhanced by reading of his private opinions. The truth has peeled away the man’s heroic caricature in favour of a portrait of an imperfect politician, a drunk and a sometime offensive bigot – a bigot that despite it all, saved Britain.