Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
A New Biography of Churchill (spectator.co.uk)
47 points by allthebest 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 33 comments

While we can praise Churchill for many things, we should never gloss over the fact that he favored eugenics and was deeply racist [1]. For instance, he's quoted as saying "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... has come in and taken their place."

[1]: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/ae55v8/winston-church...

It's quite odd to pick this angle, Gandhi despite being on the fighting end of the Churchill had his own racial slurs against Africans.

The difference is that the things that we praise Churchill for, e.g. leading the unpopular fight against the Nazis, were almost unique to him. Yet the charge that 'he favored eugenics and was deeply racist' could be levelled at many or most of his peers.

A lot of the "liberal progressives" pre ww2 where in favour of sterilising certain elements of the population until that whole "hitler thing" happened.

In the USA it was the conservative republicans that opposed it.

Eugenics was a strongly held belief of Margaret Sanger, founder of today's Planned Parenthood.

Sanger had other strong negatives in her past, including speaking before KKK affiliated groups.

Real history is sometimes inconvenient, depending on your political point of view.

I'm not sure I'd describe the Carnegie Institution, or Rockefeller Foundation, who funded a lot of the eugenics research with the end in mind as notably liberal progressive. Nor could the Republicans Coolidge ("Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races") and Hoover, who were both heavily in favour, be described as progressive liberals. Roosevelt was in favour too, of course.

It was a movement independent of politics, and especially popular in pre-war USA on both sides of the political divide.

HG Wells and a lot of the left leaning British intellectuals did and Sweden only stopped sterilising in the 1970's

Yes. I recommend "Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era". An eye opening view about the "Progressives" who are so loved and idolized by the modern left or modern progressives.

Churchill was pretty brutal.

"In 1943, up to four million Bengalis starved to death when Churchill diverted food to British soldiers and countries such as Greece while a deadly famine swept through Bengal." https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/winst...

"Thousands were sent to British run concentration camps during the Boer wars. Churchill summed up his time in South Africa by saying “it was great fun galloping about”."


In 1943, up to four million Bengalis starved to death when the Indian states set trade restrictions with Bengal. That was one of the policies that was outside the Raj, as was the resulting profiteering. They did so after the fall of Burma at a time when Bengal was suffering an unprecedented series of natural disasters.

Facts can be inconvenient sometimes.

> Indian states set trade restrictions with Bengal. That was one of the policies that was outside the Raj

You mean the British administration resorted to scorched earth denial policies fearing the Japanese advance. It was literally Raj policy.

> Bengal was suffering an unprecedented series of natural disasters.

And the British response to the natural disasters was continuing to redirect supplies to military and refusing to allow shipping of humanitarian aid. Churchill's response to news of the famine was ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet.

> Facts can be inconvenient sometimes.

Like the fact that India repeatedly suffered famines under British rule but there hasn't been a famine since Independence?

India of British rule is now three countries, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Combine the three and there have been numerous famines since independence. Course that doesn't fit your agenda.

FYI Nikola Tesla had similar views on eugenics as well.

Field Marshal Alanbrooke: "... And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war! It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again ... Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent. Never have such opposite extremes been combined in the same human being."

I really enjoyed The Last Lion a biography of Churchill by William Manchester. I look forward to comparing that book with this.

Seconded, the three volume set is a very worthwhile read.

For anyone looking into getting a fuller picture, I'd recommend reading Churchill's Secret War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill%27s_Secret_War). Where this differs from some of the other works's on Churchill's life is that it tracks the accounts of those affected by the Bengal famine of 1943 (how it is related to Churchill is covered in the book) written in native languages—which are, by far, inaccessible to English authors.

Winston Churchill was half American; his mother was from Brooklyn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Randolph_Churchill#Early_...

The Spectator also have a great podcast with the author about this book: https://audioboom.com/posts/7040039-churchill-andrew-roberts...

Also this new biography was favourably reviewed in the Economist: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/10/06/andrew-r... (probably behind a paywall)

Andrew Roberts is a pretty well-respected historian, though he's not without his controversies thanks to his political outlook. The Economist has actually been pretty brutal in their critiques of some of his previous books, so it's interesting that this one has been well received by them.

> His biography demonstrates its subject’s greatness but manages to make him lovable, too

So, nothing about the racist, imperialist side? Yet another hagiography?

Literally the paragraph below your quote:

> Yet Mr Roberts does not gloss over the many examples of terrible judgment that littered Churchill’s career before (and even after) becoming prime minister, errors which created a widespread perception that, while brilliant, energetic and matchlessly eloquent, he was also unreliable, excessively passionate, even dangerous. The charge sheet is long: his opposition to votes for women (later regretted); as First Lord of the Admiralty during the first world war, pressing on with the Dardanelles operation long after it should have been abandoned; sending the brutal Black and Tans into Ireland as war secretary; re-joining the Gold Standard as chancellor of the exchequer in the 1920s; backing the awful Edward VIII during the abdication crisis (also later regretted); vainly resisting Indian self-government (Churchill held conventional Victorian views about the superiority and obligations of the “white races” that he never truly recanted). And so on.

So I'd say yes, it does address it.

Given Churchill's racism, for instance, the quote ("His biography demonstrates its subject’s greatness but manages to make him lovable, too") seems a bit off, no? A biography that presents Churchill as "lovable" clearly does not give these things the weight they deserve.

I don't think racists are fundamentally unlovable. Perhaps we just disagree.

If they were, we'd have very few admirable historical figures. Character flaws (as judged by modern standards) have to seen in light of the times the person existed.

Would you say the same about Hitler? Churchill's racism wasn't just some quiant character flaw. It influenced his political position and affected the lives of millions of people.

Even Roy Jenkins (former old Labour cabinet minister) superb biography of Churchill concludes he was the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century. He draws that conclusion even after pointing out Churchill's many flaws and mistakes. What human isn't flawed? Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Ghandi, all had flaws and racism too.

Absolutely. The greater the man, the greater the flaws. Yet we still need heroes from history to look up to, and we can't judge solely by modern standards.

By analogy consider the contemporaneous movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). It's enjoyable and arguably morally-improving to watch. We are the better for it. Yet a great deal of immorality existed behind the scenes:


Sometimes "great heroes" do bad things even by their time standards. It makes no one service to pretend it is not so and automatically assume everything bad was normal at the time. It was not and their bad decisions had opposition.

We dont need lies about history, even when that lie is by omitting ugly stuff about people we want to see as heroes. Such framing leads to dangerous worldview and dangerous implications about current times too. It makes us less capable to deal with actual real world complexity. Even heroes should be questioned and mythical heroes are exactly that - myths.

We need truth about historical personalities, not hero worship.

Upvote for mentioning Jenkins's biography.

Churchill & The secret service is a better biography than most of the actual biography books. It explains the creation of a modern secret service used to gather intelligence on foreign and local targets including competing political parties.

This played a major role on Churchill's intuition and ascend, and failed miserably when he diverted resources to fight local political parties thus not predicting the start date of two world wars.

After the wars had started, he did divert resources to handle things succesfully.

TLDR: Churchill was his secret services. Succesful when not adapted to his own personal biases


Applications are open for YC Summer 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact