Was Churchill antisemitic?
American author Nicholson Baker claims in a new book that the British wartime leader was no friend of the Jews and did not help their cause against Hitler. But historian Sir Martin Gilbert strongly disagrees
YES The successful Americannovelist Nicholson Baker has written a controversial analysis of the events leading up to the Second World War. Human Smoke (Simon & Schuster, £20) claims that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill was almost as bloodthirsty as Hitler, hellbent on waging a war. He also asserts that Churchill was no friend to the Jews. JEWISH CHRONICLE: Churchill is portrayed in your book as wildly antisemitic, bloodthirsty, warmongering, incapacitated with alcohol… NICHOLSON BAKER: “Those things are true. Churchill went through a whole paranoid phase where he was obsessed with the Bolshevik menace.” JC: But being obsessed with Bolshevism and being antisemitic are quite distinct. Plenty of people were rightly concerned with Bolshevism. NB: “The word ‘Bolshevism’ — I mean, there was a tremendousamount of genteel antisemitism floating around. The important thing in talking about that is not that it’s the same as the state-supported horror of the Nazi government, but that it’s crucially important to the trapping of the Jews. Because if there’s a terrorist government that’s saying ‘leave’ and all the other governments are saying, ‘but don’t come here’, then you’ve got a group trapped in the place where they’re most at peril.” JC: Churchill’s decision to go to war wasn’t based on a desire to exclude Jews from the country. NB:“ I present Hitler as a paranoid fanatic, and it’s easy to accept that he’s the real bad guy. The harder thing seems to be to accept, even though there’s mountains of evidence, that Churchill was also a bad guy… You have to let in the uncomfortable truths as well as those that are self-evident.” JC: Why do you think Churchill was so intent on having a war with Nazi Germany? NB: “Well, because he is the quintessential, old-fashioned British Empire warrior. All the way through the First World War, his role [as First Lord of the Admiralty] was to tighten the noose around Germany, to impose this ex- tremely strict British blockade and to starve men, women and children. That’s the kind of guy he was. He then created the Royal Air Force and their job was to police the British Empire and bomb tribes to force them to do what he wanted them to do.” JC: Is there really a connection between air policing of the Empire and, for example, the Allied bombing of Germany during the war? NB: “It’s not a direct connection, but the RAF, the people who planned those bombing campaigns, were all people who had been part of the policing of the British Empire. It was the doctrine of air control, getting people to do what you want by blowing things up.” JC: So what would be the alternative, in a state of war? NB: “Well, it’s a problem. One of the quotes in the book is that the British air attacks united the German nation behind Hitler.” JC: But then you’re following the logic that it was Churchill’s air strikes that led to — what? The death camps? NB: “Of course, you have to lay blame on the people who actually do something. So you never want to say that Winston Churchill is responsible for the “Churchill was the worst possible person to put up against Hitler, ” says Nicholson Baker ( left) JC: But aren’t you linking things in a causal chain that would suggest that, were there not to have been air strikes there would not have been the more horrific later developments of the war. NB: “I’m saying that you have to hold the Germans, who did the killing, responsible. But I think that there are radicalising conditions that increase the likelihood that criminal actions would take place. Let’s say you were concerned about Hitler and let’s say you were Prime Minister, would you ever dream in your wildest, most severely militaristic scene paintings that trying to set alight the forests of Germany would help anything? To drop fire bombs on the Black Forest? It’s insane. I think the specifics of the Allied policy were terribly misguided.
“And so there’s that, but I also have to say that it’s at least worth asking whether against such an unstable person, any act of violent resistance would indeed help him keep power or would lessen his power? I think it’s just as likely that the state of being in a war was a gift to Hitler, in the sense that we know from,
killing of the Jews.”
INTERVIEW BY FRANCESCA SEGAL
SIR MARTIN GILBERT
any time a nation is attacked, the most extreme sabre-rattlers are the ones that are put in power.” JC: But Hitler was already in power. Churchill was ‘the worst Churchill didn’t get him elected. possible person to put NB: With the book, I was trying to add up against Hitler’, but enriching complexity to a very fraught he may well have been the best. NO
“NicholsonBakerthinks period. I mean, Hitler is the beginning “He created a government based of it, Churchill is an utterly different on all three political parties; refused human being, they have no overlap. But to allow pre-war political animosities also, Churchill is a disturbingly violent, to keep out the best-qualified people very right-wing guy. He was against the for the top jobs; gave the nation courvote for women, he didn’t have any inage that it could survive the German terest in Indian independence, Irish inonslaught; and worked with his War dependence, he was sabre-rattling any Cabinet (including the Labour leaders) chance he got, and he was on a manic and with his chiefs of staff to work out high in this period. the best ways for Britain to survive, for
“I think he was the worst possible Britain to recuperate from the bombperson to put up against Hitler. Not the ing and submarine onslaught, and to best, the worst.” find the means to break Germany’s cruel grip on so many of the states of Europe.
“Baker is critical of bombing Germany when Hitler was imposing his cruel tyranny on a dozen captive peoples. But this bombing — at the cost of 55,000 Bomber Command air crew — made an essential contribution to the ultimate and essential victory by seriously disrupting German warmaking capacity, German oil supplies, German rail and road communications, and weakening the German air force so it could not itself destroy the allied forces landing in Normandy for the liberation of Europe.
“Baker says Churchill was ‘disturbingly violent’. But he warned all his life of the horrors of war, and devoted the pre-war years to trying to avert war. After 1945 he worked to reconcile Germany and France, and bring about a unified Europe that would not go to war with itself again.
“Baker calls Churchill ‘very right wing’ and without ‘any interest’ in the Irish or independence. But in 1922, Churchill piloted through Parliament the Irish Free State Bill that gave southern Ireland its independence. And in 1947 he refused to allow the Conservative party to oppose the Indian independence Bill. Churchill was an upholder of parliamentary government, the rule of law, and individual liberty, as well as a pioneer of the welfare state.
“Despite what Baker asserts about Churchill wanting to starve the Germans to death in the First World War, the naval blockade of Germany was instituted after he left the Admiralty in 1915. He writes of the bombing of ‘tribes’ when Churchill was Secretary of State for Air (1919-1920). These were tribes making war against the Iraqi administration, administered by Britain (with Iraqi politicians) under a League of Nations mandate. Churchill specifically suggested using non-poisonous gas bombs that would not cause death.” Sir Martin Gilbert’s book Churchill and the Jews is published by Pocket Books, at £9.99