Review: “Winston Churchill” – V. G. Trukhanovsky

V. G. Trukhanovsky’s biographical book “Winston Churchill” is an outstanding scholarly work. Trukhanovsky, a Soviet scholar, provides a Marxist-Leninist analysis of Churchill’s life and the historical context in which he lived. In a way, Trukhanovsky’s book is both a biography, or semi-biography, of Churchill as well as a history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although a Marxist-Leninist, Trukhanovsky is extremely objective and scientific in his analysis of Churchill, giving credit where credit is due while also not holding back in his criticisms of Churchill. Trukhanovsky is an extremely scientific and scholarly writer, and his book should in no way be  interpreted as a one-sided, anti-Churchill or anti-British diatribe, like one might reasonably expect from a book written with an ideological bias diametrically opposed to Churchill. Indeed, subtract from Michael Jabara Carley’s book “1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of World War II” the author’s bourgeois ideology and man-crush for Churchill and you will have a reasonably accurate idea as to what Trukhanovsky’s book reads like. 

I’ll divide this review into sections due to the large amount of information to cover in this book. There are a few important and occurring themes in this book that I think are worth highlighting.

Churchill: Unabashed Nazi Sympathizer and Fascist

Bourgeois history books like to depict Churchill as a courageous anti-fascist — this couldn’t be further from the truth. There can be no doubt that Churchill was an unabashed Nazi sympathizer and outright fascist. Again and again, both before and during Churchill’s time as Prime Minister, Churchill’s ideological affinity for Nazism and fascism is exposed by Trukhanovsky for all to see. In a 1935 article, Churchill praised Hitler’s achievements: “Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds, history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim and even frightful methods but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So it may be with Hitler” (p. 227). Hitler’s achievements, Churchill wrote, “are certainly among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world” (p. 227). Even well into 1937 Churchill continued to praise Hitler’s “patriotic achievement” (p. 228).

Churchill also praised Italian fascism and Benito Mussolini. At a press conference, Churchill declared: “You will naturally ask me about the interviews I have had with Italian statesmen and, in particular, with Signor Mussolini and Count Volpi [Italian finance minister]. I could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing…anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understood it, of the Italian people, and that no lesser interest was of the slightest consequence to him. (p. 194). If Churchill had been an Italian, he continued, he would have certainly been a fascist and “wholeheartedly” supported Mussolini (p. 194).

Trukhanovsky convincingly shows how while Churchill led Britain in its war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, this was due to inter-imperialist antagonisms and not Churchill’s ideological opposition towards Nazism and fascism. “The confrontation between Churchill and Hitler,” writes Trukhanovsky, “stemmed from the antagonisms that underlay the struggle between British and German imperialism. Hitler was demanding that the Treaty of Versailles should be annulled, and Churchill interpreted this as requiring Britain to renounce the spoils of victory in the First World War” (pp. 226-227). This analysis of Churchill is supported by one Churchill biographer, Emrys Hughes (not a Marxist): Churchill “had no doubts about giving his unqualified approval to the Fascist idea in Italy, but when it spread to Germany and took the form of a belligerent resurgence of German nationalism, whose objective was to end the Treaty of Versailles and to reverse the military defeats of the First World War, that was a different matter. Had Hitler been concerned only with preaching a holy war against Russia, Churchill could not logically have quarrelled with him. For he [Churchill] was as bitterly anti-Bolshevik as Hitler and Goebbels or any of the school of anti-Russian hate merchants and propagandists who exploited the Red bogey in their political warfare. Winston had been a pioneer and a distinguished master of this propaganda from the beginning, long before the Russians or the rest of Europe heard of Goebbels” (p. 227). Indeed, “There is little reason to think that Churchill was ever greatly disturbed by Hitler’s ideology [or] his anti-democratic policies,” Hughes writes (p. 228).

The Would-Be British Fuhrer’s (as H. G. Wells described Churchill) was so aggressively anti-Communist that it shocked even members of the Allied powers. Josef Davies, Truman’s representative, reported to President Truman “that frankly, as I listened to him [Churchill] inveigh so violently against the threat of Soviet domination and the spread of Communism in Europe…I had wondered whether he, the Prime Minister, was not willing to declare to the world that he and Britain had made a mistake in not supporting Hitler, for as I understood him, he was now expressing the doctrine which Hitler and Goebbels had been proclaiming and reiterating for the past four years” (pp. 308-09).

Interestingly enough, according to R. Palme. Dutt, Churchill’s famous use of the phrase “iron curtain” during his Fulton, Missouri speech to describe the socialist states of Eastern Europe was not an original idea of Churchill’s. On the contrary, the first use of the phrase “iron curtain” was in a February 25, 1945, editorial in Das Reich by none other than Goebbels! Churchill’s use of a phrase coined by Goebbels wasn’t the only Nazi-like aspect of Churchill’s Fulton speech. Stalin himself emphasized the most obvious similarity between Churchill’s Fulton speech and the ideology of Nazism: “Hitler went about the business of unleashing a war by promulgating a racist theory, announcing that the German-speaking peoples were the master race. Mr. Churchill likewise begins the business of unleashing a war with a racist theory, claiming that the English-speaking nations are the master race called upon to fulfill the destinies of the whole world…The British racist theory leads Mr. Churchill and his friends to the conclusion that the English-speaking nations, as the master race, must dominate the other nations in the world. In point of fact, Mr. Churchill and his friends in Britain and the USA are offering the non-English-speaking nations something in the nature of an ultimatum: recognise our domination voluntarily, and then everything will be settled, — otherwise, war is inevitable…” (pp. 340-41).

Churchill the Anti-Appeaser? Not so…

Bourgeois scholars (such as Carley, cited above) have praised Churchill’s supposedly brilliant foresight of the danger Nazi Germany posed to Europe in contrast and in opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. While Churchill did oppose the Munich agreement and certain aspects of appeasement, to claim he was anti-appeasement is not a historically accurate description of Churchill. On the contrary, Churchill was a strong supporter of appeasement, so long as it didn’t weaken Britain’s dominate position in Europe. As Hughes writes, “Churchill’s hostility to Communism amounted to a disease. Indeed, had not Churchill himself advocated building up Germany as a bulwark against Russia, and was this not exactly what the Nazis were doing?” (p. 233). Even after Britain declared war against Nazi Germany in 1939 and the start of the so-called ‘Phony War’, Churchill hadn’t completely abandoned his earlier support of appeasement. “Churchill,” writes Trukhanovsky, “supported Chamberlain in his plans for despatching British and French troops to Finland and so…shared his [Chamberlain’s] idea of switching the war from Germany to the USSR” (p. 248). This would have been disastrous for Britain. “The Finish campaign was Gallipoli again and worse,” writes historian A. J. P. Taylor. “The motives for the projected expedition to Finland defy rational analysis. For Great Britain and France to provoke war with Soviet Russia when already at war with Germany seems the product of a madhouse, and it is tempting to suggest a more sinister plan: switching the war onto an anti-Bolshevik course, so that the war against Germany could be forgotten or even ended…At present, the only charitable conclusion is to assume that the British and French governments had taken leave of their senses” (pp. 248-249).

Moreover, after Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany, Churchill did everything possible to delay the opening of the Western front. According to Lord Moran, “To postpone that evil day [the opening of the Western front], all his arts, all his eloquence, all his great experience were spent” (p. 275). Churchill himself revealed that “even before the war had ended and while the Germans were surrendering by hundreds of thousands and our streets were crowded with cheering people, I telegraphed Lord Montgomery [commander of British forces in Western Europe] directing him to be careful in collecting the German arms, to stack them so that they could easily be issued again to the German soldiers whom we would have to work with if the Soviet advance continued” (pp. 304-05). According to the West German scholar Sebastian Haffner “Hitler’s hope of a clash between East and West was not entirely unfounded: in the spring and early summer of 1945 there really was a danger (or chance, depending on your point of view) that war might break out immediately between the victors. At least one of the leading Allied statesmen, Churchill, was, according to reliable sources, ready for this and even looked forward to it” (p 305).

A Violent and Highly Unstable Person

Churchill was a man of no moral, philosophical, or political principles, incapable of feeling remorse or empathy towards others. Churchill was only ever consistently an imperialist, anti-socialist, confident in his innate superiority over others, and willing to pursue power at all costs. His entire political career is marked by an opportunist pursuit of power. As one paper quoted by Trukhanovsky commented, Churchill “has always been true to the only Party he really believes in — that which is assembled under the hat of Mr. Winston Churchill…His life is one long speech. He does not talk. He orates. He will address you at breakfast as though you were an audience at the Free Trade Hall, and at dinner you find the performance still running. If you meet him in the intervals he will give you more fragments of the discourse, walking up and down the room with the absorbed self-engaged Napoleonic portentousness that makes his high seriousness tremble on the verge of comic. He does not want to hear your views. He does not want to disturb the beautiful clarity of his thought by the tiresome reminders of the other side. What has he to do with the other side when his side is the right side? He is not arguing with you: he is telling you” (p. 197).

Churchill was notoriously flip-flopping on political issues; he supported whatever benefited himself at the time. For example, American historian Joseph Murray describes how, at the Potsdam Conference, Churchill opposed territorial concessions to Poland in favour of Germany: “It might be thought a paradox that Churchill, who had urged Britain to go to war against Germany on behalf of Poland and who now declared himself at Yalta as being in favour of ‘substantial accessions’ of German territory to Poland, was now arguing as a protector of the Germans against Polish claims” (p. 302).

In another instance, after reading through the Parliamentary debates following Germany’s attack on Poland in September 1939, Trukhanovsky writes that “one is rather surprised by the seemingly strange position adopted by Winston Churchill. The most intractable critic of the Government, who had demanded over the years that Britain should offer stiff resistance to Germany, suddenly, at this crucial moment, fell silent. The spirited calls for a declaration of war now came from other, less influential members of the Conservative opposition, as well as from Labour MPs” (p. 243). According to Trukhanovsky, there was a simple explanation for this: on the same day Germany attacked Poland Churchill received an invitation from Chamberlain to join the Government and the War Cabinet, which Churchill accepted on the spot. But as Trukhanovsky writes, “Chamberlain took his time not only in declaring war, but also in including Churchill in the Government. This was quite natural. Since he intended to reach an understanding with Hitler, Chamberlain could not irritate the Fuhrer by making someone like Churchill a minister” (p. 243). Churchill, the intractable critic of the Chamberlain government, “feared to oppose Chamberlain openly in Parliament, since he realised that, if he did, the Prime Minister might not want to take him into the Government even if war were declared.” Each time Churchill threatened to criticize the Chamberlain government in Parliament, Chamberlain would hint at a post in the War Cabinet, effectively silencing Churchill.  

As leader of the Conservative Official Opposition after his crushing defeat by Labour at the polls in 1945, Churchill relentlessly attacked the Atlee government’s nationalization of industry, state control over certain aspects of the country’s economic life, and social reforms. In so doing, Trukhanovsky writes, “Churchill seemed to have forgotten that he had advocated these very ideas at the beginning of the century when he was a Liberal minister” (p. 326). According to one of Churchill’s biographers, “In 1945, it [nationalization] was Socialism. In 1906, Churchill did his best to prove that it was not” (p. 326). Then, when Churchill returned to the premiership in 1951, he made no effort to repudiate the ‘socialist’ policies of the previous Labour government.

In another instance, Churchill attacked a Labour Bill to reform the House of Lords. Unfortunately for Churchill, “The Labour leaders remembered perfectly well what Churchill had said on this subject before the First World War. They read out extracts in the Commons from many of his speeches of that period, when the Liberal Government was passing its own Bill on the Lords. This was a powerful argument. The Conservatives sat frowning, while there was laughter on the Labour benches” (pp. 326-27).

Churchill’s political flip-flopping combined with his belief in his superiority and his passion for violence made him extremely dangerous. As Home Secretary, Churchill on multiple occasions orders thousands of policemen and military forces to attack striking workers and the women’s movement. In 1910, for example, 1,200 policemen battered the Suffragettes in front of Parliament for several hours (p. 95).  Another instance, the “Siege of Sidney Street,” Churchill took direct command of “the powerful police and military attachments, backed up by artillery” in a firefight with two common criminals, forcing the King to reprimand Churchill (p. 96). Churchill was even more dangerous when it came to the atomic bomb. According to Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill told him that with the atomic bomb, Britain and the U.S. could now dictate terms to the Soviet Union: “If you insist on doing this or that, well…And then where are the Russians!” Churchill was implying that if the Soviets didn’t surrender unconditionally, atomic bombs could be dropped on the Soviet Union and the Russians would be wiped out (p. 311).

Final Analysis

Anyone interested in how and why Churchill was as horrible of a person as he was needs to read this book. GREAT book!

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