This paper, very slightly amended here, first appeared in the September Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2005, pp1-2.
With the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of World War II upon us, the life, exploits and achievements of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) have been much in evidence on television recently. Most celebrated for his wartime leadership, without which, informed consensus tells us, our country would have been overrun by Nazi Germany, any single one of his many accomplishments would have guaranteed him a place in history. 'Life piled on life', in the words of Tennyson, is an apt epitaph for his 92 years, even towards the end, with his progressive enfeeblement by senility.
What will be less celebrated is Sir Winston's early enthusiasm for eugenics. He was one of the directors of the first International Congress of Eugenics, held in London in 1912, the 750 delegates of which were addressed by the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. As Home Secretary in 1910, he had instructed his civil servants to investigate a programme for the enforced sterilisation of thousands of British people. He informed the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, 'The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feebleminded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. ... I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.'
As so often in his political life, both in peace and in wartime, there were people around to restrain him in his wilder moments. But surely these cannot be the words of the man who later dedicated 'blood, tears, toil and sweat' in the fight against Nazism?
Indeed they are, and it seems that this affair with racial improvement was no passing dalliance. Concerning the displacement of the indigenous populations of America and Australia he had this to say: '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'. And concerning the use of gas warfare in quelling insurrections in former territories of the Ottoman Empire (specifically by Kurds) he proclaimed, 'I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. … I am strongly in favour of using (poisonous) gas against uncivilised tribes'. And, though a lifelong supporter of Zionism, in an essay in the Illustrated Sunday Herald in 1920, under the title 'Zionism versus Bolshevism', he wrote, 'This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky [Russia], Bela Kun [Hungary], Rosa Luxemburg [Germany], and Emma Goldman [the United States] ... this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing.'
A perusal of the story of Sir Winston's life reveals time and again that he was a fighter. Naturally he trained as an army officer (4th Hussars cavalry) and in 1898 took part in hand-to-hand fighting with the Dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman. He was a war correspondent in the in the second Anglo-Boer War, but was soon involved in the combat. As Home Secretary he took personal control of the siege of a building in Sydney Street, London, where the Scots Guards had cornered a group of anarchists. He is reported to have denied access to the fire brigade when the building caught fire. And when he lost his ministerial post during the First World War, even though he was still an MP, he wasted no time in joining the troops on the Western Front.
What seems to have energised him most was the prospect of an enemy to fight against. Where this belligerence came from I do not know. It was certainly evident in his political life (viz. trade unionists, striking coal miners, suffragettes, Bolsheviks, Indian nationalists, the Labour Party [whom he accused, in 1945, of planning to set up a form of Gestapo if elected] Russia, black immigrants, and so on).
Clearly he was the man our country needed in its 'darkest hour'. Perhaps had he been someone of gentler qualities, ours would have been the greater loss.