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Churchill a hero or a villain, depending where you sit

There is an aphorism that “where you stand depends on where you sit”, and from where Frydenberg and his family sit, Churchill could stand as nothing but a hero, having led Britain in the defeat of Nazism in World War 2.

But Winston Churchill lived from 1874 to 1965, and played leading roles in the extremes of history for much of that long life.

More often than not, he was fighting wars or reporting on them or leading his nation in them.

Even before the 20th century had begun, he had served with Spanish forces in Cuba, joined the British army in India, took part in the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, and as, as a newspaper correspondent during the Boer War, had been captured by the Boers, escaped and returned to England as a hero.

Long before he became the most lionised of Britons when he stood against Hitler, he was the First Lord of the Admiralty whose designs took British forces – and thus, Australia – into the disaster that was Gallipoli in World War 1.

He was, depending on where you sat to view his behaviour, variously bold, lacking in judgment, an inspiration without peer, empathetic to the point of sentimentality, brave or utterly cruel.


But a racist?

Without doubt, particularly if you were Indian.

India was the crown jewel in the British Empire for the first half of Churchill’s life, and when Indians began chafing for freedom, Churchill the imperialist famously declared he “hated” Indians because they were “a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Churchill was among those who encouraged sectarian divisions between Indian Hindus and Muslims, leading to the partition of India when it finally won independence in 1947. Millions died or were displaced, adding to the 3 million who had died of starvation in Bengal in 1943 as a result of British mismanagement, overseen by Churchill.

In 1919, he wanted to use gas against rebellious tribes in northern India, declaring in a secret memorandum: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg praised Winston Churchill for defeating Nazi Germany.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg praised Winston Churchill for defeating Nazi Germany.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The fact, then, that in 2020 the Australian Treasurer defends Churchill’s reputation in his party room while Black Lives Matter protesters daub the word “racist” on his statue in London says much about the immense shadow cast by the late British bulldog over world history.

Wherever you may stand on the Churchill legacy, however, it is worth acknowledging that shadows can come in all shades.

More than any other leader, Churchill stared down fascism on behalf of the free world.

But those protesters defacing his statue “racist” have history on their side, too.

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